The Soverns, NFIB/Florida members, are no strangers to tropical storms, or the rebuilding that comes after. It’s how they got started. Settled by the Everglades, the Soverns run Sawgrass Recreation Park, which has become one of South Florida’s top destinations equipped with airboat rides, tours, and exotic wildlife exhibits. The Soverns acquired their family business in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, which had leveled the park, and their first task as business owners was to rebuild. Twelve years later, Hurricane Irma endangered the park again.
But before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, Hurricane Harvey had devastated Texas and the Houston area flooding continued to rise. Christina Soverns Schwartzman, who manages sales and marketing at the park, was working at a trade show in Albuquerque when Hurricane Harvey was battering Texas and Louisiana. She was watching the storm and its destruction on the news and talking to her husband, Tim, over the phone about what they could do to help. Tim and Christina’s brother Mike, who both serve as general managers at the park, decided to take a truck and an airboat up to Texas to bring relief supplies and help out in any rescues from the rising waters.
The Soverns asked for non-perishables and other donations to fill the truck over their social media account. Local news channels got word of the family’s Harvey relief efforts and their coverage brought lines out the front of the park with vehicles dropping off donations. Tim and Mike drove the truck to some of the most affected areas in Southern Texas, and were able to drop off the supplies to a tent city established near Orange. They were also able to rescue a woman in her mid-80s with dementia who was sweeping several feet of water from her front door, unaware of what was happening and unable to contact her family.
“At the very least, if we came and made a difference to one family, or saved one person, it was enough,” said Christina of her family’s motivation to help out.
“We have a six-year-old and a two-year-old. We would hope that some boater would come from another state and help us out. We hope the heart of humanity is that pure,” she said. “People were damaging their trucks and airboats, driving into unknown waters and situations. And they would do it again in a heartbeat. We go because we’re human beings and other human beings needed help. It’s the right thing to do.”
Once Hurricane Irma started making its way towards Florida, Tim and Mike had to return immediately. It takes four full days to prep and secure the park for a major storm, said Christina. The Soverns needed every family member’s help, as well as the truck and the airboat in Texas. Once Tim and Mike returned, they immediately jumped into hurricane preparation, removing airboats from the water and relocating animals.
One of the tornadoes during Hurricane Irma hit the park and created major damage. There was standing water in the gift shop. The office was destroyed, and part of the roof had ripped off. Several large trees around the park were knocked down. “It took a massive cleanup effort,” said Christina.
“Because we’re family, we know no boundaries. We work ourselves to the bone to get up and running,” she said. Including Christina’s parents, brother, and husband, the Soverns have 12 total family members on staff working at the park. They were able to get the park secured and open for operation by the Saturday after the storm. The park was closed for seven full days.
“It speaks to the spirit of all small business owners. You pull up your bootstraps. There’s no other option. You figure it out and make it so you can get back to employing people and making a profit,” Christina said.
Many of the small businesses in the area suffered water and wind damage from the storm, and many will take much longer than the Soverns to recover. “The time being out of business can be quite a hit so we do our best to employ as many local businesses when we can, to get them back on their feet,” said Christina. The Soverns looked within the community and hired local roofers and companies to clear away the fallen trees.
For other small businesses in the area who might have had fewer obstacles to getting back up and running, Christina suggests hiring locally and making direct donations to local businesses as a way to lend a hand following the storm. “The big charities are great and well-meaning but sometimes it can mean a lot to a company if you can give them $100 to pay payroll for a few days,” said Christina.
The Soverns have also been partnering with another local business, Alligator Alley Harley-Davidson, to collect donations to drive down to the Florida Keys. The family also offered special free admission at the park to first responders in Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.
For NFIB members looking to help out in the affected areas, Christina suggests connecting with a business that has boots on the ground and knowledge of what people need. “Plan a vacation to Florida. Come visit. Stay in a local hotel. Dine in local restaurants. Visit parks. Encourage people to travel to these areas or make direct donations to companies that need it,” Christina advised.
For Christina, the greatest lesson from rebuilding after a disaster is perseverance. “Every small business that we encounter always shows the same level of strength, tenacity, and the unwillingness to be defeated,” she said. “Small business owners are unlike anyone else.”
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