Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
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Local firms with Florida outposts prepare for Hurricane Irma

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    Ralph Mahalak, Jr. of Monroe Dodge Superstore in Monroe.

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  • Cuba-Hurricane-Irma

    Winds brought by Hurricane Irma blow palm trees lining the seawall in Caibarien, Cuba, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts after Hurricane Irma left thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.

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WATCH: Blade Briefing on businesses preparing for Hurricane Irma

As Hurricane Irma closes in, Florida businesses — including many with local ties — are preparing for the worst.

“We’re definitely worried and concerned,” said Ralph Mahalak Jr., whose Monroe-based automotive group has four central Florida dealerships. “We’ve called all our insurance companies to ensure all our insurance is valid on all our buildings and exactly what’s covered.”

At least a half-dozen more companies based in the Toledo area have operations in Florida, and many of those offices sit squarely in Irma’s path.

By Friday evening, the hurricane was about 345 miles southeast of Miami. The National Hurricane Center is projecting Irma will hit the Florida mainland early Sunday, noting that the storm “is likely to make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state.”

RELATED: As Irma spins, Cuba evacuates, Floridians empty stores

With many Florida counties already under hurricane warnings, several auto insurers have temporarily stopped issuing insurance on new cars.

“You can buy the car if you want, but you can’t take it home with you until the storm’s over when they issue a certificate of insurance,” Mr. Mahalak said. “That obviously doesn’t help our business any.”

Hurricane Harvey cost the industry an estimated 40,000 sales in August. Analysts with Cox Automotive said Hurricane Irma is likely to cause dealers to lose a full week of sales, pushing back between 20,000 and 30,000 sales. Some of that volume may be recouped later in the month, with the rest likely pushed to October.

There’s also likely to be a lot of demand for new cars to replace those destroyed in the storm.Cox Automotive estimates that Hurricane Harvey destroyed as many as a half-million cars in the Houston area. The destruction isn’t expected to be quite as widespread in Florida from Hurricane Irma, in part because of lower vehicle ownership rates and more time to prepare and evacuate. Still, Cox said Friday it estimates between 130,000 and 200,000 cars could be lost.

Mr. Mahalak said he has about 200 employees split among the four dealerships, which are clustered around Winter Haven east of Tampa in Polk County.

Cuba-Hurricane-Irma

Winds brought by Hurricane Irma blow palm trees lining the seawall in Caibarien, Cuba, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Cuba evacuated tourists from beachside resorts after Hurricane Irma left thousands homeless on a devastated string of Caribbean islands and spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.

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The auto group plans to pack as many vehicles as possible into its showrooms and then park commercial vans and other large vehicles around the buildings to try to protect them from debris.

“It’s easier to replace a car than it is a building” Mr. Mahalak said.

A number of other local companies are falling back on their own business continuity plans. 

Toledo-based law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick LLP decided to close its Tampa and Sarasota offices at noon on Friday and doesn’t plan to reopen them until at least Tuesday.

Shumaker has about 225 employees in Florida and another 80 in Charlotte. For now, North Carolina looks like it will avoid the brunt of the storm, though Mr. Crooks said they continue to monitor the forecasts as they think about their Charlotte location.

“The safety of our employees is paramount. We can buy and rebuild equipment and buildings and furniture. We can’t put the risk of our employees in jeopardy,” said Ken Crooks, the firm’s chief operating officer.

While hurricane preparedness is a fact of life in Florida, the intensity of Irma — and perhaps the fresh memories of the devastation in Houston — are pushing companies to take extra steps.

In addition to moving paper files away from windows, Shumaker is shutting down all its computers and servers, wrapping them in plastic, and moving them to the furthest interior space possible.

“While we can still replicate all the information through our document management and wireless system to Toledo, they still have to have a PC. If all the PCs are trashed or damaged in water and wind, everybody down there’s going to be looking for PCs, so we take that extra step when we have a Category 5 hurricane,” Mr. Crooks said, noting the company has detailed plans for different categories of storms.

RELATED: Hurricane Jose strengthens to Category 4 behind Irma

Insurance brokerage Hylant Group Inc., which has locations in Orlando and Jacksonville, has also already told employees its Florida offices will be closed Monday and potentially Tuesday. The two offices employ about 40 people.

The company has redundant backup facilities in different parts of the country that it can switch to if local offices go down, and it has put out communications to both employees and clients ahead of the storm on what they can be doing to back up and protect their own information. 

“I don’t think you would ever not be concerned when there’s a Category 4 or 5 hurricane bearing down, but we at least feel good we have a plan in place, we’re prepared, we’ve been proactive with our clients and our employees, so we are concerned but we don’t feel like we’re caught off guard,” said Andy Dale, the company’s chief operating officer. 

Other local firms with operations in Florida include Welltower Inc., which has an office in Jupiter, Kuhlman Corp., which has a concrete yard in Fort Myers, and Owens Corning has an insulation plant in Lakeland and a roofing plant in Jacksonville. 

Chuck Hartlage, a spokesman for OC, told The Blade a small staff of three or four people will remain at the Lakeland plant in a hurricane shelter area that’s stocked with food and water. The plant has about 40 employees.

“After the hurricane passes, we’ll be better able to assess any damage and next steps,” Mr. Hartlage said. 

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com419-724-6134, or on Twitter @TyrelLinkhorn.

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