How Your Local Comic Shop Survives a Hurricane
As Hurricane Irma looms ominously off the coast of Florida - a threat more real and perhaps as devastating as an end-of-the-world scenario from the pages of The X-Men - comic book store owners are doing everything they can to secure their businesses before the storm makes landfall. Of course, it could change direction at the last moment, but as the citizens of the recently devastated Houston, TX now understand: When it comes to hurricane preparation the best advice is to make like Logan and prepare for a fight you don't want to get into.
SEMI-CALM BEFORE THE STORM
That was the approach Tate’s Comics of Lauderhill, Florida took this week as it became increasingly likely that Irma would rain down its special brand of Category-5 hell.
“The first thing we do once we realize a storm hit is inevitable, is to have a meeting with our senior staff and discuss a game plan on priorities to secure everything, including the safety of our large staff/family,” says Tate Ottati, owner and founder of Tate’s. “Having a business in South Florida for 25 years, we have experienced multiple close calls and always have to prepare for the worst regardless of the exact forecast. As we all know, weather forecasting is not an exact science. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
For a business that deals mostly in paper goods even the smallest bit of flooding can mean a worst case scenario. “Obviously, with 10,000 square feet of largely paper products WATER is our biggest worry,” says Ottati. “Will the roof blow off and rain fall from above for hours or days? Will the windows break and blow rain and debris everywhere?”
“End game,” Ottati continues, “Our biggest fear is having everything we've worked for over 25 years destroyed and having to rebuild from the ground up.”
There are some steps the store will take to minimize the damage. Ottati and his staff will do the best they can do prevent a total loss. “We will be securing our electronics, statues and high ticket items as best as we can. We will cover as much as possible with plastic tarps and try to secure some of our more vulnerable windows,” Ottati says, as his staff hurries to get everything done before the storm hits land. “We will try to mentally prepare to do what we need to do afterwards, whatever that may be.”
Tate’s is a South Florida staple and as such this isn’t their first hurricane. Tate says that in 2005 the store took “notable damage” from Hurricane Wilma. “Lucky for us it was very minimal, it mostly consisted of wiping down every single surface (and every box and action figure) because gross brown insulation was shaken from the roof due to the pressure and high winds. It was annoying, but manageable and while many places had no electricity for weeks or months, we regained power quickly since our store is on the same power grid as a fire station.”
Tate and his team remain optimistic while admitting that they’re ultimately powerless against a massive storm of Irma’s size. “If a storm hits us at the full strength, there really isn't much we can do to prevent catastrophic damage to our store.”
IN THE WAKE OF HARVEY
This was the case for several businesses in Houston, TX after that area was hit by Hurricane Harvey last week. Watchtower Comics and Games owner Noel Burkeen shared a note on a Facebook page called Hurricane Harvey Comic Book Store Info, created to track the status of comic book stores in the Houston area and how they were affected, in which he details the $70k in product that was lost to water damage. He’s worried about getting the proper insurance claims fulfilled and writes, “its not always easy getting claims fulfilled in these situations; especially trying to explain our product and values to non-industry people.”
Jen King runs Space Cadets Collection Collection in Conroe, Texas. She is in direct contact with most of the other comic book store owners in her area and reports that there is widespread damage to both businesses and homes. “Space Cadets was blessed by not having any damage to the structure or merchandise, but the hit to our sales is severe,” King says. “We are in our second week without any new comics.”
While a lack of new comics might seem like a luxury for a business that depends on its weekly customer base to stay alive, the lack of new product to put on shelves can be devastating to a shop's bottom line. Norris Coleman - owner of Emerald Dragon Comics in Baytown,TX - says he was stranded in high water at home for two days before he could drive the one mile to his shop and that the store remained closed for a week because his employees could not get to work. The damage to the actual building was minimal but, “sales are down” according to Coleman from a “combination of hurricane and back to school diverting customers discretionary income.”
Jen King say sales at Space Cadet have been cut in half since the storm passed, but noted that an unforeseen result is that their customers are now spending their money on fundraising efforts. “We are doing fundraising and so probably much of the money that our customers had to spend is being spent for those items,” King says. “Other stores in the area are acting as spots for donations of practical goods like water and diapers to distribute and so that is likely their focus.”
“Everyone is struggling with loss of jobs, from flooded places of work, flooded homes, or are housing friends or family with flooded homes,” King says. “Not a single person that I have talked to since the storm doesn't know someone close to them who lost everything. It’s heartbreaking.”
King has started a Harvey Relief Facebook page where the families most affected by the storm can sell collectible items of value. “Each item is associated with a family. When the item sells all of the money goes to them,” says King, who then makes sure the money goes to the correct families. “I make nightly deposits to their Paypal accounts so that they have money now for immediate needs.”
“The comic book community is a tight knit group,” King said via Facebook Messenger. “When people need help, they will.”
“So many stores outside of our area have already donated to help out our customers who are struggling,” King continues. “Mile High Comics, Duncanville Comics , Galactic Quest and more have sent donations.”
Publishers have also started to make moves to help with relief efforts in Texas; Miami Vice publisher Lion Forge donated $25,000 to help those badly affected by the storm. Jen King has also talked directly with several publishers who reached out to ask how they could help. “Aftershock is donating all of the their sales from one store to us. Skybound, Valiant, UltraPro, Alterna Comics and Mattel have all donated items that haven't been able to reach us yet.”
The comic book industry is filled with wonderful, generous, kind hearted people and that’s something that even the worst storm can’t change. “One of the families that we are raising funds for lost all of their collectibles along with their personal items. They found three comics that survived miraculously. Know what they did with them?” King asks. “Donated them to raise money for another family. That's the way our customers are. The best on the planet.”
In his post on Facebook Burkeen expressed a similar love and concern for his customers: “Our biggest and most immediate concern is that we're located in the middle of one of the major flood areas; meaning our largest customer base has suffered greatly. This is going to translate, business wise, to a major loss of foot traffic, disposable income, and a new set of priorities for most of our customer base. Emotionally and spiritually we are heartbroken for all of them.... our customers are family to us.”
FLORIDA BRACES FOR IMPACT
Hurricane Irma is a beast. It has sustained wind speeds of 150 mph with gusts to 185 mph and is currently considered a strong Category 4 hurricane. Current projections indicate that Irma is large enough to blanket the entire state of Florida as it passes over from Saturday to Monday morning. All of South Florida is under a Hurricane Warning and many areas have been required to evacuate. Residents are being urged to take shelter by Friday night and stay there, with the outer bands of Hurricane Irma expected to arrive Saturday morning, bringing hazardous winds and the risk of tornadoes, the National Weather Service said.
Tate’s Comics will be ready and the staff will be with their families in safe places by Friday evening. Tate himself has only one wish for the final outcome of the weekend. “Above all, a return to a sense of normalcy for our business and the community as soon as possible,” he says. “Tate's Comics is part of the fabric of the South Florida "Geek Community" and we hope to provide them sanctuary in the worst of times.”
Please consider a donation to Jen King’s Harvey relief page, the Watchtower Comics GoFundMe page, the Red Cross, or to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation - an organization that assists booksellers facing unexpected financial emergencies.