By Fay Smithhart
My Self Storage is a new, 63,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled storage facility in Gonzales, La. We opened our doors for business on May 9. While business was going well—averaging one unit rental per day—on Aug. 11, it started to rain. Within 56 hours, 6.9 trillion gallons of rain had fallen in our area. We were fortunate not to receive any water in our facility, but each of us here have family members, friends and neighbors who have lost their homes, businesses, vehicles and belongings. Other self-storage facilities weren’t so lucky. Homes, businesses and roads that had never previously flooded had water. The rain came down so hard and so fast that many were unable to save anything. Many had to be rescued from their flooded homes.
People started to show up at My Self Storage as soon as they were able to get out to rent units in an effort to save what was left of their belongings. The line stretched out the door. What was initially a hectic situation turned into a major headache when we lost our Internet and phones. We had no way to see what units were available and couldn’t enter customers into our management-software system.
Fortunately, I had gotten into the habit of printing a copy of our facility map and available units. We rented units by having customers fill out our tenant-information sheet and making a copy of their driver’s license and credit card. We asked them to allow us several days to enter their information and print their leases. We rented hundreds of units with only that information. To make the process manageable, we had one person mark the map as units were assigned, one person accept the paperwork, and others go into the facility to remove locks and show people their units. Once the office closed (well into the night), we walked around the property to check off units that had silver (rented) locks on them. This was the only way we could keep track of which units were still available. We are still in the process of having people come in to sign their lease and get their receipts.
In less than one week, we are now at max capacity with a waiting list of approximately 30 people. My owners have purchased portable-storage containers to rent that are expected to arrive this week. It is so hard to turn away people knowing they are just trying to store what few things they could save from this historical flood.
Our community has really pulled together. Many of us have opened our homes to people who have nowhere else to stay. We helped sandbag before it started flooding. We helped lift furniture and belongings onto blocks in homes with the hope to protect it from flood water. Members of the community have gone out in boats to rescue people that were trapped inside their homes. People are cooking and helping to start with the demolition and cleaning of homes. There are people coming here from other states to help complete strangers and make donations.
The owners of our facility have cooked meals to give to people as they drove up. They organized a donation center where people could drop off items intended to replace things victims have lost. We have donated school supplies to give to children. We have handed out cleaning supplies. The list goes on and on, and we’ll continue to help our community. My owners are amazing, loving, caring, giving people that I am so proud to call my bosses.
If I could offer advice to anyone on how to prepare for a natural disaster like the one we’re experiencing, I would say keep everything up to date. If there is a report that you can print that will show all of your tenants and their contact information, available units, sizes and prices, print it. Keep a minimum of 50 copies of every form you use, enough locks to lock every unit in your facility (plus some more), extra copy paper and ink for the printer, along with pens and clipboards. If you offer boxes and other retail items, keep your inventory stocked. It is better to be over prepared than to think something like this could never happen to you.
We are proud to say, “We are Louisiana. We are strong, and we will rebuild!” Thanks to everyone for their help, supplies, prayers and support. It is deeply appreciated.
Fay Smithhart is the manager of My Self Storage in Gonzales, La., which was converted from a vacant grocery store by owners Al and Theresa Robert, and their son Joel. Fay has been married for 27 years and has three children and three grandchildren. An accomplished manager of businesses outside the industry, this is her first experience as a self-storage facility manager.