By Ryan Whirty, The Louisiana Weekly, Contributing Writer
Small business advocates and economic-improvement organizations focusing on economic development within disadvantaged New Orleans communities echoed the thoughts of Congressman Troy Carter, who wrote a letter to the heads of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pressing the federal agencies to include small, local, disadvantaged business enterprises (DEBs) in the post-Hurricane Ida rebuilding process.
In a September 8 letter, Carter stressed the importance of including DBEs in the process of awarding federal recovery contracts as the southeast Louisiana region rebuilds from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida late last month.
Carter cited the Stafford Act of 1988, which outlines the requirements for federal disaster-response efforts, in his Sept. 8 communication.
“I write today to urge you to ensure that your contracting efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida include full participation of minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned small businesses,” Carter wrote in the letter to FEMA and the USACE. “Any contracting done pursuant to the Stafford Act or related to disaster recovery efforts in affected areas should fully comply with any applicable small, local or disadvantaged business enterprise requirements. I hope you will consider not just meeting these statutory requirements but setting goals that exceed them.”
Carter added in the letter that President Joe Biden has stressed the importance of providing opportunities to DBEs since Biden took office earlier this year and has already directed federal agencies to increase contracting with DBEs by 50 percent, a move Carter called “a great effort that illustrates an important step toward equity for our historically and systemically disadvantaged small businesses.”
“Efforts to support and recognize DBEs should always be implemented, and the need to do so is even greater in the aftermath of a disaster,” Carter added.
Local DBE advocates agreed with the congressman and stressed the need to involve people of color, women and other demographics that historically have been shut out or unfairly compensated for crucial post-disaster recovery contracts.
LaVerne Toombs, executive director of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, said giving business to DBEs will provide employment opportunities for local residents, thereby kickstarting the economies of disadvantaged communities.
“Contracts must be awarded to Black businesses that create jobs in their communities and help to fuel the region’s economy,” Toombs said.
However, she said, she remains worried that small Black businesses might again fall victim to long-held historical precedents that unfairly shun DBEs.
“My concerns are that Black businesses won’t be treated equally and are continually faced with systemic racism,” Toombs said. “Unfortunately, Black businesses receive a minuscule portion of the contracts doled out annually.”
Judy Reese Morse, president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana, said the importance of involving businesses owned and run by people of color in the post-hurricane rebuilding of the local region would be far-reaching and much needed.
“It’s critical that Black-owned businesses are able to equitably compete for disaster contracts in the aftermath of any event that has ravaged the very places they were created to serve,” Morse said. “As established anchors in their communities, Black-owned businesses provide essential goods and services, create jobs, offer mentorship opportunities and are a vital component of helping to close the wealth gap.”
Morse said the Urban League is well aware of the barriers to development and improvement that face DBEs at all times, especially after disasters like hurricanes. She added that Hurricane Katrina provided a poor, dysfunctional model for a recovery process, and hopefully, things will be different this time around. She noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic surge provides even more potential obstacles.
“When those challenges [facing DBEs] are combined with a catastrophic hurricane that also coincides with the ongoing COVID pandemic, the capacity to survive is exponentially jeopardized,” Morse said. “It is very important to us to ensure that the mistakes made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with regard to contracting opportunities for Black-owned businesses, are never repeated again.”
For their part, federal officials say they are attentive to the needs, and to the potential, of DBEs during the recovery effort. Army Corps of Engineers Office of Public Affairs Gene Pawlik told The Louisiana Weekly that the Corps was aware of Carter’s letter to the military unit and that the USACE will respond to the communication with respect to the Congressman’s concerns about post-disaster contracts.
He added that local small businesses will certainly be involved in the recovery process.
“USACE places emphasis on direct awards to small businesses, and we are especially sensitive to awards to local firms in times of disaster,” Pawlik said in a statement to The Weekly. “We plan to transition work to local firms at the earliest practical opportunity.
“As we serve communities adversely impacted by storm events, we must consider the potential duration and severity of the disaster, the scope and structure of the existing contracts, and the potential impact(s) of a transition to the local economies.”
Toombs and Morse each singled out ways that their organizations are among the several local agencies that can help local DBEs obtain federal contracts and other vital economic-development business, including right now after Ida.
“Black businesses must receive contracts to assist with rebuilding the infrastructure in the region,” Toombs said. “However, my concerns are the capacity for a number of our small Black businesses. That’s why the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce (NORBCC) strives daily to provide valuable resources and continue to be the voice for Black businesses in the 10-parish region.”
She added that the Chamber “is focused on promoting inclusivity and awareness of the opportunity for local small and emerging Black Businesses within our region. Through our outreach efforts and programs, we work to connect the local business community by policing updates, contracting opportunities, financial assistance, and technical assistance on strengthening the viability of our Black business community.”
Morse said the Urban League of Louisiana has partnered with the Foundation for Louisiana to establish the Black Business Works Fund to aid businesses in coming back from the hurricane even stronger than before.
She said Black-owned businesses can visit urbanleaguela.org/ida to access disaster-recovery and relief opportunities, including links to the Office of State Procurement’s current bid openings and to the Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center, which works to increase the use of Louisiana businesses in meeting emergency and/or disaster-related needs.
She added that the Urban League of Louisiana’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation can provide small business support services such as business planning, identifying funding resources, and preparation for accessing post-hurricane procurement opportunities.
Toombs noted that the City of New Orleans has already made moves to allot city work contracts to local DBEs, a fact that reflects the overall movement toward building DBEs and creating employment options.
“I know the city of New Orleans has implemented a procurement process to improve supplier diversity when awarding and tracking City contracts to local businesses,” Toombs said. “I applaud the Mayor [LaToya Cantrell] for making City Hall a more equitable place to do business. There’s still a lot of work to build trust within the Black business community to believe there are real contract opportunities.”
Returning to Carter, the Congressman concluded his letter by underscoring the thoughts of Morse, Toombs and others in the New Orleans area.
“I urge you to heed the President’s directive and prioritize contracting for these businesses in the coming days, weeks and months,” Carter wrote. “Now is the time to increase those commitments… Giving our small and local businesses an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of their community is key to a strong recovery and stronger communities. It’s one of the surest ways we can build back better. I urge you to do everything in your power to provide contracting opportunities to our local small, minority-owned, women-owned and veteran-owned businesses.”