SENECA — In many ways, walking into Bill Lant's feed store is like walking back in time.
Regulars gather each morning to drink coffee and shoot the breeze. Lant greets every customer by name and can recite each one's family history from memory. The store smells of a mixture of dog food, seeds and chicks.
But one thing has changed. The ticket box that Lant kept on his counter for years, a running tab of his customers' bills, has been replaced by a computer system. And those records are regularly backed up and kept in a different location.
Lant said the May 10, 2008, tornado forced that change. The EF-4 tornado destroyed many businesses in Newton County, including his store, Lant's Country Feed Store. Lant's wife, Jane, also lost her business, Lant's Bridal, to the storm.
"It forced me to get into the 21st century," Lant said.
Lant is among area business owners who have learned some lessons the hard way about preparing for a disaster such as a fire, flood or tornado. They are witness to the fact that the worst can and does happen. But there are steps that businessmen and women can take to mitigate the damage.
Lant kept some of his most important business documents in a 970-pound safe bolted to the floor in his back room.
The safe got tossed during the tornado, but it stayed intact. But paper records from the past seven years that were filed in that room did not.
Lant's wife also was in a bind after the tornado leveled her building and sent her 850 prom and wedding dresses raining down on property up to 100 miles away. Jane Lant's customer order book — she called it her "bible" — was gone. She didn't know which customers were missing which dresses for which wedding dates.
"I still keep a safe, but I do a better job of backing things up now," Bill Lant said. "It's not that expensive, and there are programs to help you do it. There's no excuse not to do it."
Lant said he has learned a lot about preparing for a natural disaster. He is more vigilant about regularly taking inventory of what's on his shelves and how much it's worth. He inventories his back room once a week and his shelves once a month. And Lant said he has educated his employees on what to do in case of another storm. "I used to always tell them in case of a bad storm to get into the walk-in cooler," Lant said. "(After this tornado), my walk-in was flattened, and we never could find Jane's."
But Lant said he had one thing going for him when the tornado hit last year: plenty of insurance.
"I had more insurance than I thought I did," he said.
Lant's insurance plan included money to help clean up the 60 truckloads of debris left after the storm, to pay many of his bills until the store could reopen and to replace much of the inventory destroyed by the storm.
"Know your agent and know your policy," he said. Lant said now he does an even better job of keeping his insurance agent informed of changes.
"I make sure as I grow my inventory, I grow my insurance too," he said.
Veterinarian Rod Hough knew the water was coming in July 2007. He had fought the water back from his Miami (Okla.) Animal Hospital five times before. So when he realized his dam would not hold back the water, Hough said, he was ready with a plan.
"We had already made prior arrangements (for the large animals)," he said. "And we had a plan in place to set up a makeshift kennel in my personal barn (for the small animals)." With warning, Hough said, he was able to back up all his computer files. He now backs them up each night for protection.
He said he did not have flood insurance because it was so expensive, but he said he doesn't have to worry about it now because he rebuilt the office outside the flood plain after it flooded twice.
Hough said he realized his need for a disaster plan after he got hit by an ice storm less than a year after the flood. Then the May 10, 2008, tornado came within two miles of his new office in Miami.
He said his new building is wired with a generator hookup and has the electrical capacity to attach a camper to it so the office can get back up and running faster. "Get informed as much about your property as you can and stay informed on changing regulations," Hough said, offering advice to other business owners.
As Dick Fanning watched his Carthage restaurant burn to the ground in 2004, he asked his daughter, "Well, what are we going to do now?" Fanning, owner of the Ranch House restaurant, decided to rebuild. He learned some things from that devastating fire.
Fanning said he suspects the fire started from a barbecue grill. He stressed the importance of having a good equipment maintenance program and training employees about safety.
The Ranch House was insured, which Fanning said was one of the smartest things he could have done.
Another good move was keeping a business office at a different location from the restaurant.
"We did all of our bookkeeping off site, and we had all of our records there," he said. "We lost very little paperwork."