HFA member James Johnson remembers walking through his furniture store, Fowhand Furniture in Panama City, Fla., last month assessing the damage wrought by Hurricane Michael and making a promise to his family and staff.
“It was a mess, but we made the decision right there that come hell or high water we were going to open for business the day after Thanksgiving,” he said.
It was a big promise to make. The hurricane had blown out the store’s windows and ripped away part of the roof. Thousands of dollars in furniture was damaged or destroyed.
But on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, Johnson’s promise turned into reality. A little more than a month after Michael hammered Florida’s Panhandle, Fowhand Furniture, a fixture in downtown Panama City, was open for business.
Downtown Panama City was hit hard from the storm, suffering major damage, and Fowhand Furniture was no exception. The morning after the storm, Johnson and his staff surveyed the broken glass and flooding and got to work.
Johnson went to a local hardware store and bought some shovels, some garbage bags and fans. He told his staff he couldn’t pay them at the start but would keep track of their hours and make things right. “When I think of where we started and where we are now, it’s amazing how far we’ve come,” said Johnson. “We’ve still got a lot to do in terms of clean up and repair, but we’re open for business and ready to help our customers.”
Throughout the process of reopening, Johnson kept one goal above all others: retaining his 15 employees. When Johnson learned a company would charge him $50,000 to clean up without removing any mold or mildew from the store, he decided to do it himself, so he would not have to lay off any of his staff. “They’ve been so loyal to me and the business—not just in the past month but over the years,” Johnson said. “They were always my first concern.”
Johnson said the store is selling new merchandise as well as some marked-down merchandise that’s partially blemished from the storm. Fowhand did a lot of business selling higher-end, coastal-themed furniture, but Johnson said his store is going to pull back from that strategy—at least for the next year.
He said he’s going to focus on low-end and mid-priced furniture in browns and other traditional colors because that’s what his customers are looking for. “They just need furniture in the short term,” he said. “A place to sit and relax. We’ll probably go back to coastal-themed lines after a year, but now we’re giving them a quick fix, which is what they want.”
Despite the terrible impact, some good came out of the devastation.
Johnson said, “I’ve seen it bring out the best in people and I’m so grateful for all of our city officials, our leaders, our emergency responders and utility companies. I can’t believe how fast we’ve brought our city back.”