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The New York Times - An Optimistic Seller of Disaster Plans

The New York Times - An Optimistic Seller of Disaster Plans


An Optimistic Seller of Disaster Plans

NO, Catherine Hooper did not live through Hurricane Katrina, and while she did see the second plane hit the World Trade Center, she viewed it from the treadmill at her gym, where she was watching television. But Ms. Hooper, a 5-foot-1, 99.6-pound disaster-preparedness entrepreneur in a Christian Dior dress, has had some riveting firsthand experience.

She had just moved in with her fiancé when word broke of Bernard L. Madoff’s sweeping Ponzi scheme. Her fiancé was Mr. Madoff’s younger son, Andrew.

“Disaster can be a megadisaster like something that affects all of us,” said Ms Hooper, 38, a former partner in the Fifth Avenue fly-fishing store Urban Angler.“But it can also be something that happens in your own world, whether it’s an unexpected death in the family or” — and here she chose a euphemism — “this kind of thing.”

For $750, families can hire Ms. Hooper’s new company, Black Umbrella, to help them prepare for whatever kind of disaster might ensue. That basic package includes a sit-down session with a specialist to develop a family communication and reunification plan and four “go cards” — sleek aluminum wallet cards custom engraved with 22 contact numbers in the order in which they should be called. For $1,450, the advanced family-preparedness plan also provides someone to scan critical documents like passports and birth certificates and both store them on an encrypted flash drive and print them out for safekeeping someplace away from the client’s home. Also: one family-disaster practice run overseen by Black Umbrella, and even more go cards.



PREPAREDNESS Marc Alabanza, left, of Black Umbrella, consults with Rebecca Hansen and Mike Keaney, at their Staten Island home. “We could do it ourselves,” she said, “but we still hadn’t done it ourselves.” CreditJoshua Bright for The New York Times 

For the people who are either really worried about a disaster or really wealthy (or both), there is the $1,950 plan, with a specialist on call to “run family practices, refresh emergency supplies or replace any family plans to account for evolving circumstances,” according to the company’s Web site. And starting next year, the company will sell its Go Bag, a $250 backpack that turns into a sleeping bag and was designed by the artist Mary Mattingly.

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Within the panoply of professionals some New York families employ — therapists, sleep consultants, manicurists, home organizers, bicycle-riding tutors — disaster-preparedness specialist is hardly the most indulgent. In fact, given the range of large and small disasters that could happen any given day, from losing your cellphone to that foiled Times Square car bomb, it can seem kind of crazy not to have a plan.

Ms. Hooper, a Bryn Mawr graduate who once dreamed of opening a clothing boutique, may be among the more glamorous entrepreneurs in a field associated with camouflage fatigues and Apocalypse-fearing stockpilers. But she is not alone in seeing the business prospects. In Pleasantville, N.Y., a volunteer emergency services worker and a volunteer firefighter have started 1800prepare.com, which sells survival kits ranging from a $6.95 bare-bones version to the $342.95 “Ready to Roll,” which includes waterproof matches, safety goggles and 100 latex gloves. In Putnam County, N.Y., there is Angel Care Safety Training, a company that since 2006 has led emergency-preparedness seminars for businesses, church groups, schools and, in the past year, three Girl Scout troops.

Ms. Hooper admits that you could do a lot of this on your own: the contact lists, the scanning, the designated meet-up locations should your house burn down or the Brooklyn Bridge blow up. But will you? Really?

“It’s like, ‘Oh, I can change the oil.’ But does the oil ever get changed?” said Rebecca Hansen, 35, who, with her husband, Mike Keaney, recently bought the basic plan.

Ms. Hansen and Mr. Keaney had planned to make a plan for years. Certainly before their first child was born. Finally, with the clock ticking toward the arrival of baby No. 2, they sat in the living room of their Staten Island home with Marc Alabanza, a Black Umbrella specialist. They racked their brains and trolled their cellphones for crucial contacts —parents, siblings, the day care center, their trusted cleaning lady — and determined that should Staten Island become inaccessible, they would meet at Ms. Hansen’s boss’s home, in Brooklyn. Ms. Hansen, they decided, should be the family marshal, in charge of calling the shots.

“We could do it ourselves,” she said, “but we still hadn’t done it ourselves.”

Ms. Hooper has recently begun advertising on the UrbanBaby Web site, but she said most of the 30 clients she had signed up since February — the majority of them families with two children — had come by word of mouth.

In the late 1990s, when Ms. Hooper’s plans to buy a boutique fell through, she recovered via a fishing trip to Venezuela, which she found “transformational.” That brought her to Urban Angler, then on East 25th Street, where she quickly smelled potential.

“There were all these people in there shopping, and yet it was dirty and kind of had lots of old merchandise around,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect retail business in need of reform.’ ” Over a decade, she helped catapult the company into a slick operation with a Fifth Avenue address, an outpost in Arlington, Va., and an internationally recognized name. It was through Urban Angler that she met Andrew Madoff, a client who became an investor.

In 2008, she took a consulting job at Christian Dior, but she resigned after the news broke of Bernard Madoff’s scheme. “A lot of what I did was represent the brand to their clients,” she said, “and that wasn’t really appropriate for me to be doing.”

Ms. Hooper said she had thought about the possibilities of a disaster-preparedness business since Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. Determined to create an emergency plan for her family — she has a 5-year-old daughter with the co-founder of Urban Angler — Ms. Hooper had found the Internet cluttered with a mess of contradictory information. Over the years, she read survivalist books and research papers, networked wherever she could and trolled online “prepper” chat rooms. She grilled dinner companions: Do you have a plan? They didn’t. Nor did Andrew.

“He went to work that day thinking it’d be a day like any other, and when he walked out of the office to go talk to his father he had no idea that he was never coming back again,” Ms. Hooper recalled of the Madoff family’s disaster day. “When he said to me, ‘Everything’s at the office and I can’t even get a copy of my insurance policies,’ it made me realize that even someone as bright and talented as this guy didn’t really have this plan in place for what he would do if this kind of explosion happened in his own life.”

In December, Dealbreaker.com, which covers Wall Street, announced Black Umbrella’s arrival under the headline, “In The Event Of An Emergency, Let Andy Madoff Lovingly Wrap Your Knick Knacks In Bubble Paper.”

Andrew Madoff and his brother, Mark, who were co-directors of trading at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, maintain that they knew nothing about the fraud until their father confessed to them, at which point they turned him in. Andrew Madoff is one of several family members who have agreed to preserve their assets pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the court-appointed trustee charged with recovering money for victims of the Ponzi scheme. He has not been charged with any crime.

His Black Umbrella business cards say “Director of Operations,” but Ms. Hooper said he mostly helps with administrative tasks like payroll.

In a brief interview at the company’s office, on the 21st floor of a skyscraper at 590 Madison Avenue, Mr. Madoff said he hoped his name would not hurt Ms. Hooper’s credibility.

“I think that what happened to me illustrated to me how important it is to be prepared for unexpected events,” he said. “I’m just another example.”