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Companies cope after the storm

New work benches and shelves are being assembled, the company sign is on the building and by next week manufacturing is expected to get under way.

Beckwith Electric Inc. will be back in business.

"It's miraculous," said Robert Pettigrew, president of the company's products division, which makes electronic equipment used by electric utilities.

Beckwith's Pinellas Park manufacturing plant and its entire inventory were destroyed Saturday by the tornadoes that wreaked havoc on mid-Pinellas County. By Tuesday, however, the company's 80 employees were moving into temporary quarters on Automobile Boulevard, near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

"We're probably dealing with a $4-million to $5-million insurance claim and we're looking at not doing much business this month, so we're losing a lot of revenue," Pettigrew said. "It will take a few months to get up to full steam, but I think it's all going to come together."

Beckwith is one of 22 manufacturing operations damaged by the tornadoes, according to the Pinellas County Industry Council. The council estimates the manufacturers suffered more than $14-million in damages. Several, like Beckwith, have been forced to move at least temporarily.

According to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, the federal disaster plan signed Thursday by President Bush will make businesses like Beckwith eligible for low-interest loans to replace damaged property or inventory.

The industry council also says it will speed up requests for industrial revenue bond financing from manufacturing companies that want to rebuild or relocate. The tax-exempt bonds generally carry lower interest rates than other types of loans.

"Our primary concern is getting these companies rebuilt," said council chairman Charles Rainey.

In addition, the U.S. Small Business Administration will guarantee loans of up to $750,000 for qualifying businesses, although the disaster loan program offers lower interest rates.

The disaster loans have rates of 4 to 8 percent, while regular SBA-guaranteed loans have a maximum rate of 2.25 percent or 2.75 percent above the prime rate (now 6 percent.)

The SBA says the most active SBA lenders in the Tampa Bay area are United Bank of Pinellas, SunBank of Tampa Bay, NationsBank and Southern Commerce Bank. The agency promises it will give an answer within seven days of receiving the loan paperwork from the bank.

Other lenders also say they're trying to help.

Barnett Bank of Pinellas County is offering businesses affected by the tornadoes 1 percentage point off usual lending rates for loans up to $1-million. It promises to give an answer within 48 hours.

"We're definitely interested in helping businesses that were affected, but we can't make blanket promises," said Barnett spokesman Robert Stickler.

Pettigrew says NationsBank, with which Beckwith has a line of credit, has been accommodating even though the equipment that was the collateral for the loan has been destroyed.

In fact, lots of other businesses have been very helpful in Beckwith's hour of need, from the printer working overtime to replace brochures and catalogs to the computer and telephone technicians who are trying to get company offices up and running.

"Everybody's just jumped in with both feet," Pettigrew said.

He says Beckwith employees also have been a big help and don't have to fear being laid off.

"We'll probably be needing to work them overtime to catch up," he said. "We've got all our inventory to rebuild as soon as we can get the material."

Very few unemployment claims have been filed by people who lost their jobs to the tornadoes, said Marsha Ortiz, manager of the St. Petersburg claims office.

"So far, every single person who is unemployed due to the storm has a valid regular claim," she said.

According to Young, the disaster plan also includes disaster unemployment insurance for those who do not qualify for regular unemployment compensation, such as the self-employed.