Four Heroes Win SBA’s 2017 Phoenix Award For Outstanding Disaster Recovery Efforts

Release Date: 
Friday, April 21, 2017
Release Number: 
Carol Chastang (202) 205-6987

WASHINGTON – A South Carolina mayor who championed his city’s post-disaster economic recovery, a volunteer who extended herself to support a small West Virginia town’s rebuilding after a flood, a Texas business owner who rebuilt his company after a devastating flood, and a Northern California public official leading the relief efforts for a fire-ravaged county have been named winners of the 2017 Phoenix Award by the U.S. Small Business Administration. 

The awards will be presented by SBA Administrator Linda McMahon on April 30, during the National Small Business Week kickoff event at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Since 1998, the SBA has presented Phoenix Awards to business owners, public officials and volunteers who displayed selflessness, ingenuity and tenacity in the aftermath of a disaster, while contributing to the rebuilding of their communities.

Stephen K. Benjamin, Mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, will receive the 2017 Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Public Official.

Relentless rainstorms that began on Oct. 1, 2015 in Columbia dumped nearly 12 trillion gallons of water, caused 19 fatalities and nearly $12 billion in property damages. Several local dams collapsed under the deluge of water.

Before the storms hit, Mayor Benjamin reached out to officials in cities like New Orleans that had recovered from floods, to develop a response and recovery plan.

Mayor Benjamin provided timely updates on road conditions, shelter locations, evacuations, and locations of recovery centers.  He made himself available for every media request, conducting the interviews in the neighborhoods hardest hit, rather than in an operations center.

Starting early in the morning and working into the night, Mayor Benjamin reached out to national and local nonprofit organizations to support the coordination of relief efforts.  He delivered bottled water to the elderly and the sick, and personally thanked first responders for their service. The mayor is currently working with FEMA and South Carolina officials to develop a canal repair solution that will protect the drinking water supply for more than 400,000 residents.

Susan M. Jack of Clendenin, West Virginia, will receive the 2017 Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Volunteer.        

Susan Jack’s plans to leave Clendenin, West Virginia and move to Ohio with her teenage daughter Jodi were upended by torrential rains on June 23, 2016, resulting in one of the worst floods in West Virginia’s history. Clendenin suffered 23 fatalities, widespread infrastructure losses and the destruction of its business center.

Despite losing all her personal belongings, Jack decided to stay and help Clendenin recover.  Armed with a construction background, she worked dawn to dusk clearing debris and mud out of the damaged homes.  Jack also inspected property damage, provided timelines for rebuilding on many properties and even served as a construction foreman.

She delivered donated cash and gift cards to those in need, and developed a solid volunteer team attuned to the needs of local flood victims, arranging with local churches to house and cook meals for volunteers.

Ten months after the June floods, Jack continues her volunteer recovery work.  She bought a flooded-out home in Clendenin to encourage others to stay and rebuild.

Rob Leonardis, President of Ember Industries, Inc., will receive the 2017 Phoenix Award for Outstanding Small Business Disaster Recovery.    

Ember Industries in San Marcos, Texas builds, tests and calibrates electronic devices, and wire and cable assemblies. Their products are used to build oil field above-ground tank level monitors and Lockheed military aircraft drones, to name a few.

On May 25, 2015, Rob Leonardis was forced to shut down his business when the nearby Blanco River crested.  The flood destroyed about one-third of Ember’s raw material inventory, partially completed work in progress, as well as office furniture, computers and servers, and their-high tech production equipment.

Immediately, Ember’s team, some of whom had lost their own homes in the flood, went to the plant and worked with Leonardis to clean up the debris. The company president became a cheerleader and coach, encouraging his staff not to give up and to visualize the day when they could resume production.

In July 2015, Ember Industries was approved for a $2 million SBA disaster loan.  By mid-October, the company had rehired 60 of their 68 employees. Six weeks after the flood, Ember Industries was back to full production.  Leonardis and his team revamped their business continuity plan to offset losses from future disasters.

Carol J. Huchingson, County of Lake Administrative Officer, will receive the 2017 Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Public Official.          

A small blaze torched a few patches of dry grass in Lake County, in northern California, on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2015.   The combination of drought conditions and high winds created an inferno. Within 24 hours, 50,000 acres had burned and 1,958 structures were destroyed.

At the time, Huchingson was Lake County’s director of social services. She immediately shouldered the residents’ concerns about debris removal, making sure permits were quickly dispatched to remove burned trees and begin new construction. Her focus on establishing a seamless recovery for the area led county leadership to expand her job, appointing her Lake County’s fire recovery coordinator.

Huchingson saw her main task was helping the community return to its pre-fire vibrancy and economic solvency.  She orchestrated collaborations with federal agencies and faith-based organizations to connect local residents to information about housing grants and SBA disaster assistance.  Huchingson also made sure interagency meeting minutes were posted on social media and shared with local news outlets, and later made the meetings public to reassure residents the county was being held accountable for the area’s recovery.

Each year since 1963, the president has issued a proclamation calling for the celebration of National Small Business Week.  This year National Small Business Week will be recognized April 30 – May 6, with events planned in Washington, D.C., New York City, Indianapolis, Dallas and Fresno, California. For more information on the national events, visit


About the U.S. Small Business Administration

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) was created in 1953 and since January 13, 2012, has served as a Cabinet-level agency of the federal government to aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns, to preserve free competitive enterprise and to maintain and strengthen the overall economy of our nation.  The SBA helps Americans start, build and grow businesses.  Through an extensive network of field offices and partnerships with public and private organizations, the SBA delivers its services to people throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. Visit the website at