March 22, 2011— -- Catherine Hooper is an expert in handling disasters and survival.
In 2008, just weeks after she was engaged to Andrew Madoff, his father, Bernie Madoff, was arrested for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history -- defrauding investors out of billions of dollars.
Now Hooper is the president of Black Umbrella, a high-end disaster management company based in New York City, and her fiance, Andrew, is director of operations.
And business is booming. Hooper said calls to Black Umbrella have increased 300 percent since the earthquake and tsunami disaster struck Japan last week.
"I think that a lot of people had this item on their to-do list for a long time," she said. "When you see a terrible tragedy like this, this is what pushes them to face their anxiety about thinking through this strategy and start making that plan."
Hooper's company puts together crisis management packages for all sorts of disasters -- for a hefty price. Packages range from $750 to $2,000, which she agreed was not cheap. The majority of her clients are families with small children.
Hooper admitted her company's services are a bit of a luxury.
"This is something most families can do by themselves," she said. "I'm delighted if they want to hire me, but I think that it's something everyone should do, regardless if they have professional help or not."
The $750 package include a full consultation with a planning expert who offers a detailed communication plan and mapped escape routes, as well as a "Go Bag" -- a ready-to-go disaster bag with some unexpected items, such as giant black Sharpie marker.
"What this does for you, in a real emergency, is give you the ability to leave a message anywhere and on any surface," she said. "If you were somehow dislocated from your family and you needed to leave a note on your door -- 'gone to grandma's' -- this could be a great emergency tool."
Other items included are eye goggles, a PVC raincoat, batteries, a first aid kit, a radio -- and four aluminum, personalized, emergency contact cards.
"[Aluminum] is relatively indestructible," she said. "It's waterproof."
Hooper added the PVC raincoat protects the user from radiation and, she said, could be the difference between life and death in radiological emergencies, like the nuclear meltdown in Japan.
For $1,450, clients get two extra cards, data storage for important documents and full disaster drill with an expert. The most expensive package, which is $2,000, gives clients all that plus one year of unlimited cards, practices and consultations with Black Umbrella's experts.
"I like to think of it as something a family takes on when they feel as though it's something they really need, not necessarily something that they want," she said. "Personal trainers aren't cheap either, but people hire them when they absolutely can't make it happen for themselves."
Black Umbrella Client Says She Feels Secure
Meredith Haberfeld of Brooklyn, New York, has been a Black Umbrella client for more than a year. After having her second child two weeks ago, she decided to meet with a Black Umbrella consultant to update her family's plan.
"I'm not someone who worries terribly about different emergencies that are going to strike the city or strike my family," she said. "I just want to know that my family is prepared should something happen."
Although Haberfeld has the cheapest option, the introductory-level $750 package, she said Hooper's services have helped her family think beyond just keeping canned goods in the house.
Preparing a phone list of critical numbers, creating an evacuation plan and assigning a person in charge -- the "family marshal" -- were just some of the few suggestions the Haberfelds received.
"Some of it is totally intuitive and easy to think through, other parts of it aren't," she said. "For so long, year after year, we didn't take care of those things so when we finally hired Black Umbrella, we sat down with a specialist, [and] we did some critical work."
Haberfeld said it gave her peace of mind to know that her family had a plan in the face of disaster.
"I am heartbroken for what's happening in Japan and I have some concern because you don't ever know what's going to happen," she said. "I feel really secure that we have a solid plan that could take care of the people that I love in a time of need in a lot of ways."
However, Haberfeld said Black Umbrella's connection to the Madoff family had no impact on her decision to hire Hooper.
Hooper refused to speak of how her connection to the now-infamous family had affected her.
"Every family has ups and downs," Hooper said. "My thinking on this is, I think, the same as everybody's."
Before his brother Mark committed suicide last December, Andrew Madoff said in an interview with New York Times: "I think that what happened to me illustrated to me how important it is to be prepared for unexpected events. I'm just another example."
Prior to launching her company in 2009, Hooper ran a high-end fishing store, Urban Angler. She has extensive survival training. She said she was inspired to start Black Umbrella in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 after watching families try to recover. But not all disasters are natural -- some are also financial.
"Parts of this process help with disasters that are much more personal than a fire or a flood," she said.