Catherine Hooper talks to PEOPLE about taking steps to prepare herself and others for disaster

By Nicole Weisensee Egan
April 13, 2011 12:30 PM
Credit: Courtesy Emily Wilson

Just days after Catherine Hooper moved in with her fiancé, Andrew Madoff, two years ago, his entire world collapsed.

Andrew is the son of Bernie Madoff, who is serving a life sentence for defrauding hundreds of investors in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. Bernie first confessed his crimes to Andrew and his brother Mark (who committed suicide last December). Traders for the company, the brothers turned their father in to the FBI and have not been charged with any crimes.

However, Hooper’s own professional future was in jeopardy, too, simply for being in love with a Madoff. “I was a retail consultant for the fashion industry,” says Hooper, 38. “So to be in any way connected to scandal was not going to be feasible. I took the bull by the horns and resigned from my main client immediately.”

Then, as the financial disaster hit New York, Black Umbrella, a business venture Hooper began part-time in 2006 to prepare for disasters of a different kind, was born.

Hooper says Hurricane Katrina first gave her the idea to start this type of company.

“As I was watching [New Orleans] fall apart on television, one part of me was saying, ‘I can’t believe people didn’t take the steps to prepare for it since they were so vulnerable,’ ” she says. “Another part of me was thinking, ‘I live in New York City, and I haven’t taken any steps to prepare myself either, since I’m in a vulnerable part of the world as well.’ ”

Disaster Preparedness

Hooper began researching to come up with a disaster plan for her own family and quickly realized there was no singular place to find all the answers. “When I talked to friend and families about my own plan, very often people said, ‘Could you come do that for me? That’s been on my to-do list forever,’ ” she says.

So Hooper hired an assistant to help people she knew with their plans, but didn’t start charging until she began the venture full time in February 2010. Andrew, who has the title director of operations but has minimal involvement in the business, helped her get organized, she says.

“He’s a very loving and supportive guy,” she says. “So he wouldn’t have been comfortable saying, ‘You’re on your own, kid.’ ”

Hooper says she now has five employees and about 100 clients who pay between $750 and $2,000 for her company to devise a plan – everything from getting together a list of essential phone numbers and passwords, to where to meet up in the event you get separated from your family in a disaster.

Sticking by Andrew

Still, she adds, people can do this on their own – which she encourages. “There are so many great resources out there,” she says. “I don’t want anyone reading this to think this is the only way to do it. It’s like having a personal trainer, having someone walk you through the steps to make sure you’re doing it right.”

As for why she stuck by Andrew despite the toll his father’s actions took on her professional life, the answer is simple.

“I’m in love with him,” she says. “I know his character, and I think when you know someone’s character and when you understand and love them, it doesn’t matter what someone who’s never met them before is saying about them. It was also his actions in the scandal that showed his character.”

“He didn’t say, ‘Oh my father just confessed this horrible crime to me. What do you think I should do?’ ” she says. “He said, ‘I just turned my father into the FBI.’ There was no hesitation. How many of us – if we learned that our parent who we loved and admired had committed a crime – would have the presence of mind to take that kind of immediate action?”