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Surviving the Storms

Editor's note

Bruce Aronson of The Pool & Patio Center, Metairie, La., was asked to reflect back over last year's hurricane season and how his store survived. Here's his report about retailing despite natural disaster.

As I entered my store on the morning of July 6, I was mentally organizing my day. I wasn't thinking of Tropical Storm Cindy, which had passed through the night before. We had weathered other tropical storms with no problems. When I opened the door, the store seemed unusually bright and there was a clanking sound, like pulleys hitting aluminum masts in a yacht harbor. I looked toward the light and realized our rear wall was gone. Worse, that clanking sound was pieces of our mangled roof hitting together.

Flash forward to Saturday, Aug. 27. The morning weathercasters were predicting Hurricane Katrina would veer toward Florida, so I opened for what I expected to be a busy Saturday.

 The Pool & Patio Center

 The Pool & Patio Center's front entrance after Hurricane Katrina passed was marked by a caked water line on the glass.

But why did the news people on my office radio sound so alarmed? As I listened, I realized this storm might hit us. When my employees showed up for work, we began disconnecting computers, gathering checkbooks, moving furniture out of our front windows and making sure everyone's contact information was up-to-date. Before I locked up, I put signs on our doors saying we were closing early because of the storm but would open for business as soon as the storm passed.

I evacuated to Baton Rouge the next afternoon. There was no doubt then Katrina was going to hit us hard. I slept that night in a strange bed filled with dread. When I awoke on Monday, Katrina had passed to the east of New Orleans. That meant the worst winds hadn't hit us and my house and business were probably OK. But Monday was a day of extreme highs and the lowest of lows.

Yes, the storm had passed to our east but now there was talk of a breached levee. The Corps of Engineers, our city government, our insurance companies had all told us we were protected by them.

A few minutes later, reports were of another levee breeched in a different part of New Orleans. This was getting worse by the minute. Finally, television started to show the pictures that broke my and the world's heart: houses with water up to roofs, people being rescued by helicopters from rooftops, thousands of stranded people streaming into the Super Dome, others walking along the interstate toward drier land. New Orleans, as I had known it since my birth, was being decimated.

For the next few days, I stayed glued to the television. Police weren't allowing residents to return to the bedroom community where I lived and gas lines were starting to form in Baton Rouge.

 The collapsed rear wall and torn back roof were a result of Tropical Storm Cindy, a prelude to Hurricane Katrina.

 The collapsed rear wall and torn back roof were a result of Tropical Storm Cindy, a prelude to Hurricane Katrina.

On the Tuesday night after the storm, I heard people were able to get back into my community. I sped off to find out if my home was all right. There wasn't much traffic on my way home. There were no police to keep me from getting off the interstate at my exit. There were wires down on the street everywhere as I got closer. Some trees had toppled, but it didn't look like we were devastated.

As I got closer, I saw trees had broken through the wooden fence surrounding my subdivision. I saw the roof of my house, which meant it was still standing, and only one tree had fallen into the roof. The electricity was off, the refrigerator was starting to stink and phones were dead, but I had running water and working sewers. Compared to homes with water up to their eaves, I was golden.

It took another seven days before I could sneak in to see my store. I don't know what I was expecting. After all, we hadn't finished repairing the damage from Tropical Storm Cindy when Katrina hit. With only a temporary wall up, how much more could the building handle? The parking lot was filled with debris from trees and pieces of the buildings surrounding me. The Plexiglas faces of our sign had blown out. But miraculously my building was still standing.

As I started to unlock the front door, I got confused. Our green carpet was brown. Then I saw a crusty brown water line, only 17 inches off the ground but as it turned out, high enough. The brown carpet was sediment.

Reliable contractors were in short supply after the hurricane. That's where Tropical Storm Cindy turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Cindy contractor was available to help us with Katrina repairs. Had we not already had a contractor, we would still be rebuilding. When you read this, it will be seven months since Katrina and almost nine since Cindy. We have been open since three weeks after Katrina. All of the scaffolding is gone, the noise of hammers has quieted, our concrete floors finally are carpeted and we have our displays all set.

 A hidden storage space converted with slat wall and better lighting added about 450 square feet to the showroom.

 A hidden storage space converted with slat wall and better lighting added about 450 square feet to the showroom.

How did we get to this point? Well, it was like eating an elephant; we did it one bite at a time. But how I got from there to here isn't as important as why I got here. Two months after the storm, my banker gave me an article written by a group that studied the effect natural disasters have on local businesses. They stressed:

  • Don't underestimate changes caused by disasters.

  • Expect recovery to take a long time, if the area comes back at all.

  • Don't depend on the government to "make everything all right."

  • Nothing would ever be the same.

It is hard to wrap your brain around these concepts unless you have been through something like Katrina. They stressed rebuilding wasn't always the best action and said a business owner should consider whether to:

  • Collect the insurance and walk away

  • Reconstruct and continue doing the same thing as before

  • Reconstruct and do something different

  • Try to sell the business.

The decision should not be based on the "I was doing it before; so I have to continue doing it now" thesis. You could end up investing your insurance, business assets and life savings only to face bankruptcy down the road. First, you must accept the world has changed and then you have to decide how viable your business would be in this new world. Will you still have a customer base? Will you still be able to get employees and supplies? If your business was having a tough time before the disaster, don't think the disaster will change that.

These are the facts as I saw them: 80% of New Orleans and surrounding areas had flooded; New Orleans proper would not get back as much as half of its population in a year. I sell luxury items and depend on customers who have discretionary income. New Orleans was not a rich city before the storm; surely the storm would only intensify that.

Friends in the industry told me retailers in other hurricane-ravaged areas had reported huge numbers. I thought this was different; most of their residents hadn't evacuated, perhaps for good? I decided to risk rebuilding and staying in the outdoor furniture business one hot, humid afternoon when, as we were pressure washing flooded furniture in our parking lot, people driving by stopped and asked if they could buy what we were washing. People wanted patio furniture just a few days after the largest natural disaster in the history of the country. I took this as a good sign.

I tested the waters in late September with a flood sale. Flood insurance had covered everything sitting on our first floor and we were able to buy back goods for very little. We could sell the furniture at 50% off of our normal prices. We did a little advertising and by the end of the second day of the sale, we had sold 90% of the damaged goods.

Although I can't predict how we will do this year, our backlog of custom orders is bigger than it ever is at this time and our average ticket is at record highs. Yes, I'm tired of eating elephant but that damn thing is almost gone!

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