After Katrina, a Boom in St. Tammany Parish
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The City of Slidell, just north across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. But unlike the lower parishes of Southeast Louisiana, the water in the Slidell area, for the most part, came in and went out. That allowed the region to recover quickly and tens of thousands of displaced residents have moved in to be close to home, boosting the population by nearly a third.
Still, as Amy Jeffries reports from member station WNPR, Slidell businesses that have decided to reopen face uncertain futures.
AMY JEFFRIES reporting:
Back through a tunnel of boxes, the counter at Levy's Furniture and Appliance Store is buried by customers. They flip through the plastic pages of catalogues searching for washers and armchairs. Store Owner Jake Levy says prior to Hurricane Katrina, this was a showroom, neatly displaying the merchandise.
Mr. JAKE LEVY (Owner, Levy's Furniture): A lot the stuff you see here is sold. We're just waiting for people to get their houses in order to take it and they're being held up by floors and walls and paint. We're using our showroom right now for pretty much a warehouse. And we've got all this filled up and we've got the whole upstairs filled to the rafters.
JEFFRIES: Immediately after the storm though, this place was a wreck. Flood waters ruined all the merchandise, about $700,000 worth. Levy expects insurance will cover most of it, but he's still waiting on the payment. So he had to clean up and restock with whatever money was in the store's bank account and some of his personal savings.
Mr. LEVY: We got on the phones and started calling people up and they started shipping things out as soon as we told them to roll it.
JEFFRIES: Levy estimates his business is up at least 50 percent, though he hasn't had time to crunch the numbers. He's had to double his personnel just to keep up with all of the orders. It's exhausting, but for businesses like Levy's, survival is likely. Sales tax revenue in Slidell generally is up 60 percent. Bill Newton is the CEO of the Slidell Chamber of Commerce. Newton says much of that business is being generated as residents rush to refill their houses and newcomers from Orleans, St. Bernard and elsewhere outfit new homes here.
Mr. BILL NEWTON (Slidell Chamber of Commerce): Certainly in the near term, revenue has been generated at very unusual levels as a result of business supplies, you know, refurnishing, re-clothing, all of those things, certainly had spectacular revenues through the last quarter of the year and into the first quarter of this year.
JEFFRIES: But Newton says some businesses are still struggling to get going again.
Mr. NEWTON: It's a big challenge for the professional business community. The lawyers, the CPAs, physicians, dentists. Anyone who has a specific clientele is suffering right now because so many are still dislocated.
JEFFRIES: Slidell Cleaners is certainly suffering. More than six months after the storm, Eric Dubason(ph) is still sorting out garments that swirled around his flooded dry cleaning shop. The business has been in Dubason's family since 1929. Eric and his wife Mary have continued to do things the old-fashioned way.
Mr. ERIC DUBASON (Owner, Slidell Cleaners): This is a pre-World War II machine.
JEFFRIES: Dubason points to a big steel barrel with an open hatch, revealing a wooden drum inside that would've gently spun delicate garments. The saltwater caused the machine to rust.
Mr. DUBASON: The old wooden, wooden wheel that, now I can't, I can't even open it.
JEFFRIES: At age 56, Dubason says it doesn't make sense for him and his wife to reopen the business.
Mr. DUBASON: If I borrow a half a million dollars that it would take now to get back in business, and I work 10 or 12 years, you pay the interest up front. When it's time to sell the business, I would have no equity because it would all have to go right, whatever I could sell it for would be going back to pay off that loan.
JEFFRIES: So after 24 years of being their own bosses, Eric and Mary Dubason are going to be employees. They've been contracted by a local agency that serves the mentally disabled to run their commercial laundry business. And the specialty services Slidell Cleaners was known for, will now belong to that agency.
Ms. MARY DUBASON (Slidell Cleaners): It's a lot different to have a decision that you need to make for your business and for your lives and if two people have to do it and now it's committees and boards.
JEFFRIES: Eric Dubason says they're planning to market the agency's new business to former patrons of Slidell Cleaners. And Dubason hopes the 30-percent increase in Slidell's population since the storm will insure them a clientele. But even that is uncertain.
Mr. DUBASON: There obviously are some customers who are not here anymore or some who their lifestyle has changed, as ours has, and they may not be wearing shirts that need to be laundered and pressed, and, you know, suits and ties and things.
JEFFRIES: Dubason says some of those people might not need the services right away. Maybe never again.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Jeffries.
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