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FE&SEditorial Archives2005October — People & Events

Dealers Cope with Katrina’s Aftermath

The front of Mobile Fixture in Mobile, Ala., sustained damage from Hurricane Katrina.

As the relief and cleanup efforts associated with Hurricane Katrina continue, E&S dealers look to rebound from one of the largest national disasters in U.S. history. FE&S caught up to three of them.

“I have been through several hurricanes but I have never seen the devastation as widespread as this,” said Paul Watts, president of Associated Food Equipment and Supplies, Gulfport, Miss. “I hope that nobody ever has to see this. It is kind of like something you see in the movies.”

Associated prepared for Katrina by parking delivery trucks in front of its headquarters to protect the windows from storm winds and stored the remaining vehicles in its warehouse. Watts and his crew then went their separate ways to ride out the storm. “That’s all you can really do,” he said. “And then you hope and pray for the best.”

Once the storm passed, it was days before Watts could return to Gulfport to assess the damage as crews were busy clearing the roads of fallen trees, telephone poles and other debris. “It was pretty harrowing to know that you can’t get back,” Watts added.

Armed with his 19 employees’ cell phone numbers, Watts reached each of them when the storm passed, and found none were injured, though five completely lost their homes and two lost the vast majority of their belongings.

Watts classified the impact the storm had on Associated’s headquarters as being relatively minor. He cited no apparent inventory loss but did say that the awnings were ripped away from the building, the receiving door was blown in and that the showroom ceiling had shifted. “In the big scheme of things we got off pretty good,” Watts said.

Associated resumed operations on Sept. 12. “We are still not fully back up because of the communication situation,” said Watts, who added making phone calls and sending faxes or e-mails remain a significant challenge.

Watts estimated that Associated lost 70% of its local business due to the storm. “We are talking years, not months, to get it back.”

But the good news is that the business looks like it will eventually come back. Early indications are that the first of the area casinos, which represent some of Associated’s bigger customers, will be open for business in six months. In the meantime, Associated will sustain itself by completing projects in markets outside of Gulfport and supporting the relief efforts. “The foodservice people supporting the relief efforts have been in to get things, mostly supplies,” Watts said.

Despite the devastation he sees today, Watts remains optimistic about the future for Associated and the Gulf region. “If we can get through the short term, then the future is bright,” he said.

Caire Hotel and Restaurant Supply
A lifelong resident of New Orleans, 50-year-old Peter Caire, president of Caire Hotel and Restaurant Supply, knows what to do when meteorologists forecast a hurricane for the region. So when Katrina started making its way toward the Crescent City, he sprang into action.

Caire made sure all the dealer’s computers were placed on desktops or tables to protect them from flooding. He also took the server that connects the company’s computers and placed that in his car. And after packing a few days worth of clothes, Caire headed for the safety of Baton Rouge, La., to ride out the storm.

The day after Katrina vacated New Orleans, one of the levees that kept the surrounding rivers from flowing into the city broke. Caire’s home was near the levee and is most likely lost. In addition, the area surrounding his company’s 10,000-square-foot warehouse flooded. When FE&S spoke to Caire two weeks after the hurricane, the floodwaters were slowly receding but the 30-year veteran of the foodservice industry estimated it would most likely be weeks before he could visit his home or his business.

“My warehouse was dock-height, meaning it was a little higher than some areas, so we might be OK,” an optimistic Caire said.

Caire was able to contact all eight of his employees by using cell phones to send text messages. “Nobody got injured because everybody left,” he said. “We were told it was a bad storm and to leave.”

Despite the flooding and uncertain future of his business, Caire remains on the job. He purchased a computer and hooked it up to his server. Using that PC and his cell phone, Caire is following up on a series of jobs for the State of Louisiana. Caire is also preparing to process foodservice equipment orders for some of the oil rigs located off the shores of New Orleans, as they resume operations.

But the bulk of Caire’s business supports larger events the city hosts, like those at New Orleans’ Morial Convention Center and the Fair Grounds. Initial announcements said that March 2006 was the earliest events at the convention center would resume.

The fact that it is not clear when he can return to assess the damage of his warehouse and reopen it for business again, paired with the uncertainty of when convention and tourism business will resume in New Orleans, has left Caire’s short-term future up in the air. Caire is trying to decide whether to lease warehouse and office space in Baton Rouge to serve as a temporary home for his 11-year-old company.

“I am in business,” Caire declared, exhibiting that true New Orleans spirit. “And we have insurance, so I am sure we are staying in business.”

Mobile Fixure & Equipment Co.
A lifelong Alabama resident, Mobile Fixture President Walne Donald estimated that Katrina was the worst hurricane he’s endured. “The first three days after the hurricane were just awful,” Donald said. “People had no power or gas and were running out of water and ice. There was a lot of frustration.”

None of the Mobile Fixture employees lost their homes, Donald said. Some did have a significant amount of damage.

Unlike other businesses in the area, Mobile Fixture was fortunate in that its headquarters location sustained relatively little damage, with the building’s façade bearing the brunt.

Donald’s team takes a series of measures prior to storms to minimize the damage. This includes running backups of all electronic files, covering the computers and parking delivery trucks in front of the building to protect the windows from the winds. “But there is only so much you can do,” Donald admitted.

Mobile Fixture was closed from Aug. 29 - Sept. 2 due to the fact that there was no power in the area and the region’s significant flooding. “The people were excited to get back to work,” Donald said. “You get tired of cleaning up at home because it just seems endless.”

While the physical damage to Mobile Fixture may have not been as severe as it was in other areas, the fiscal repercussions will be felt for some time. Donald estimated that it will take six months or more for his business to reach the level it was pre-Katrina and that will be largely due to growth in markets other than Mobile. “We had a pile of restaurants that are not even there any more,” Donald said.

That is not to say that the Mobile Fixture team is short on work. “We are busy trying to help the people preparing the food for the relief efforts,” Donald said, including the American Red Cross.

When they are not supporting the relief efforts, Donald and his staff are preparing estimates for those customers who need to renovate or rebuild their operations. “A lot of them will rebuild so it will be real busy for the next few years,” Donald predicted. “And we will service these customers.”

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