After the Storm

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NEW ORLEANS, LA — It has been nearly eight months since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and swaths of destruction still remain.

Throughout the region, once-spirited neighborhoods are now either abandoned, or existing with minimal utilities and only a handful of people. Houses are gone entirely, or so badly damaged as to be completely unlivable. In southern Mississippi, for example, the latest estimates figure more than 65,000 homes were destroyed, with nearly $125 billion in damages. Here, in New Orleans, the aftermath is strikingly similar, with only a small percentage of schools, businesses and restaurants reopened.

Editorial

Among those affected are four local kitchen dealers whose homes and businesses experienced varying degrees of damage – but whose love for the city remains firmly intact.

Katrina – the worst natural disaster in U.S. history – left these four, and so many of their counterparts along the Gulf Coast, with the same daunting prospect: Rebuild their own lives, and the lives and homes of countless others.

To date, the storm has displaced some 770,000 residents and made uninhabitable some 300,000 houses throughout the region. In St. Bernard Parish, LA, for instance, where some 45,000 homes once existed, only 50 inhabitable homes remain, with most of those who have chosen to stay now living in shelters, hotels or FEMA trailers.

“We are talking to a lot of people who are rebuilding their homes and then putting them up for sale, and other people who are just selling the houses as they are. They are not coming back. They don’t want to go through this again,” remarks Leo Licciardi, owner of

Marchand Creative Kitchens. But whether they’re looking to rebuild their homes to their own specifications, or simply fix them up enough to make them saleable, the end result is the same: a nearly insurmountable task for those in the remodeling industry who are trying to rebuild not only thousands of homes, but often their own businesses and personal residences, as well.

Compounding this task is the mass exodus that has caused a major labor shortage throughout metropolitan New Orleans. This has led to an influx of day laborers from outlining cities and states, which has created another problem – perpetual gridlock.

Indeed, in post-Katrina New Orleans, simple luxuries – such as receiving mail, recycling and sanitation service, or driving to a fast-food restaurant for lunch – are now, at best, uncertainties.

The new reality is one of sporadic postal service, virtually non-existent recycling and sanitation service and few open restaurants, all of which typically require at least an hour wait.

But, the main problem, says Leslie Lomont-Relayson, designer for Cabinets by Design, is that kitchen dealerships are simply being inundated with work.

“Everyone in our area is fighting the turmoil of having people come in and trying to be as fair as possible. [It’s hard] having to tell people every day that we haven’t been able to get to their job as quickly as we would have hoped,” she explains.

Christine Hillery, office manager for Cabinets by Design, concurs: “There’s a huge labor shortage, and we could desperately use 10 people in here, but there’s just not a lot of qualified people back in town.”

The labor shortage is so severe that, in many quarters, no rebuilding is happening at all. As Michael Singer, v.p. of Metairie, LA-based Singer Kitchens, says: “What we’ve seen in the months since the storm hit is that [rebuilding in] New Orleans really hasn’t kicked in yet.”

Indeed, the conditions in which some of the people are living are deplorable.

A drive down St. Claude Ave. in Orleans Parish is chilling, wrought with decimated, twig-like remains of houses, front steps leading to frameless voids and soiled stuffed animals littering the street. The silent, demolished lighthouse on the Lake Pontchartrain marina is a mere shadow of what once stood as a beacon in an area that, eight months ago, bustled with restaurants and beachgoers.

And, as the residents of New Orleans struggle to recapture what has been lost, the Army Corp. of Engineers says levee repair is only 40% done, with completion expected on June 1 – the first day of the 2006 hurricane season.

To some, this might seem like an impossible situation, but kitchen dealers are used to making something beautiful out of nothing ­– and the hurricane damage seems only to have strengthened their resolve.

Eye of the Storm
Throughout his life living on the Gulf Coast, Jerry Johnson has evacuated twice due to a hurricane: Camille, in 1960 – and Katrina.

“We who live in the path – we watch these storms very intently – and you [just] get a feeling,” explains Johnson, who is president of Cameron Kitchen & Bath Designs.

So, what convinced him to return?

“It’s real simple,” he says. “I need to help the people who made my company. For 50 years, people have been buying our kitchens, and they need us to help them get their houses in order.”

Accordingly, Johnson salvaged the files of previous customers dating back to 1980, and plans to help as many rebuild as he can – a process that he estimates will take some five years.

As for new clients, Johnson adds: “I cannot service new people at this point as easily – we’re limited with employees. I don’t even have a receptionist.”

In fact, Johnson is currently doing without an office phone (the office line only permits outgoing calls) and fax machine. As a result, he is rarely without his cell phone, receiving as many as 30 client calls a day.

What makes his efforts more remarkable is that he, himself, was displaced by Katrina. His home in Mississippi was destroyed during the hurricane. And, the firm’s offices – which held the financial arm of the Bathrooms & Kitchens Buying Group and Forte Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Buying Group, respectively – were severely flooded as well.

In fact, by his own estimates, there was some $80,000 worth of damage to the exterior of his offices, with another estimated $200,000 in damages to displays, appliances and office equipment.

But even though it has taken Johnson five months just to prepare to sheetrock his office, he is in no hurry.

“I’m going to get my door samples in first, and leave the rest of the design for when I get to it.”

He continues: “We don’t need a beautiful showroom. We need to replace [what these people had]. The only reason I need a nice showroom is to help people who have never been here before” – not a pressing problem, since he has his hands full trying to help former customers rebuild.

With regard to the buying group operations, Johnson says proudly: “We managed all of the payments of the couple hundred businesses around the country. That had to keep moving.”

He continues: “[The BKBG] is running fine right now. We’ll basically be moving back 30 days after I get the phone system, Internet access, fax and other technical stuff worked out. I want to give all of the members and vendors enough notice to reprogram where they’ve been sending their mail.”

Despite his travails, Johnson sounds very upbeat, if not downright confident. “We can do it, and we will do it. We are up to the responsibility,” he says. “We might not do the complete job [offering turnkey services like we normally would], as there are so many jobs to be done, but we’ll sell them cabinets and appliances and install those for them.”

Still, it’s far from his ideal. He explains: “I’m in the kitchen business because I get gratification from designing beautiful kitchens and seeing [those designs] transformed into actual kitchens. This is not that.” Equally pressing for Johnson is the welfare of his employees.

“Some of them could be making bigger money for a short period of time as government-designated contractors, but they’re here,” he notes. The reason his employees have stayed is simple: “We love New Orleans because New Orleans has its own flavor – we grew up with that flavor.”

While the experience has been nothing short of catastrophic, Johnson makes a point of trying to help others learn from his experience. As such, he advises fellow design professionals: “Update your insurance coverage, and make sure you have proper insurance for all types of occurrences.”

He concludes: “Remember – things don’t always go in order. You have to be able to change speed and direction at the drop of a hat. I do.”

Flexible Strategies
Leo Licciardi knows how to adapt.

A lifelong New Orleanian, the owner of Marchand Creative Kitchens was not only faced with nearly $70,000 in roof damage, a scattered support staff, and diminished service capabilities as a result of Hurricane Katrina, but he has also had to deal with triple his pre-Katrina foot traffic.

“We were shut down for five weeks, including the entire month of September [due in part to the mandatory three-week evacuation]. When we came back, there was no electricity and we had holes in the roof,” he reports. “It took another two weeks to close the holes up temporarily, and then clean up enough so that people could come into the showroom.”

Licciardi notes that the initial customers were in search of replacement refrigerators – a result of no electricity in affected areas that caused residents’ food to spoil. In fact, an eerie reminder can still be found on Fleur De Lis Drive in the Lakeview neighborhood, where countless numbers of duct-taped refrigerators remain lined like soldiers in front yards.

“We normally sell about 100 Sub-Zeros a year, and we sold 200 in three months,” he recalls.

Today, his firm’s priorities remain with its builders and past clients, he notes. “We are a builder distributor. We have to maintain our builder relationships. So, when our builders call, they get our attention first. We have to stay up with those people because that’s how we got where we are.”

While Licciardi’s priorities may not have changed, his business approach has since Katrina. “Before the storm, there were always three salespeople in here, so when a customer walked in, we were able to start working with them right away,” he explains. “The way we operate now is that, when a customer walks in the door, they fill out a sheet with their name, address and phone number, and we tell them one of our salespeople will call them [in a couple of months].”

Perhaps most notable is that Licciardi – along with a host of other dealers in the area – has elected to dramatically reduce showroom hours. “We used to be open from 9-5, Monday through Friday, and 10-2 on Saturday. Now, we’re closed on Saturday and the showroom is only open from 10-3,” he says. “What we’re doing is trying to ‘control the flow.’ We’re doing that by locking the showroom down and not having it as open as we did,” he adds.

Licciardi notes that another problem his firm is running into is getting product from local suppliers. “We don’t have any problems getting supplies from manufacturers from out of town, but if we want a granite top installed, our supplier is in [the month of] August.”

He adds: “We anticipate that this will continue for at least 18 months to two years. When this area begins to get itself back in order, then the Lakeview area is going to come into play, and that is another whole thrust that will come through.”

After Lakeview, he notes that the firm will begin work for New Orleans east – the land that runs on the east side of New Orleans toward the Gulf Coast.

Licciardi’s firm also advises customers to do a complete kitchen replacement, as long as they’re having repair work done anyway. “These people were saving money to remodel and now they have their insurance money, plus what they had saved. So, they’re knocking down the walls and enlarging the kitchen [and] upgrading the quality,” he notes.

Not surprisingly, the company’s closing rate has vastly improved.

“If they have to wait two months for us to call them again, they’re still not going [to shop around], because they’ll be waiting two months for anybody else,” he explains.

Another casualty of the storm, Licciardi notes, is the firm’s advertising platform. “We used to do television, radio and magazines. But once the storm hit, we cancelled all of the advertising. It doesn’t make sense to advertise when you can’t handle more people.”

In fact, the workflow is so rapid that Licciardi is even embracing competition settling into the area. “We don’t have a problem with that, because we can’t handle what’s coming [as it is],” he says.

Licciardi notes that his firm, a Bathroom & Kitchen Buying Group member, also received substantial help from the BKBG. “The BKBG called to see what they could do for us,” he notes. “About two weeks later, we received a $5,000 check from them. So we are going to give that to employees who got flooded so they can use it.”

While optimistic about the future, Licciardi admits that the last eight months have taken its toll on his staff.

“My salespeople [have been] working 12-hour days, seven days a week and it’s starting to wear on them,” he says, adding that there are some 300 customer contact sheets still sitting on his desk. ”We just finished October, and we are just now into the people that came in during November.”

He estimates that the Metairie area will take another six to nine months to return to its pre-Katrina condition.

But despite all of this, he considers himself fortunate. “The business wasn’t flooded, although we did get some water in here, and my house didn’t get flooded either,” he notes.

Looking forward, he offers: “My hope is that we all stay healthy, and that we can maintain control and continue to provide the quality service that we were known for.”

Standing Firm
For Leslie Lomont-Relayson and Christine Hillery of Cabinets by Design, the key to the rebuilding process is remaining available.

Lomont-Relayson offers: “There are cabinet dealers in the city that close down a day or so during the week, as a way to catch up. We chose not to do that.”

She continues: “I think that when people [start shopping for cabinets], invariably they find themselves here because the doors are open.”

Hillery interjects: “I jokingly tell people that we’ll be happy to put their name in one of the piles. It keeps things lighthearted, because people are frustrated and it brings a smile to their faces. What else can you do?”

According to Lomont-Relayson, “Monique [Poche’ Bennett, CKD and owner of Cabinets by Design] has over 20 years’ worth of kitchens in the city. I’ve got more like 10-12 years’ worth. So, you’re dealing with people you did work for years ago, and you know the kind of things they might like.”

She adds: “There are [people] who are taking [the destruction] as an opportunity to redo everything, but most of them aren’t looking to customize or personalize – they want something.”

The firm is able to do so much, the pair notes, because the office, remarkably, was undamaged by the storm. Hillery explains: “We were so lucky here. When the hurricane hit, we all assumed that we had been looted, because that’s all you heard on the news. We figured it would be a wreck and all of the appliances would be missing, but nothing happened.”

Lomont-Relayson’s home only received minor exterior wind damage, but Hillery was not so fortunate: “We were doing a big renovation [at my house], and I had just put my new kitchen cabinets in. And my roof broke right over them! My roof gave way over the three worst places possible: my brand new kitchen, my only working bathroom and my clothes closet.”

Lomont-Relayson adds: “We’re trying to arrange people and coordinate things for work, so [ironically] our own houses just sit there [undone].”

But, when posed with the idea of moving from New Orleans, the pair doesn’t flinch. “Other places are great to visit, but this is home,” says Lomont-Relayson.

Besides, Lomont-Relayson believes her firm’s services are needed throughout New Orleans – even if it means working ’round the clock. “The number of jobs – and the number of quotes that we have filed – is enormous.”

Hillery points out, however: “Our main problem is we haven’t changed our strategy, post-Katrina. We still feel like we should bend over backwards for every person who walks through the door – and a lot of people are not doing that.”

While this can be difficult, Lomont-Relayson says: “We don’t want to change what we do. It’s what got us here.”

But while service remains a priority, speed has become a challenge. “Before the storm, you could have someone come in and get a quote done in less than a week,” she offers. “Then as things moved on you could measure the house, turn out a set of drawings and, in a month’s time, be at the point of placing an order for cabinets if the design went well. Now, it takes a lot longer to do a quote, and there are so many more quotes to do. The pile just keeps getting bigger, and the wait gets longer and longer.”

Hillery adds: “We’re bogged down because we’re helping people who have lost their kitchens from the floodwater, or their roof ripped off and they flooded from above. That’s [a majority] of the people. Then you have the people [who had minor damage to their home] and see it as an opportunity to do a full renovation.”

Lomont-Relayson adds: “Right now, we’re at a minimum estimate of six to eight weeks just to get an appointment.”

Hillery estimates that the workload will continue in waves for years. “I think a year from now, we’re going to see contractors and builders buying up houses that otherwise would not sell. A year after that you’ll see residential-type clients coming into the city because of good property values. It could continue for five years,” she says.

As for dealing with the present, she says: “We just have to try and get through it right now and face the rest when it comes. That’s pretty much how New Orleans is about everything, and that’s why people love it here,” she concludes.

Heading Home
With two of the six Singer Kitchens’ showrooms completely destroyed by Katrina – and his immediate family transplanted – Michael Singer strongly considered moving. All it took was one visit to his office to change that.

“I remember coming back to my office [after the three-week evacuation], and even with everything piled up and four inches of water damage to the showroom, I knew this was where I belonged. This is where I’m happy, and this is where I know I want to be.”

But, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still plenty of uncertainty. “In the first couple of weeks, I would wake up in the morning and have no idea what I was going to face that day,” he explains. “We had a lot of employees lose their homes, so I was trying to figure out housing for them. There were insurance matters and we needed to get air conditioning in. Fortunately, we’ve worked through those things and now things have settled into what I call a new level of normalcy.”

With regard to the damage the company sustained, he adds: “One of [our showrooms] in the east area had about eight feet of water, and another – which was actually our original showroom – had about five feet of water. Our three warehouses were also completely flooded, and we lost our inventory.”

“Between our inventory loss, and the damage to our showrooms and warehouses, and delivery trucks, etc., you’re talking well over $1 million in damage,” he reports.

Additionally, Singer’s home – which was across the street from the 17th Street canal – took on eight feet of water, he notes.

Singer, who is now living in an apartment in New Orleans, adds: “I’m just hopeful that we can rebuild. I’m excited to live in New Orleans, and wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Staying turned out to be the right decision, he notes. “I knew there was a tremendous need for us in the city,” he offers. “People were knocking on our doors before we even re-opened.”

Fortunately, most of Singer’s staff returned, as well – except for a couple of salespeople and members of his warehouse staff.

“We opened four stores with one salesperson in each store,” he explains, adding, “We also worked with MasterBrand Cabinets, and we were able – with their help – to start ordering again. We were lucky in that we had very short lead times from the factory.”

Summarizing his company’s philosophy, post-Katrina, he offers: “We are, unlike a lot of the competitors in this market, not closing our doors, and we’re not limiting our hours or who’s coming into our showroom. I don’t want to close the doors, no matter what. I think that just leaves a lasting impression on the public.”

As a contingency plan to the damaged warehouses, Singer is running a temporary location. He offers: “What we’re dealing with right now – and what we have been dealing with since October – are the outlying areas that really didn’t have massive flooding. Those areas have been able to get going quicker and rebuild.”

But he adds: “There is still a lot of uncertainty in Orleans Parish. There have been all sorts of talks about the levees and the political system and, based on that, this could go on for five years or more.”

But that hasn’t kept Singer from moving forward. He points out that the company is finalizing a new, state-of-the-art showroom in Covington.

He concludes: “What the city really needs is for people to come back to visit. We need people to support us now that we’re down. It’s important for people to see what’s going on and to help us with the politics in Washington, so maybe we can get the money needed to fix the levees so this doesn’t happen again.”

In the meantime, the rebuilding process will continue – one kitchen at a time.

Economist Cites Diminishing Hurricane Impact on Materials, Housing Prices

WASHINGTON, DC – While the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be felt for years – or even decades – some of the hurricane-induced problems with building materials are likely to ease within a few months.

This is among the findings reported by Michael Carliner, staff v.p. at The National Association of Home Builders’ economics department, during his “Building Materials Update,” issued in January.

“The devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, mixed with an already record level of residential construction, led to vastly increased demand for some materials – especially those involved in repairs,” he explained.

Specifically, Carliner noted that the hurricanes shut down production facilities for some building products, including oil and gas. Operations that provide raw materials and energy for the production and distribution of building materials were also shut down.

“The persistence of those disruptions has contributed to ongoing problems with the availability and cost of materials,” he pointed out. For instance, he reported that the threat of subsequent hurricanes, as well as demand stemming from repair needs, caused a severe, but temporary, spike in prices for plywood and OSB following Hurricane Katrina.

“Although prices have eased, supplies remain tight,” he added.

Carliner also noted that Katrina actually reduced demand in the short term for concrete and cement. “The long-term rebuilding effort, however, will mean additional demand, and shortages are, therefore, likely for several more years,” he noted.

“Clean up and repair activities will be the main focus during the next year,” he stated, adding that it’s unclear whether repairs or rebuilding will be subject to new, more stringent building codes and/or prohibited in flood-prone areas. He noted that past disasters have often resulted in such new requirements.

Post-Katrina Mardi Gras Stands as Sign Of Home and Hope for New Orleanians

NEW ORLEANS, LA – For many in New Orleans, the reminders of Hurricane Katrina are endless.

But, amid the fallen power lines, “now hiring” signs and debris that’s rampant throughout the city and its outskirts, the people who remain are hopeful.

This was perhaps most clearly evident in the city’s decision to celebrate Mardi Gras in February – providing a much-needed financial, and spiritual, boost to the area.

While some might view it as trivial in the face of the massive rebuilding that still needs to be undertaken, Cameron Kitchen & Bath Designs’ president Jerry Johnson knows better. Rebuilding, he explains, isn’t just about the houses; it’s about the spirit of the city. As he points out, “It’s the history of the city…[and there are many people] employed in the Mardi Gras industry, whether it be producing the floats or creating the costumes. If it puts money in the city coffers – and lets people relax – then it’s a positive thing.”

Despite the event being somewhat tempered (as seen by the cancellation of some parades and the scaled-down versions of floats), the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that this year’s Mardi Gras would bring some $200 million to New Orleans.

And, while some New Orleanians had mixed feelings about continuing the Mardi Gras tradition this year, Johnson believes it’s important to uphold traditions that make residents feel good. And, as he points out, “Not having Mardi Gras is not going to make us rebuild someone’s home any faster.”

Leslie Lomont-Relayson, designer for Cabinets by Design, based here, offers another perspective: “For the diehard New Orleanian, you’re born here, you’re raised here, and you die here, and nothing – not even a hurricane – changes that.”

So Mardi Gras, like life, goes on. She concludes: “[The bottom line is] people love this city too much, and there’s too much money here for people to just abandon it.”

Industry Veteran Provides Much-Needed Relief In the Aftermath of Katrina

NEW ORLEANS, LA – As a 30-plus-year veteran of Mattix Cabinets, Steve Frught had grown accustomed to helping people. Little did he know how much his help would be needed after Hurricane Katrina.

The day after the storm hit, Frught was determined to weather the storm, and initially elected to stay at his home in St. Bernard Parish. But, when the water rose to some six inches, he was forced to leave, using his boat to get to a hurricane-proof building, only to find it locked.

Undeterred, he chose to ride the storm out there, tying his boat to the building. “We saw buildings float by, and an architect’s desk with plans still on it.”

“Then we started hearing screams for help,” he said. Heeding the call, Frught rescued eight people from their flooded homes. The following day, while registering as an evacuee with the Red Cross, he volunteered to help in the relief effort and was deputized by the sheriff.

Working for 16 hours straight, he helped to land supply helicopters, unload supplies and mobilize stranded residents from their homes.

Today, Frught point outs that Katrina has altered his outlook in many ways. In fact, although his own home was a complete loss, he believes that he is quite fortunate.

“I got out of the house with my clothes and my wallet,” he said. “I have insurance and a job to go back to. A lot of people don’t have that.”

In fact, Frught notes that he plans to return to St. Bernard Parish “because it’s a very close-knit community. I want to go back, but don’t plan to for at least two years.”

In the meantime, Frught and his family are living in a mobile home, some 60 miles away. But, he quickly adds: “[In light of what’s happened], it feels like a castle.”
—Chris Thiede

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