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BRIAN WATT: Hurricane Katrina drove one in three New Orleans businesses out of town or permanently out of business. As many as 18,000 closed their doors. Some of the ones that survived are now facing down another force of nature: the long, hot Louisiana summer. From the Crescent City, Bill Zeeble reports that some businesses are having a tough time keeping cool.
BILL ZEEBLE: Tracy Thomson has spent the last seven years designing and selling custom hats from her shop, Kabuki Hats, in the French Quarter.
For most of that time, she’s done a brisk business catering to the tourist crowds milling through the Quarter’s narrow streets. But these days customer visits are so infrequent, she often closes early, dropping in for coffee at a nearby cafe.
Last year just before Katrina hit, Thomson fled to Maine and lost two months of business while waiting for the official OK to return.
TRACY THOMSON: I reopened October 21st I had a lot of pretty good business then. I had a lot of people who had lost the hats that I had made. They had collections of upward of 15 hats. People were buying again, they were trying to make themselves happy. We had a wonderful Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and then things just slowed down.
The New Orleans economy rises and falls on its tourism trade.
Most merchants know they’ve got to sock away money during the busy season to survive the summer months. That’s when Louisiana’s oppressive heat keeps most visitors away. But this year, tourism rates were about 60% below normal, and many businesses weren’t able save for the dog days.
Kelly Schulz with the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau says many tourism-dependent businesses are on edge.
KELLY SCHULZ:“If we can get thru the summer, we feel like we’re going to be OK.”
But Tracy Thomson isn’t sure she’ll make it that far. On one recent weekend, she’d sold just two hats. If the trend continues, she might have only weeks before she closes for good.
Just across the street from Kabuki Hats, Roy Maggio and his wife have run a gallery specializing in original Cuban art for 6 years. He calls this the worst summer he can remember. And he’s had to rethink his business model to get by.
ROY MAGGIO:“Before Katrina we tried to make this gallery predominately original art. Now we have a few reproductions, photos laminated on wood, small things like that in the $20 range.”
Maggio also moonlights as truck driver to keep the lights on and the bills paid.
MAGGIO:“We’ll struggle along till the bitter end just ’cause we love what we’re doing here. If I was trying to make good financial sense I would have closed right after Katrina, immediately.”
Now all Maggio and merchants like him can do is wait for the heat to subside and hope the tourists to return.
In a normal year, that’s right around October. But here in the Crescent City a year after Hurricane Katrina, things are anything but normal.
In New Orleans, I’m Bill Zeeble for Marketplace.
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