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Time to party and maintain the struggle

John Dimsdale Feb 19, 2007

Time to party and maintain the struggle

John Dimsdale Feb 19, 2007

BOB MOON: It’s music to their ears in New Orleans. The crowds are back for Mardi Gras. Hotels are full and the French Quarter is packed with partiers. It’s a bit of hope for a city still struggling a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale has been following some small businesses since the big flood. He brings us this update.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Dave Gladden, the CEO of New Orleans wine distributor and retailer Wines Unlimited, shows off the gleaming new office space.

DAVE GLADDEN: This is a computer room. We had three feet of water in here.

Weeks of high humidity and stagnant water brought in by Hurricane Katrina destroyed the company’s warehouse, and destroyed one of Gladden’s two shops. The company had to lay off a hundred of its 216 employees.

To fight back, Wines Unlimited decided to expand as quickly as possible. They’ve opened two more retail outlets, and they’re back up to 140 employees. Ultimately, Gladden says, they’ve turned the disaster into an opportunity.

GLADDEN: I personally think by the time it’s all over, by 2011, we will be a lot better than we were. I think we were a very good company. This has brought out the best in everybody. Everybody’s done exactly what they had to do and more. So. In the long run, it will be a very, very good outcome for us.

But not every small business has been able to come back so quickly.

Marianne Lewis and her mother run three women’s clothing shops in the French Quarter. Lewis says her business has dropped by more than half since the storm. She says the convention business, which is New Orleans’s lifeblood in non-Mardi Gras times, hasn’t returned.

MARIANNE LEWIS: A lot of the convention travelers who do come back, they are booked from the time from the convention, they don’t actually get time to stroll around the quarter and spend some money. It’s a hard thing, if they do have a day off, they’ve been organized to do volunteer work and go out and gut houses. Which is fabulous. I mean houses need to be gut. But then they have no time to actually enjoy the quarter.

Crime is up, houses and schools are only slowly coming back. Insurance rates are rising, if available at all. Anecdotally, at least, some of the families that came back to rebuild after the storm are giving up.

Kathleen Norman, who has yet to rebuild her small shipping business, was without a phone and Internet connection for more than a year after the storm.

KATHLEEN NORMAN: I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think about leaving. At least consider it. It’s depressing. There are good things happening. I know that there are. But we don’t hear about them.

But she is still here, trying to keep her business afloat. She, like many business owners, say they’re getting little support from the government. Local officials, they say, are swamped by the magnitude of the problems. And many New Orleanians fear they’ve fallen off the national radar screen.

NORMAN: It’s a difficult time to be here. Sometimes I think the city and state and feds would like us all to leave. That’s when I dig in and say this is my city and say no, you can’t have it.

Many business people here, even those doing well, say it’s likely to be another five years before Katrina’s fiscal scars will heal.

In New Orleans, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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