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Resilient businesses reopen; need more customers

Three weeks after devastating Hurricane Katrina, many Coast businesses are going to great lengths to reopen — whether they are serving insurance customers who might have lost their homes and businesses, people who need a haircut, or food to someone who hasn’t had a hot meal for a while.

“Everyone is happiest about the restaurants reopening,” said Reed Guice, president of The Guice Agency. “And I see we may have a movie theater opening tomorrow. That is nice for people who still don’t have air conditioning. It is plain to me that business on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is recovering quickly. People are finding a way to reach and serve their customers.”

Guice said his offices in downtown Biloxi on the top floor of the old library are in good shape except it doesn’t have electricity and phones because the bottom floor of the building was heavily damaged. The Guice Agency staff has temporarily relocated to an office in Hattiesburg.

“So we are fully functional,” Guice said. “I’m staying here on the Coast and dealing with clients face to face. Stewart Sneed Hewes Insurance is one of our clients, and their offices in Gulfport have been closed because of a mold problem. They have set up mobile offices on the corner of Cowan and Pass roads, and we have been helping them get the word out about their location and new phone number so customers know how to make their claims.”

Stewart Sneed Hewes/BancorpSouth, which is the largest independent insurance agency in the state, has also set up an office in Jackson with a claims center there, as well, where they have Internet and full connectivity.

“It is just a heroic effort to reach their customers and policy holders,” Guice said, adding that many other businesses in South Mississippi are also going to great lengths to reopen.

Some Coast businesses are open, but unable to get telephone calls from clients. Three weeks after the storm, the Coast phone system was still sporadic, with callers often getting “all circuits busy” messages or no answers. Partly because of that problem, and in part because of hurricane damage, a lot of business related to the hurricane has been going to Mobile.

“All the cars in Mississippi that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina are being towed to Mobile for repairs,” said a dispatcher at a towing company based in Mobile.

Coast hotels able to open after the storm have had plenty of customers. But, because of damages at many hotels and problems getting through by phone, combined with the influx of insurance adjusters and relief workers, the hotels in Mobile are getting a lot of the overflow from Coast.

Some Coast businesses have already thrown in the towel, and won’t reopen. According to statistics from the SBA, an estimated 40% of small businesses fold following being affected by a natural disaster.

Ron Aldridge, NFIB’s state director, said it is important to get Mississippi businesses reopened, and for customers to support them.

“We need to get some things back to normal as quickly as possible so the economy does progress,” Aldridge said. “Don’t delay in doing some of your normal routine because these folks are trying to meet payroll for employees and aren’t having anyone coming though the door for sales. They have sunk what capital they did have into making quick repairs to get open. The bottom line is we have to support our businesses with our pocketbook.”

Moving inland

While the Coast was the hardest hit, other areas of South Mississippi like Wiggins, Laurel and Hattiesburg also had a lot of damage. Aldridge said he understood a lot of FEMA resources are going to the hardest hit areas. But he thinks it would help the Coast economy to get the areas off the Coast that were less damaged up and running so some of the post-hurricane business could go north off the Coast rather than east into Mobile.

“We need to come inland to get those in that middle area up and running as soon as possible,” Aldridge said. “It will benefit the Coast for that to happen, to have support services to the north.”

Joy Peterson, public relations manager for the Hattiesburg Area Development Partnership (ADP), said most Hattiesburg area businesses were shut down for a week to 10 days because of downed trees and lack of power. But three weeks after the storm, most businesses were back up and running.

“Our staff is calling every ADP member to touch base with them,” Peterson said. “A couple of industries have had major damage, and we are working with them to help them get up and running. Several businesses have had to relocate to different areas. Overall, businesses fared pretty well. They are just some resilient folks. This is their livelihood. Everybody is working like crazy to get everything back to normal.”

Real estate in demand

There has been a huge demand for vacant commercial and residential properties in Hattiesburg. Peterson said most apartments, homes and commercial space has been rented out. The ADP is updating its Web site two to three times a day to have the most current information available about the market.

“We still have some space left, but inquiries for more are non-stop,” she said. “It’s been very busy.”

Sue Wright, executive director of the George County Economic Development Foundation, said most businesses are operational three weeks after the storm. But the lack of reliable phone service is restricting communications and making it difficult for some businesses to function effectively.

“The effects of Katrina are still lingering and complicating recovery,” Wright said. “The loss or slowdown of businesses is hurting us. People are just not spending at normal levels. Businesses had the costs to get ready for the storm, and then costs to cleanup and repair after the storm. But their customers are postponing or foregoing purchases.”

Wright said other problems include industries whose customers on the Coast are not yet functioning, leaving the George County subcontractors without work.
vContact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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