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Hattiesburg retailers, others see busy, busy days in Katrina

Huge impact from evacuees continues for businesses

Hattiesburg — Thousands of people from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans fleeing Hurricane Katrina went to Hattiesburg and, from businesses to traffic to hotels, these evacuees have had a huge impact, though it may never be known just how many of them have been in Hattiesburg at any given time.

“There’s been a major surge in business,” said Angie Dvorak, president of the Area Development Partnership (ADP). “Hotels are at an all-time high. The hotel occupancy rate went from between 83% and 86% up to 100%.”

Hattiesburg merchants experienced a two-week sales slump in early September and many expected the fall shopping period, right through Christmas, to be bleak. Now, however, businesses anticipate fall and holiday sales that could set a Hattiesburg record.

Randy Price, who owns Price & Co. (a clothing store), said that his October business “is 50% higher than it was in the same time frame last year.”

Jerry Buti of Go Young Fashions in downtown Hattiesburg said that it’s too bad that the growth in Hattiesburg is due to the evacuees from the hurricane.

“It’s unfortunate that people have to buy new belongings. But it’s going to be positive for business.”

The sales that clothing stores might have lost because local people have had to spend their money on repairing their homes and replacing their roofs has been offset by the spending of people from the Coast.

Go Young Fashions’ Big and Tall department has drawn a steady flow of customers seeking the clothes that no other store in South Mississippi now offers. Buti said that many of his current customers once shopped on the Gulf Coast or in New Orleans but that now “a lot of the stores may not be there any more.”

A spokesperson for Turtle Creek Mall said that despite having several of its stores, including two anchor stores, closed due to Katrina, September sales were 30% above September 2004 and that Turtle Creek expects a very strong fall season.

Crowded roadways

Since Katrina hit August 29, a traffic count by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) indicates that thousands of additional vehicles are traveling major streets and highways in Hattiesburg. This includes some 4,000 more vehicles a day on a stretch of U.S. 49.

Ricky Lee, an MDOT district engineer, said that the traffic problems are often made worse by “lumbering, debris-removal trucks and by roads that were already crowded before Katrina.”

“I think it’s calmed down,” he added. “But there’s still more traffic than there was before Katrina.”

“Based on what’s happening on the Coast, we feel like some people are permanently relocating to Hattiesburg,” Jeff Altman, MDOT engineering analysis manager, said.

Though the impact by the evacuees has been obvious, the ADP said that there are no hard numbers available for the total of evacuees in Hattiesburg, either at their peak in the city or now.

“It depends on how you define evacuee,” Dvorak said. “There has been a fluid number of evacuees. Some went back after a few days. Some have been here since the hurricane. There are even some evacuees who commute from Jackson to work in Hattiesburg, because there’s no housing for them here.”

Dvorak said that the ADP is “still crunching data” but that any talk about the number of evacuees is speculation.

As far as Gulf Coast businesses relocating permanently in Hattiesburg, Dvorak said, “We haven’t seen that pattern. There’s been no surge of business relocation in Hattiesburg.”
Dvorak added that, “We’re committed to trying to help sister economic organizations on the Coast.”

What we have seen, Dvorak said, is that companies have been coming through here and considering Hattiesburg because, “Hattiesburg is a major artery with north, south, east and west connections. The Hattiesburg infrastructure remained intact after Katrina. They look at a Hattiesburg location as an opportunity to serve a broad south Coast market from Florida to Texas.”

Hotel occupancy remains at capacity because, as evacuees have left Hattiesburg, out-of-town workers connected to the hurricane — FEMA, Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Power, BellSouth — have replaced the departed evacuees.
There’s also the constant factor of the thousands of troops being trained for Iraq at nearby Camp Shelby and their family members who need a place to stay.

The area’s medical facilities also felt the impact of the evacuees, and for Wesley Medical Center, that impact came before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. By late afternoon the day before the hurricane, Wesley began accepting patients from Slidell and a total of 41 were housed throughout several locations. Ten nurses and a nurse manager accompanied the Slidell patients.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, the number of patients in the Wesley emergency room tripled and many of these were evacuees.

Hattiesburg Clinic, despite severe water and power loss problems, was able to provide dialyses for its patients and 50 of these were evacuees.

Developing synergy

In early November, the Hattiesburg City Council voted to support a Hurricane Recovery Strategic Task Force, a committee formed by the ADP immediately after Katrina. A regional master plan for long-term development of Forrest and Lamar counties and their cities, post-Katrina, will give the area a much stronger voice in pushing for recovery needs, said co-chairman Bill Ray.

No area north of I-10 suffered more than the Pine Belt, and Ray emphasized that the area has to present a united front for the Hattiesburg meeting of Gov. Haley Barbour’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal.

Dvorak said that the task force and the commission “have parallel concerns” and that the groups should be able to “develop a synergy.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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