Just glad to be here
Steve Allen, owner of Allen Plumbing Company in Gulfport, may share his name with a famous television icon, but he said he doesn’t share that icon’s paycheck.
Founded by his father in 1951, Allen Plumbing started out small, servicing homes in Harrison County. Long before Hurricane Katrina would devastate his hometown, the younger Allen already had very vivid memories of another infamous storm. Hurricane Camille, a monstrous system that came ashore in August 1969, killed 259 and set all the floodwater records on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the next thirty years. The Allen family went without power following that storm for six weeks.
Allen said he took over the company after his father retired in 2003 and eventually steered it towards a completely commercial operation that dealt only with subcontractors. He had just bought and remodeled a new building on 34th Street in Gulfport when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore.
“We were prepared for the storm,” Allen said. “We weren’t prepared for the water.” While Allen was waiting for paperwork regarding his building’s elevation to go through, an eight-foot storm surge from the storm washed through his building and destroyed all of his trucks, equipment and company records. “We didn’t have flood insurance and ended up being in the flood zone,” he said. Allen’s two-story home was also flooded. “We lived close to Gulfport Lake, two-and-a-half feet higher than the Camille flood markers,” Allen said. “We didn’t know we’d ever flood.”
In addition to taking in 16 of his friends and neighbors, the Allens also managed to rescue two children from a nearby rooftop by swimming out to them with an inflatable dinghy and guiding them back to their home. The Allens have since sold the Gulfport Lake house and moved to higher ground in the Bayou View neighborhood.
“Even though it was a bad storm and a lot of damage the Lord used it to bring out the best in everybody,” Allen said. Another Gulfport company loaned Allen Plumbing three of their trucks that allowed the Allen’s employees to get back to work, putting their signs temporarily over the other company’s signs. “From a business standpoint, although we all knew each other and would wave when we saw each other, (after the storm) we became closer,” Allen said. “Our guys had to work so we brought everybody in.” While his company did do its fair share of free plumbing immediately after the storm, it has fully recovered and is now caught up in the glut of FEMA projects that are available in the area from community centers to fire stations.
The biggest challenge Gulf Coast businesses are facing right in a post-Katrina world are skyrocketing insurance costs, according to Allen. His new office is on 16th Street in downtown Gulfport, north of the railroad tracks. He said he collected over a quarter of his insurance claims in roof damage thanks to wind coverage. “I think the recovery is handcuffed by insurance. We’ve had several large projects that have fallen aside because of insurance,” Allen said. ” I’m a big fan of the multi-peril insurance policies. If we could get that going I think you would see the Coast do a lot better. You’d see a lot more restaurants and hotels.”
Steve Allen has seen more than a thousand Gulfport sunrises and sunsets since that horrible morning in August and he said the memories have faded a bit in that amount of time.
“It was a tough decision to stay,” he said. “We had nothing. It was all gone and my first reaction was not to open the business, not to rebuild but to shut it down.” After giving it some thought he changed his mind. “We had really good employees and they’d been with us a long time and so we rebuilt,” he said. “It was a very stressful time. You wake up one morning and your house is mostly destroyed, all your possessions are gone, your business is gone, your building is gone.”
“I was watching something on the TV and they were showing footage of all the destruction. It’s a good feeling to know that you’ve been able to recover from it. I’m certainly glad now that I didn’t close the business. I’m glad I’m still here.”
MORE ON … Allen Plumbing Company
Year Opened: 1951
Reopened: Sept. 2005
Key to Survival: “Strong faith in the Lord and a great wife and family. We did a lot of the work ourselves because we didn’t have a lot of money to pay for everything.”