Coast businesses dealing with range of storm-related losses

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Published: September 8,2008

After avoiding major destruction from Hurricane Gustav — for the most part — Mississippi Gulf Coast businesses spent the next few days re-opening for customers. Cleared of huge deposits of sand, U.S. 90 re-opened Wednesday to join other roadways that opened Tuesday following the storm on Monday.

Because September 1 was a holiday, some businesses would have been closed anyway and therefore felt less pain from the storm closing. For others, such as casinos and car dealerships, losing the long holiday weekend was a problem.

Allen Toyota in Gulfport had planned on big sales on Labor Day with an extension of August incentives and much of the public off work. “It would have been a good day,” says sales associate Caleb Hill. “We had an extra day of incentives for the month.”

Employees of the dealership spent much of Saturday and Sunday preparing for the storm by moving all cars away from the street and trees. Hill said it took hours to move all cars into a tightly packed circle in an effort to protect them from possible flying debris.

“We had no trouble getting our employees back and re-opening the day after the storm,” he added. “No one had any major damage. Now we’re starting a new month with new incentives so we’re up and running and excited. We’re also pleased that gas prices did not go up.”

It was a different story for optometrist Bill Barker of Crossroads Family Vision, who also opened the day after the storm. “Some of my employees evacuated out of the state and couldn’t make it back to work on Tuesday,” he said. “So I took my 10-year-old granddaughter to work with me to answer the phone. Very few patients came in. I guess they thought we would not be open.”

Southern Grounds Coffee House also faced challenges re-opening. Owner Scott King says coordinating with staff to get them back on board and inventory issues were the major obstacles to overcome after a three-day closure.

“There’s a real inventory issue for food and beverage businesses. There’s spoilage and getting supplies back in. Some of the suppliers are having difficulties, too,” he said. “A closure hits us particularly hard.”

King, who also works with the Gulf Coast Business Council as a marketing researcher, points out that small businesses are especially vulnerable to unexpected closures.

“Many typically operate as cash businesses and don’t have a lot of reserve funds,” he said. “They have two or three days of no sales but still have to pay the rent and the payroll. Losing one day of sales can be a payroll check. Now at my business, we’re starting the month on September 3 instead of the first and that hurts.”

In addition to employee and inventory issues, small businesses may have to deal with losses due to power outages, physical damage to buildings and arranging for fresh or new inventory. Their customer base might be affected, too, either by not being back in town or sustaining losses of their own that affect buying decisions. Many small businesses had also depended on the big holiday weekend and felt a double whammy from being closed, King said.

“Finally, getting the word out that you are back in business must be dealt with, too,” he said. “There is a cost to do this and advertising is not cheap.”

The area’s 11 casinos were locked down during what would have been a busy three-day weekend. As soon as the re-opening signal was given by the Mississippi Gaming Commission, casino employees were alerted to return on Wednesday.

The Island View Casino Resort opened for business at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. “It is a great relief to see that the Mississippi Gulf Coast seems to have fared well overall in Hurricane Gustav,” said co-owner Rick Carter. “The property sustained minimal damage, mostly to the landscaping that faces the Gulf of Mexico. We are truly thankful that the resort is in good shape. Our friends, family and team members are, to the best of our knowledge, safe.”

All Hancock Bank locations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were open for business the day after the storm. Approximately 25% of the Louisiana offices were open as bank officials assessed the circumstances that would affect customer and employee safety in that state.

Hancock Holding Company chief operations officer Shane Loper said the bank’s customer service call center was also functioning, and the company did not experience any internal issues with ATM operation, debit cards, ACH transactions, Internet banking, statement rendering or wire operations.

“We began assessing damage to all the company’s branches even as Gustav still roared along a southwestern track through cities such as Baton Rouge and Alexandria,” he said. “Reports indicate no significant damage to Mississippi locations and minimal damage to Louisiana facilities.”

He credited Hancock Bank’s associates’ commitment to a comprehensive business continuity plan for the system’s quick re-opening.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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