So we started calling: Is everyone alright? How are you holding up? How severe is the damage? What are you going to do in the immediate future? Is there anything we can do? The ones we spoke to generally said, yes, their world had been turned upside down, but they were still standing. They were the lucky ones. ("We're alive," said one distributor in a city near the Gulf, adding "That has to count for something.") We wished them well, swallowed hard and dialed someone else in the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama Gulf corridor ransacked by Katrina.
Most said they were scrambling to reestablish contact and ultimately determine the extent of the damage. Many assumed the worse but, like a bumpy plane landing, the ability to walk away was seen as the standard for success. And naturally it was nearly impossible to get through to the areas hardest hit.
Those who have lived through past hurricanes agreed this one was different. Other storms and floods would be cleaned up and the initial business slump was more than offset by the demand for flooring generated by the ensuing construction boom. One industry veteran said they used to refer to hurricanes as "urban renewal" for their ability to tear up the old and bring in something new. But the storms he was thinking of were mere fender-benders compared to this pile-up. This one took down the infrastructure and destroyed things that had stood for generations. A retailer in Mississippi said he was lucky: Only one of his three stores was a total loss.
Just 75 miles north of New Orleans, Baton Rouge was up and running-and teeming with evacuees. It had seen its population swell as more and more people fled from the south. Maybe the picture was a bit brighter. So we called. Retailers said they were hearing from a few people trying to fix up spaces that would be rented out to evacuees. But they also said all their installation jobs were cancelled and walk-in business was, to no one's surprise, nonexistent.
"Did you consider closing up shop until things are a little more settled?" we asked. "No," said a retailer in Baton Rouge who had seen his floor covering business dip to virtually nothing. "This is what we do," he continued in a matter-of-fact tone that belied the crisis still unfolding. "We have a business to run."
For whatever good it would do, we encouraged people to use the bulletin board on our web site (www.ntlfloortrends.com) to share and gather information about the storm. And we were certainly pleased that a number of people in the industry contacted us. But they, of course, were the ones who pulled through okay. Others, not so lucky, would be unlikely to have bare necessities, let alone computer access.
We also saw gestures big and small that were aimed at offering some measure of comfort: The World Floor Covering Association and the National Wood Flooring Association, for example, immediately said they would waive any dues owed by members in the region. The NWFA also said it would set up a program to encourage members to loan tools and equipment to colleagues in need. We heard about a Carpet One retailer in Montana who loaded up a truck with food and sent it to the Astrodome.
No doubt there will be other acts of kindness and humanity. And after a cleanup of monumental proportions, a building boom will unfold along the Gulf Coast. There will be thousands of floors to sell and install. There will be brisk business and life will go on. But right now, surveying the endless wreck, watching folks flee or sort thought the twisted debris that was once their home, building back lives will have to take precedent over re-building business.