Newspapers in some of the areas most severely hit by Hurricane Katrina chronicle the storm and its aftermath.

As officials continue to tally the damage from Hurricane Katrina the initial consensus is that the toll will exceed any previous natural disaster in the U.S. Among those suffering major losses are floor covering retailers in the area who either lost their store completely or had structural and inventory damage. At the same time, the early September crisis prompted an outpouring of assistance from trade organizations and others in the floor covering industry eager to reach out to those in the affected areas.

"This is much, much worse that anything we have ever seen and it is going to be a while before we even know how severe the damage is," said D. Christopher Davis president and CEO of the World Floor Covering Association. He estimated that at least 25 floor covering stores are in the areas of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana hit hardest by the hurricane. "Their safety is our top concern," he said.

Davis noted that WFCA was working with suppliers to seek extended financial terms for retail members who are likely to experience cash flow difficulties. He added that WFCA will waive dues for members in the area, a move that was also enacted by the National Wood Flooring Association. While he noted that floor covering dealers have traditionally played a major role in post-hurricane reconstruction, the Katrina situation is complicated by the collapse of bridges and other infrastructure components.

One retailer in the area reached by NFT, Keith Rhodes, the owner of three stores in the Gulf area of Mississippi, said his Rug Décor store in Gulfport Miss. was "a total loss." He added that his two GCO Flooring Outlets, one in Gulfport and the other in Gautier, had "some damage" including the loss of five rolls of carpet and outdoor signage. Rhodes noted that after hearing that one of his employees lost his home and all his possessions, a supplier, International Wholesale Tile of Palm City, Fla., sent a trunk of clothes for him and others in the community.

"Other suppliers have called and asked how they could help," said Rhodes, who runs the company with his wife Vicki. "We have had great support from the community and great support from outside communities. FEMA was great! We have all the water, ice, and [meals ready to eat] we could ever want."

In some instances, the help came from floor covering retailers outside the immediate area. For example, Dennis Cattin, the owner of Gallatin Valley Furniture Carpet One in Gallatin Valley, Mont., joined forces with a local bakery and a trucking company to send a truckload of bread goods to hurricane evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston. Additionally, the local sheriff's department heard about the relief effort and added 120 dolls and blankets for youngsters.

Stephen Silverman, president and COO of the 1,000 store co-op Abbey Carpet Co., said it has about 35 members in the affected areas. He noted the initial assessment indicated that "a relatively small number of members have had their stores completely destroyed." Most were in or around New Orleans and were lost to flood damage. Silverman said Abbey members in adjoining regions are being asked to travel to affected area to check on fellow members. "We are working with the stores on an individual basis to get them what they need and our hand is out to help them," said Silverman who noted that he has never seen a more severe disaster in his 39 years in the flooring business.

The Carpet One co-op said the preliminary indications are that "most members" in the area escaped serious injury or damage. Still the company added that "many have reported damages to their stores and homes ranging from broken windows and scattered debris to flooding and power outages."

In terms of assessing the overall damage to the areas, the initial indications are grim. A preliminary report issued by the National Association of Home Builders noted that the number of homes lost is likely to greatly exceed any previous disaster. NAHB says that more than 200,000 New Orleanshomes have been rendered "permanently uninhabitable" by flooding. In contrast, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which is widely regarded as the largest natural disaster to hit the US, destroyed 28,000 homes and other buildings.

- Al Stewart