Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, killed at least 1,000 people in Louisiana and turned New Orleans into a vast flood zone. A pair of New Orleans-area dealers recall the aftermath of the storm and how it changed their business.
New Orleans dealers recall aftermath of the storm
Troy Duhon recalls August 2005 with complete clarity.
He was sitting in his father's house in Lafayette, La., miles from his own home in New Orleans, watching TV news reporters describe leveled buildings, thousands of fallen trees and unprecedented flooding.
"I remember being in front of the TV when CNN showed a helicopter view of a dealership with cars totally underwater," Duhon said. "Then I realized it was mine."
His Toyota of New Orleans dealership sat less than a mile from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, whose surging waters toppled levees and poured into the city's streets.
The storm was a heavy blow to the region and its businesses, but it gave Duhon the impetus to expand. Before the storm, he owned five dealerships and employed 500 people, all in the New Orleans area. Since the storm, Duhon's Premier Automotive Group has grown to encompass 20 stores and about 1,500 employees in several states.
Duhon figured: "If we can survive Katrina, we can survive anything, so let's expand."
The storm also shifted priorities in New Orleans. In the aftermath, Duhon recalls, "My dad told me, 'You go back and take care of your employees, because they are the ones that are going to determine if you are going to make it.'"
Duhon took that advice to heart, transforming his Honda store into a food pantry for employees and others in need, and setting up a tent with relief supplies in front of his other dealership about a month after the storm hit.
Ten years later, his old Mitsubishi store functions as a full-time soup kitchen, preparing 800 hot meals a day. Duhon is also president of Giving HOPE, a charity that supports a food pantry and other community initiatives in New Orleans.
"Katrina came in different forms," Duhon said. "But the whole Katrina story for me was realizing there was a bigger purpose than selling cars and making money."
Laurie McCants is ready for the next Katrina.
Her Honda dealership in Covington, La., just north of Lake Pontchartrain, managed to reopen a week after the storm, but “I didn’t really have the staff that we needed,” McCants said.
Seventy percent of her employees had bolted, figuring it would take months for the store to get back on its feet. As for the ones who remained, many later left to remove drywall or clear debris, jobs that now paid a premium.
“Even managers that made six figures a year would leave to go cut trees,” McCants said. “They could make $1,000 a day in some cases.”
McCants stayed put, even during the hurricane, too worried about the potential damage to her dealership and employees to go anywhere. And she’s glad she did.
“Staying here and watching Katrina has made me more prepared for future hurricanes,” McCants said.
When she moved her Honda dealership into a new building in 2008, the first must-have on her list was a massive backup generator.
McCants wanted to ensure that her store could stay open and provide a refuge for her employees if another disaster struck.
“In evacuation mode here, their families could have electricity, refrigerators, air conditioning or coffee,” McCants said. “You would be surprised how many air mattresses fit in a dealership showroom.”
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