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Monday, 31 December 2007 17:00

Big Easy Repair Shops Triumph Over Katrina

Revisiting the New Orleans area collision industry professionals who were affected by Hurricane Katrina over two years ago brings good news and bad news. The good news – the shops that are back in business are staffed and busy with repairs. The bad news – not nearly enough progress has been made on the infrastructure of the city and surrounding areas discouraging residents from returning and new workers from relocating to New Orleans.

With customers ranging from dealerships to independent body shops, Steven Bohte, Mike and Jerry’s Paint and Supply, has his finger on the pulse of the autobody business in greater New Orleans.

 

‘The autobody industry in New Orleans has never been better. Because there are fewer shops dealing with all the work now, everyone is busy. Many of the less efficient shops are out of business for good,” explained Bohte. “Business has never been better. Employees are harder to come by, so everyone is making more money.”


The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in New Orleans, according to Bohte. Some people who lost their homes are taking a shot at opening their own shops. Because there is a shortage of technicians, if the business doesn’t work out, jobs are plentiful.


Predictably, several businesses are having difficulty collecting loss of income insurance. Some insurers are simply refusing to pay.


“But on the other hand,” said Bohte, “one owner is opening another shop with half the employees and twice the amount of work. Employees have become more efficient and make more money.”

Woman power
One shop that was able to reopen was Hingle’s Body Shop in New Orleans, owned by Janet Hingle. She is proud to be the only woman to reopen a shop.

 

“After being flooded with eight feet of water, the shop had to be rebuilt. Without flood insurance, it was a long hard struggle to bring it back,” said Hingle. “Now that it is up and running, business is good, but top notch employees are still hard to find.”


Two of her workers helped in the rebuilding process. Todd Hoffman’s Tools for Techs stepped in, helping re-equip the shop and providing tools for the technicians. It took hard work and determination but gradually things improved. The government was late to the party, taking a year to provide funds.


Hingle has been running her shop for about fifteen years. For twelve years, she ran the business, which was started by her father, with her sister. The last three years she has been on her own.


“We are survivors!” proclaimed Hingle.


Bigger and better
“Things are going well right now. We are very busy,” said Jim Reed, Cadillac of Metairie. “For the most part, we have an adequate staff. Finding quality technicians is really a universal problem. Most of the people here now worked with me prior to the storm.


“It was fortunate that we did not suffer a lot of flooding at the dealership. Just a couple of feet of water and some wind damage. We have actually increased the size of the facility by 60%.”


Reed’s brother Doug did not fare as well. He has not reopened his shop.

On the home front
Now that the shops are up and running, many owners and staff are still fighting to stabilize their living situations. Dealing with the federal government is a long, tedious project. Programs established to make up for insurance company shortfalls are also painfully slow.


Bohte’s house sustained heavy damage and his insurer gave him half of what it would cost to restore the house to its pre-Katrina condition. When he questioned the adjuster, he was told he was lucky to get what he did.


Jim Reed almost casually mentioned that his house in Chalmette had 16 feet of water and had to be rebuilt. The painting has just started and he expects to be back in his house soon after over two years.

 

“Only 30% of the residents have returned to Chalmette,” explained Reed. “The infrastructure is not back. We are lacking a sewage system and there is still no hospital here.”

Bottom line
Bohte emphasized that “we still need a lot of help down here. There is a lot of work to be done. Come visit the Gulf Coast. The casinos and clubs are open. If you have a New Orleans state of mind, you may decide to stay.”

 

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