Stores struggle to meet supply needs after hurricanes

Rita LeBleu

With the double punch of two hurricanes and a global pandemic, local stores say they are having trouble meeting the supply needs of Southwest Louisiana residents trying to recover.

When Gov. John Bel Edwards issued initial stay-at-home orders last March, Southwest Louisiana residents who could afford to do so dove into home improvement projects.      

“People were investing more in their homes because they couldn’t travel or engage in their usual social activities,” Home Furniture CEO Tony Kemp said. “And they weren’t just buying new furniture; they were busy building outside living areas, painting inside and out, landscaping and putting down new floors.”

Eric Martzahn of South City Paint said after implementing curbside pickup, the store continued to do a brisk business in paint.    

“This past spring was exceptionally busy,” said Greengate Garden Center Manager Joshua Keith. “Customers were focusing on landscaping and starting home gardens.”

The Home Improvement Research Institute said Americans are expected to have spent $439.9 billion to spruce things up around the house including creating home offices or home-schooling spaces in 2020.

But the same COVID restrictions that had people itching to improve the home also curtailed home improvement services, production and manufacturing.

For instance, Greengate Garden Center had difficulties keeping vegetable and herb seeds in stock. Vendor lead times at Home Furniture, which ranged from one week to two months before COVID, doubled.

Local businesses said they adapted as best they could to the restrictions, offering curbside pickup, contactless delivery and online options. But as spikes in coronavirus cases blazed through major hubs for appliance shipping and manufacturing in China, the U.S. and Mexico, factories slowed down and limited the number of workers, or closed.

Back-to-back hurricanes in Southwest Louisiana would follow, creating an even greater demand for home building materials, furniture, appliances and landscaping.

Larry Wright of C&C Audio, Video and Appliance said he remembers how the demand for appliances increased after Hurricane Rita in 2005.

“We knew what was coming and we had to get ready,” he said.   

Before he and his family returned from evacuating, he received a photo of the building and knew he would have to move. He wasn’t the only business owner who received such news.

Wright said he is thankful for the help of friends in finding space in a city of commercial properties with twisted or missing roofs, crumbled brick, downed wires, missing signage and busted glass, but the new location is far from ideal.

“We went from 15,000 square feet to four,” he said.

Wright, like other business owners has resorted to hiring an attorney to handle his business insurance claim.

“It took 33 days to reopen the store,” he said.

He described it as “horrible” — not only because he did no business for 33 days or because people needed appliances after the hurricanes and started calling his private cell phone number — but because he has nearly 30 employees who depend on him for their livelihoods.

Small businesses employ about 50 percent of the workforce, according to George Swift, president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance.

“My wife and I sat down,” Wright said. “This is how much money we have. How are we going to pay everybody?”

They decided to pay every employee.

“You do that hoping you’ll recoup that money,” he said.

Customers are getting frustrated because of the lag time between order and delivery. Wright has helped with deliveries.

Like other local business owners, he’s hoping customers will keep coming.

“It’s just tough, but not as tough as some have it,” he said. “I know restaurant owners holding on by a thread. Every single sale is important.”Electrical workers continued repairs to power lines on Ryan Street on Sept. 7, nine days after Hurricane Laura struck the area.

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