Two Years Later: One New Orleans Dealer's Amazing Grace

Company opened to serve victims while putting its own pieces back together
Christina Lewellen
August 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Amazing Windows & Doors isn’t just helping victims of Hurricane Katrina—it is itself a victim of the storm and its devastating aftermath. The roof of the Metairie, La., building flew off during the storm, leaving the company’s entire inventory exposed to pounding winds and rainwater. Standing water rose above filing cabinets and computers, wiping out years of records and a six-month-old remodeled showroom. And the one room in the entire facility that was untouched by grouchy rain or floodwater, a room that stored some of the company’s high-end products and trim, was looted by post-storm vultures wandering the streets.

Spending one day with the owners, John Roberts and Perry Poche, as they expounded the barely believable, first-hand accounts of the now two-year Hurricane Katrina narrative, the question begged to be asked: Why did they stay? It’s easy to see the haunted looks in their eyes, and there are fleeting moments throughout the day—every day—when they make no attempt to hide it. They are tired; they are different. But they are also proud, perhaps a little stubborn, and to the customers and employees they worked tirelessly to serve in the months and years following the storm, they are heroic.
 

“My hat goes off to them for doing something we would all hope to have the courage and strength to do if we were in their shoes,” says Matthew O’Shea, marketing coordinator for Neuma Doors, one of Amazing’s suppliers. O’Shea has made regular visits to Amazing as the company has rebuilt after the storm.

“[Amazing] is a family. We spend more hours each day with each other than our kids or wives, and a lot of that time is spent talking. The more stories we have shared, the more trust has been built and the closer the whole company has gotten. We as suppliers have been let into this world because we have been there...to listen and in some way help them heal. I know more about the every day battles over the last two years of the people at Amazing than I do about most of my own extended family.”

Just as tens of thousands of other buildings and homes sat saturated with feet of polluted floodwater for weeks following the levees breach, the Amazing location had to be gutted to its skeleton in most areas of the facility before a single element of renovation could begin. The backbreaking work of starting from scratch on the building was nothing compared to the heart-breaking work of starting from scratch with the structure of the business, the owners recall. “When we came back, our entire business changed,” says Roberts. “We were the only window and door business devastated in the area. We lost everything. We wanted to stay closed, but our loyal customers for years were knocking on the door. We couldn’t tell them no.”

So Roberts and Poche opened before they were physically or emotionally ready, rebuilt their business one exhausting day at a time, and fulfilled the business’s prophetic name by growing into a truly amazing survivor of Hurricane Katrina.

RELIVING THE DAYS FOLLOWING THE STORM
Amazing is a much different company than when Roberts, Poche and one other former business partner started the specialty window and door retail shop in 1997. The dealer’s business was about 99 percent new construction before the storm, and has since gone to about 80 percent replacement. The company grew relatively quickly, brushing up against $1 million in sales its very first year, and jumping right over the milestone its second year with $1.5 million in sales. It has grown at a clip ever since, and despite the setback with the hurricane, has graduated to the rank of dealers who pull in more than $10 million in sales annually. The owners bought its building in Metairie, located in Jefferson Parrish, in 2000, the same year they added entry doors to the product lineup. It wasn’t until after Katrina, however, that the door business took off. “The door business went from almost nothing to three to five trucks [delivering product] per week,” Roberts says.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina making landfall, as the tropical storm lazily made its way across the Gulf, the Amazing owners and staff evacuated. They locked the doors and fled the area, having no clue about the scene that would be waiting for them when they returned, weeks later. Katrina hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005—by Labor Day weekend, Roberts and Poche were finally able to make their way through Army-guarded roadblocks to enter the city and visit their business. “There were no animals, no birds—just helicopters and Army people everywhere,” Roberts recalls. “It was like World War III had happened.”

Although the storm was long dissipated and many Americans by early September had grown tired of the news coverage, the Amazing building, which sits three to four feet off the ground, was still under at least two-and-a-half feet of water in some spots, Roberts says. “When we got back in here, the first week we literally just pumped water out of here,” he says.

The owners had, just six months earlier in February, invested a considerable amount of time and money to remodel its showroom and offices. When they came back after the storm, their project had been ruined. Displays were gone, the ceiling had fallen in and there was mold everywhere, Roberts says.

The hair on Robert’s arms prickle slightly as he recalls the smell in New Orleans as he returned each morning to the business from his home in an outlying area. He says it smelled like rot, mold and death every moment of the 18-hour days they spent cleaning up the business. When he returned home each night, he threw his clothes away before walking in the door, for fear of bringing disease back with him.

Poche’s eyes get glassy as he conveys his memories of those early days after the storm. The men had to stop at roadblocks and show business credentials every day as they tried to approach their building. National Guard units roamed the streets outside their facility, distributing food and ice to desperate workers and residents for weeks, as their counterparts continued to search sections of the city, finding bodies, for more than a month.

Of the 23 employees Amazing had before the storm, 20 of them lost everything in the storm. “They didn’t have a home to go back to, period,” says Roberts. “Most of our help in the back [warehouse] lived in the Ninth Ward.”

For three or four weeks after they were allowed back in, Roberts and Poche worked athletic days, usually from 6 a.m. to midnight, with no phone service, no running water and very little electricity. “We couldn’t even wash our hands as we gutted the entire building,” Roberts says.

And as they continued to pull apart their building one piece at a time, customers started rolling in, desperate to get their hands on products. The problem was that the company had a 42,000-square-foot warehouse full of “graveyard” materials, exposed to damaging winds and water when the roof came off. The owners couldn’t touch their existing inventory for insurance purposes, so they needed to get their hands on new product to serve the people lining up at their door each day.

“We were buying stuff from whoever we could get it from,” Roberts says. “It got to the point that we unloaded directly from the truck to people’s hands.”

For the employees at Amazing, the fall of 2005 was a blur. Once phone service was restored, callers were greeted with a recording telling them that no phone calls would be returned and offering instructions to visit the dealer in person with inquiries. The owners opened only from 8 a.m. until noon each day, allowing those who were first in line to get into the building, and were still on site late into the evening with those morning entrants. In the early months, the men started with only seven employees, which meant they themselves were often unloading products from delivery trucks until midnight.

Working late with little supplies was not the only concern—street violence spiked after the storm, and the business’s neighborhood was not (and still isn’t) a place to be loitering after sunset. Still, the owners tried to ignore what was happening around them to focus on the task of rebuilding their business. “If you let it play on your mind, you can get afraid,” says Poche. “But I don’t let it weigh on my mind.”

“People across the states didn’t know what we were up against, nor what things are like today,” adds Roberts. “We’re not still under water, but we’re not rebuilt.”

MONEY WOES
Roberts and Poche are hesitant to share their challenges regarding insurance coverage. When asked, they shoot each other a sideways glance, issue a half-sigh/half-chuckle and shake their heads as if they had been asked how fun it is to take a two-year-old to a grocery store. Ironically, they had a lunch meeting with their insurance agent just days before the storm approached the Gulf Coast, to review their “Cadillac” insurance policy. Eighteen months after the hurricane, there were still outstanding payment issues and the company had only recently been allowed to start cleaning up its affected inventory.

The employees were beyond busy and beyond tired “post-K,” but Roberts somehow found time to complete extensive paperwork for grant applications. Again, as a man who would rather not focus on the woes of the situation, he’s hesitant to pour out the details, but the bottom line is that they failed to receive one nickel-worth of assistance. He had no luck securing money as an established business; he says most funds went to “transplant” companies that came down after the storm.

Roberts and Poche laugh as they recall how one evening, while trying to find something else, they opened an employee’s desk drawer to find a month’s worth of checks that they hadn’t had time to deposit. Most of the company’s suppliers were patient, however, and Amazing eventually paid all of its outstanding bills, even for the unusable products cluttering up the warehouse. “It took us a while but every nickel that was ever owed was eventually paid,” Roberts says proudly.

As the weeks and months progressed, Amazing faced significant cost increases. Its salaries went up at least 30 percent, the owners say, and escalating fuel costs bit into its cash flow. Health insurance rates, which the company pays for all of its employees, spiked after the storm. “There’s no such thing as a minimum wage anymore,” Roberts says.

Surprisingly, Amazing’s rebuilding and themselves cash-strapped customers are not feeling these increases. “We have not raised our prices since the hurricane, even with our increased costs,” Roberts says. Due to the influx of post-K activity, service crews are still about 15 weeks behind. Products wait neatly stacked in the warehouse until crews are ready for a particular project.  “We really are not a business,” Poche adds. “We’re a community service organization.”

Unlike some of the outlying regions, the greater New Orleans area has turned its attention toward impact fenestration products. The Amazing team has spent considerable time educating the public about the impact window and door message. “Our impact business has picked up tremendously,” Roberts says.

“I’ve spent hours and hours educating the public,” Poche adds. “If I can give them enough good information, that will come back to us when it comes to purchase power.”

The education is important to help offset the significant difference in price compared to non-impact products. “Last time someone bought from us, it was maybe $3,000 worth of windows, but now it’s $12,000 because of the impact,” Roberts explains.

The dealer’s sales are up, based on pre-K levels. New codes requiring DP-40 windows plus protection or impact products, however, make it difficult for homeowners and builders to afford to build or rebuild the right way, Roberts explains. “People just can’t qualify to live here anymore,” Poche adds. “If a storm does hit and you don’t have plywood on all of your openings, you don’t get your insurance money.”

TURNING AROUND
Today, Amazing’s showroom is once again pristine and the company at first glance appears as would any other window and door dealer. But there are subtle changes—scars that Katrina has left. There are no computer or phone wires or equipment low to the ground as everything has been carefully elevated. The water lines are still visible on the products sitting in the graveyard section of the warehouse, which is separated by a chain link fence from the main section of the facility housing the “good” products. The roof has been repaired but there are still marred cinder blocks in the wall supporting it.

The company itself has changed too. While lead times for products have returned to pre-K levels, Amazing’s service department was so inundated with storm damage that it’s still about 15 weeks behind. Once a growing segment of the business, the owners have had to put the brakes on a chunk of its low-rise commercial business. “Now we just don’t have the time to do it anymore,” Roberts says.

And just in case they thought about going a day or two without thinking about Katrina, the business is still getting mail from 2005 as a reminder of how time stopped after the disaster.

“It is different,” Poche says. “The demographic here has changed. Rebuilding is so much tougher than just building.”

O’Shea says that, even as an outsider, it’s easy to see that the area is not the same. “As a tourist, you could almost not even notice the storm has happened,” he says. “The French Quarter is just the same. But if you go a half mile either way, it’s so different.”

So why did they stay? Despite the challenges and the fact that so many have opted not to return, why did Amazing decide rebuilding was the right answer for them?

“Because it’s home,” Roberts says, still smiling.

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Contact Christina Lewellen, senior editor, at clewellen@glass.org.