Two Years Later: Window & Door Experiences Hurricane Katrina's Legacy

Christina Lewellen
August 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Charlie Cusimano, Perry Poche and John Roberts are men who sell windows like thousands of other people who sell windows. But these men are different. They are survivors of Hurricane Katrina and have spent the last two years rebuilding their businesses, their lives and their customers’ lives.

I invite you to experience New Orleans as I did—not as a tourist, not as a volunteer, and not even as a guest of the manufacturers who supply building products from afar, but from the offices and the trucks of window and door specialty dealers. As I look through the photographs Judy Wharton took, read my interview notes and impressions I recorded from my hotel room in New Orleans and recall fondly the afternoon I spent touring New Orleans with kamikaze driver John Roberts (who honestly may have missed his calling as a race car driver to start a window business), I’m haunted by my experience. But I can’t help smiling, knowing that I was fortunate enough to meet a bunch of guys who are rebuilding a haunted disaster zone, one window and door at a time. I hope that’s a dichotomy you can take away from these stories, too.

The fenestration dealers in New Orleans, and I would imagine businesses of any kind, are doing so much more than selling windows and doors. And despite what some media reports would leave you to believe, they’re certainly not making a killing at it. It’s difficult to create a “gold rush” scenario when there are no people to hire, insurance rates have doubled and your work days are so long and exhausting that you open a desk drawer one day to find a month’s worth of checks you haven’t had time to deposit (true story from the Amazing Windows & Doors folks). It’s not about replacing windows, really. It’s about rebuilding the city these people have known their entire lives.

He has that crazy way of saying Naw’lins that mere mortals could never hope to reproduce. But he hadn’t stepped foot inside the Ninth Ward, just a short drive from his business, until I came to visit. He wasn’t ready. He made himself ready, however, to help me and Judy tell the story to you, his brothers and sisters in the industry.

His childhood friend and business partner, Perry Poche, choked up several times as he rewound his memories two years to share with me his post-Katrina experiences—fighting tears in front of the men who serve as his manufacturers’ reps, no less. Despite what they’ve seen and the fact that they literally had to rebuild their business from the ground up (or, as they prefer to describe it, from the roof down) after the storm, John and Perry nearly instantly got back to the business of providing people in the area with windows and doors.

Perhaps the most poignant quote in my pages and pages of notes from the trip is when Charlie Cusimano said, “I would love to go just one day and not hear the word Katrina.” A good-natured guy who’s quick to smile, he jumped into the rebuilding effort whole-heartedly. But he’s haunted too. I can see the worry in his eyes when he talks about what would happen to the area if another big storm hit. As it is, he’s not sure the Gulf Coast will ever be quite the same, post-Katrina. Still, he and his team focus on their role—getting windows and doors to customers who need them as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s a simple enough mission, I guess, but to the customers who wait more than a month to even walk into the showroom, Interstate Windows & Doors represents a whole lot more than a place to get windows and doors. It is an essential piece of the rebuilding puzzle.

Through the eyes of Charlie, Perry and John and their gracious staffs and manufacturers reps, take a look at New Orleans and the surrounding areas as it really is—a place that is haunted, but still home.

Much Work Left To Do
Two years ago this month, New Orleans was still spinning from being hit with one of the most devastating natural disasters this country has ever seen. Floodwaters from broken levees still swamped homes and businesses and the death toll crept up into the 1,800 range. In all, officials estimate that Hurricane Katrina obliterated about 275,000 households in the Gulf Coast region.

That’s about 60,000 households more than the entire city of Cleveland, Ohio. Gone.
The house, located in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, delivers a poignant message to passers by.
While shelves at lumberyards and home improvement retailers are finally stocked and lead times for specialty items like windows and doors have returned to pre-Katrina levels, the region remains only a shadow of what it once was, according to industry representatives who have worked in the region. “Generally speaking, the rebuilding is moving from the outside in toward ground zero,” says Richard Lowenthal of industry manufacturers’ rep firm Lowenthal Sales Co., Athens, Ga. “The repair type of rebuilding is going slowly, but it is happening.”

“It has a long way to go but the entire area has come a long way,” agrees David Moreau, an industry sales representative serving the region. “When the communities came together and people came together, you could see an obvious change in the rebuilding process.”

Still, the nightmarish tales regarding labor shortages, insurance battles and infrastructure challenges presented by the mainstream media following the storm—stories about which many people nationwide have long since forgotten—are still a daily fact of life for the residents who have decided that their former life in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast areas is worth fighting for. “We’re going on two years post-Katrina and some families are no closer to being able to rebuild than they were immediately after the storm,” Lowenthal says. As an industry sales agent, he is familiar with window and door businesses in the region, but Lowenthal has also traveled to the devastated region numerous times with his church group to get his hands dirty and assist with the rebuilding effort. “Katrina-affected lives aren’t in the news much anymore. It only takes a short drive through coastal Mississippi to come to grips with the reality that there is so much work left to do.”

What some anticipated as a “gold rush” of rebuilding after the storm, is in reality more like a trickle of rebuilding activity, says Matthew O’Shea, marketing coordinator for Neuma Doors, a door manufacturer serving the region. “We’re not going to rebuild this all at once,” he says. “We’re seeing the start of what will take years to rebuild. All in all, you’re just starting to see the infrastructure in place so people can rebuild.”

Hurricane Katrina was destructive enough to create a the-chicken-or-the-egg scenario—it’s difficult for residents to return to their communities if there are no stores, schools or health care facilities, but business and government infrastructure is slow to return to some areas for lack of population density. “What do you put in first? Do you put in schools and hospitals or houses?” says O’Shea. “If there are houses but no schools or grocery stores, what do people do?”

Jimmy Plauche, territory manager for Weather Shield Windows & Doors, spends about half of his month in storm-affected regions and mirrors O’Shea’s sentiment. “We’re not seeing incentives for small business people to come back,” he says. “Just like when you cut a new development for new construction, the first thing to get done is the commercial development, then the schools follow, then the population follows. People [coming back to the Gulf Coast] are saying, ‘Where’s my donut shop? Where’s my dry cleaner? Where is everything that was here before?’”

Plauche notes that the rebuilding plan is not a difficult or complex one—“It all comes to one point. We’ve got to get the insurance people and the finance people on the same track. They’ve got to pull together to build houses that are affordable that can be insured.”

There’s simply no arguing that rebuilding in New Orleans is expensive. Many residents and businesses did not have enough insurance or were not covered the way they anticipated, and they are now stuck in a vicious cycle of appealing denied claims. Even those who have insurance checks in hand are finding that rebuilding to storm-inspired building codes is breaking the budget. “Especially in the Katrina area, everything now goes back to building codes,” O’Shea explains. “They went from no codes to everything via code. Almost everything they’re doing now is more expensive because of the code. Electrical, framing, the foundation, windows—everything is costing them more.”

Despite the building codes requiring opening protection from wind borne debris—which can be met with approaches such as shutters and boarding up with plywood, for instance—impact window sales seem to be a mixed bag. Sales are up as the concept of constant protection takes off among homeowners, but some buyers have no choice but to seek out cheaper alternatives. “The [impact products’] sales are up 45 to 50 percent in the Katrina-hit region due in part to new, stricter codes,” Moreau says. “There are many homeowners rebuilding using safer products everywhere they can. But for the most part, impact products are very expensive and most not forced by code are electing a cheaper way.”

As rebuilding creeps forward, some homeowners are opting for impact products to meet codes—notice the extra-wide door jamb being prepped for its storm-rated product. Still, many residents in other areas of the Gulf Coast are unable to afford premium-priced impact windows and doors.
Window and door industry executives who are familiar with the region because of their business relationships say that fenestration products are moving at a pace similar to the rebuilding overall—not in a huge wave but at a slowly increasing pace as residents and businesses find themselves ready and able to rebuild. Manufacturers and suppliers to the region reported a spike in demand immediately following the storm as residents were desperate to replace missing front doors and broken window units. Now two years later, suppliers are back to business as usual to a region that is anything but. “Lead times have stabilized well in the window industry, being 98 percent back on [pre-K] lead times, thus keeping the supply to dealers on track,” says Moreau.

HIT AT HOME
No manufacturer has been more affected, perhaps, than Alliance Windows of Louisiana, located in Slidell, La. The vinyl window maker took a direct hit from the storm and relied on its business partners in the American Window Alliance, a marketing alliance of independent vinyl window manufacturers throughout the East Coast, to navigate the chaos immediately after the storm. “Right after the storm, we had all of our equipment flooded and most of our employees never came back,” explains Paul Huston, president of Alliance. “We are now back to business as usual. We got all of our equipment in place and we’ve rebuilt the workforce. The workers may even be better than before [the storm] and it’s been very stable for the last six months.”

Huston admits that it was challenging to fill the plant’s employee needs. “It was especially difficult to hire people right after the storm,” he says. “We went through a lot of effort to have the people we have now.” He says most of his workforce is at the tail end of the rebuilding process in their personal lives. “We’re all definitely looking forward,” he says. “Katrina happened and it was bad, but we’re looking to the future.”

Although Alliance now has its workforce and equipment rebuilt, it is still holding its breath a bit while the rest of the region catches up, Huston says. “Those [infrastructure] challenges are impacting us from the standpoint of the demand for our product,” he says. “I was expecting demand for windows to be much higher than what it has been. All the factors that have been causing the national slowdown are in effect here as well. But we have additional factors, like very expensive or not-available homeowners’ insurance.”

That, and the lower census, he adds. “The other thing that we are experiencing is a net outflow of people from the area. There are a lot of houses for sale and not a lot of new people coming in to buy.”

Huston says some building product suppliers came to the area after the storm to pick up business—and some subsequently left, having found very little—but he and his team at Alliance are making it known to customers that they are committed to sticking to the area. “If another major [storm] came through, I think there would be a lot of people who would just want to give up and not come back. I think we’re all a little fragile down here,” he says. “But the main thing from our end as a company is that we’re here for the long haul. A lot of people came in right after the storm and left. But we’re here for the duration and we’re optimistic. We’re looking forward to rebuilding the area and making it better than it was.”

INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT
Like Lowenthal, who has been compelled to visit the region over and over again to contribute to the rebuilding effort, countless other manufacturers and individuals in the industry have experienced the destroyed Gulf Coast communities first-hand, donating products, money and time. Lowenthal has focused his time donation to the Mississippi coastal region, which may not have had as much press as New Orleans itself, but took the brunt of the storm as it hit land. “Most of the folks in Mississippi, where I’ve spent all of my time, are proud folks who are just working as hard as they can to rebuild their lives, one step at a time,” he explains. “What is still striking to me is driving along the beach road through Bay St. Louis (Miss.) and Waveland. There are miles and miles of bare slabs for the first quarter mile in from the beachfront. Hundreds and hundreds of what were once beachfront houses are just gone. Just gone completely.”

Like Lowenthal, Rich Robinov, president of Paradigm Window Solutions in Portland, Maine, was recently inspired to get involved after talking to a colleague in the area who explained how little progress had actually been made in some parts of the region. He flew to New Orleans in February to see the city first-hand and establish a relationship with some of the charitable organizations working to rebuild homes. Through Catholic Charities, Helping Hands and ACORN—all relief and advocacy initiatives—he learned of the area’s desperate need for skilled labor. His resulting idea, “March to New Orleans,” organized manufacturers for donations and more than 20 contractors and skilled laborers to fly to the area in March with tools in hand. The group contributed the windows, doors, siding, roofing and trim to 10 homes. “I thought that this was something that with a little effort, I could literally roll up my sleeves and impact change,” he explains. “I felt very proud that I work with such a caring group of people. These people gave up their time and they were astounding.”

While most government funding and monetary donations are still tied up in applications and processes, the grassroots efforts of people across the country seem to inch the rebuilding process forward in some of the hardest-hit areas, Robinov says. “I’ll tell you what—God bless the college kids in this country who have that Peace Corps mentality,” he says. “They’ve given up their spring breaks to go help out. But the downside is that they have no skills. They’ve gutted thousands of houses that are now waiting for skilled trades to come in and do something with them.”

While skilled labor and helping hands are probably at the top of the list as far as needs—Lowenthal says full-time workers in the area have told him that it could take 15 years of rebuilding at the current rate just to return to pre-K conditions—the area could use bodies in a different way too, says Weather Shield’s Plauche. “Number one, we need people to come down and spend tourism dollars to keep this thing afloat,” he notes. “The places of New Orleans that the world loves are fine. The restaurants, the hotels, the downtown areas, are fine.”

An abandoned strip mall in New Orleans exemplifies the infrastructure problems along the Gulf Coast. Many businesses have not returned to the area, leaving residents challenged to meet their day-to-day needs.

People can also help by investing, Plauche says. Despite the challenges with codes and insurance, he warns potential real estate investors not to be too quick about waving off New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. “If somebody outside wants to help New Orleans and Louisiana, I would have them take a hard look at real estate opportunities. Look at coming in and investing in property and development. We’re going to take blighted neighborhoods and redo them and redo downtown areas with luxury condos and apartments. Once things are cleared up down here, it’s going to be tremendous.”

The two-year marker of progress no doubt can be shocking for folks who expect the area to be entirely rebuilt, Plauche admits, but the baby steps are moving in the right direction. “As a city and a state, we need to be more positive about showing the improvements we have made,” he says. “Sometimes that gets lost because we’re trying to take care of business down here. The bottom line is that we’re slow and sporadic, but it is coming back.”

Robinov probably puts it best: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

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