Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts marking the fifth anniversary of the historic flood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Read the other installments.
I first met Robert Thompson Memorial Day weekend 2004. I was in New Orleans with a few friends, and Steve and I were getting married later that weekend at the Rock-n-Bowl. Looking for a funky place to hang out with the wedding party on afternoon, I stumbled on the Fair Grinds Coffee House. Thompson, the purveyor, was funny, generous and open. His small café, sandwiched between Esplanade and the Fairgrounds, was a gathering place for the community and Thompson was the mayor.
When the levees broke, I watched helplessly on television as the waters took over neighborhood after neighborhood of my second city. I’ve got a lot of memories centered in the Faubourg St. John, in particular, and when I saw the flood approach the Racetrack, I was especially saddened. I heard from Thompson almost immediately, and the news wasn’t good. Five months later, while on assignment in the Crescent City, I visited Thompson at Fair Grinds. I wasn’t surprised to find him still serving the community. Though not technically open, neighborhood denizens and contractors working in the area continued to flock to the coffee house. And there was Thompson, with a hodgepodge of coffee mugs and go-cups, serving up free coffee from an urn and a hot plate on the café’s side porch.
Thompson’s struggle to rebuild his life and his small business isn’t unique in New Orleans. Here’s part one of my interview with him on the fifth anniversary of the levees’ failure. Today, we talk about business. Tomorrow we’ll wrap up the series with Thompson’s personal reflections, and a round-up of other resources.
"We roughly suffered $80,000 uncompensated loss from the floods caused by the poorly built federal levees. Insurance fell short, and post-Katrina dollars bought less when rebuilding. We had a little assistance in a recovery grant from the State of Louisiana, but the federal response was pitiful and even negative. After much bureaucratic pain and suffering, the SBA loaned us a third of what they qualified us for, and this a week before we were set to reopen. Clearly they didn't help us recover, and though the loan helped us sustain, it is now another debt we labor under.
"Our bagel baker folded a week or so ago. Just stopped one day. His corporate accounts were holding payments for so long he couldn't survive, even though the ‘mom and pops’ like myself were paying promptly. After we got up and running, almost two years after the storm, our business neared pre-floodnumbers. For three years now it has dropped off 10 or more percent. Finally today we are losing money and scared of losing the business. Of course coffeehouses here do poorly in the summer. But maybe the economy, the depressing oil spill gloom and the loss of residents are adding to the heat, humidity, and vacations which rob us of our customer base. I am now seeing some leave New Orleans who came here after the storm with hope for rebuilding.
"The Nagin city effort was vapor. Not a single mayoral representative visited us in two years after the flood despite our well publicized neighborhood recovery effort -- free coffee! Even FEMA designated us a grassroot community center [see p.10]. The only Nagin effort on behalf of the city was showcased at an event touted as the Small Business Initiative where his people trotted out some pie-in-the-sky plan to build a entrepreneurial incubator on the Riverwalk for start-up new businesses. A stupid plan -- locals don't go to the Riverwalk tourist mall -- which did nothing to help my ailing business, except maybe create competition I didn't need. But then that was always the way with the city.
"Hardware stores back from Katrina were taxed and those dollars given as incentives for Lowe's and Home Depot developments which put the hardware stores out of business. What's fair there? There are fewer independent stores. Hit hard and gone are the hardware stores, bookstores, groceries, bakeries, even restaurants (though some improvement there). Big boxes are the only sources now of a lot of consumer products. The bright light has been the new mayor, and he seems very competent. Where Nagin neglected, Landrieu is now reviving. For us that means a renewed effort to collect taxes for inventories, a tax on the books but mostly uncollected until now. Ouch. We know the city needs funds, but on our backs?"
Here's a good video on the role of small restaurants, cafes and bars in the rebuilding of the Crescent City:
Here are some good write-ups on NOLA-based small businesses from Stay Local.