Contract Glaziers Speak Out: One Year After Hurricane Katrina

Today marks the one-year anniversary of what has been coined the nation's worst national disaster. Hurricane Katrina dramatically altered life in the Gulf Coast states where it brought unprecedented destruction, loss of life and an impact that is still being felt in the region today. Here's what contract glazers say life is like a year after surviving the storm.

In Gretna, La., on the west side of the Mississippi in Jefferson Parish, Lydia Kass says it's been a heck of a year. Kass, owner of Gretna Glass and Mirror Works, says her company has been inundated with work since they reopened their business just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005.

"Most of us in Gretna evacuated," recalls Kass, who in December will celebrate 42 years of ownership of her company in December. "The bulk of the damage to the structures in our city was from wind and rain. Our levies held and we were spared the many problems associated with rising floodwaters. Our roof, which was only five years old, was gone and all of the electronics in our building were ruined because of the rain."

"Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris encouraged every business owner to return, and helped make it possible so that we could return quickly and get our businesses up and running," continues Kass. "Mayor Harris knew that if the businesses and their services returned so would the residents."

Located just one mile from the county line and five miles from downtown New Orleans, Gretna and other communities along the west bank have been a hub of the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Unlike colleagues on the east side, many glass shops damaged or destroyed by the hurricane have not reopened. "Like others in our business, we're a small shop, but continue to do what we can to help with the rebuilding," says Kass, who has shifted their rebuilding efforts to the mouth of the Mississippi. "We have temporarily stopped the 'pretty stuff' like mirrors and custom shower enclosures and have focused on getting people's homes and businesses secured and rebuilt."

"It's been tough," notes Kass, who was raised in New Orleans and survived Hurricane Betsy in the mid-1960s. "I have never seen anything like this. So many people lost everything and are just getting tired and frustrated of fighting the insurance companies and all the red tape. It's just taking a long time."

"We had a thriving full-service glass business before Hurricane Katrina," explains Toby Dombrowski, owner of 3-D Glass in Gulfport, Miss. "Today, we continue to work daylight to dusk, have doubled our workforce and our fleet of vehicles and are handling four to five times more work than we were before the hurricane."

"We are located about ten miles from the coast and this area lost pretty much everything from the railroad tracks to the beach," added Dombrowski. "Some 60,000 homes were destroyed from Waveland to Ocean Springs. We dropped our auto glass operations and [now] concentrate solely on glass installation for the repair and rebuilding of damaged homes and schools."

"While we weren't directly impacted by the hurricane, we have felt the repercussions," says Allison Martin, who works for Hart's Glass in Winnfield, a mid-size glazing company with three locations serving northeast and north central Louisiana. "Even though we are located about six hours north of the coast, the economy in the entire region has been hit with price increases, surcharges and a slower turn around time in terms of getting needed product. So much of our state's resources and manpower have been directed toward the clean-up and rebuilding efforts down south that we all continue to pay the price from this natural disaster a year later."

"After Katrina we experienced incredible traffic and an influx of glaziers looking for work in our area," explains Butch Kelley, president of Architectural Building Systems, a mid-size commercial glazing contractor serving the greater Houston area. "People were looking for work and temporary housing--both of which were in short supply. "Our workload was already heavy and we didn't attempt to go into the affected areas for additional work."

John Robinson, an outside sales representative for AFG-Opelousas, recently visited the greater New Orleans area and was surprised at how much work remains to be done in the city. There's still debris being removed and many areas look much like they did weeks after the hurricane, it's really a mess there," says Robinson.

Robinson says a few of his customers, especially in the hardest hit areas, have closed and he doesn't expect them to reopen. For those that are rebuilding, they say realistically it will be three to five years before they catch up.

"For us, we ship a lot more product to the south than we have in the past and are keeping up with the demand," Robinson adds. "Hurricane Katrina was a savior for many glass companies but that salvation came with a high price for others in the region."

CLICK HERE to read the USA Today article "A year later, hearts still heavy in New Orleans."

Watch for "Contract Glaziers Speak Out" every Tuesday on USGNN. - Peggy Georgi

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