Katrina and Rita — names that probably will not make the list of most popular baby names for 2005, but undoubtedly will not be forgotten anytime soon. The hurricanes that hit the Southern United States devastated homes, businesses, and lives. In the midst of the disaster, some airport-based businesses were able to carry on and play vital roles in recovery and relief. AIRPORT BUSINESS recently spoke with operators in the region to assess the impact.
On the airport concessions side, Hudson Group director of communications Laura Samuels says all of the retailer’s stores in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Gulfport-Biloxi (MS) International, and Mobile (AL) Regional sustained damage from hurricane Katrina, which hit the gulf region the last week of August. The damage to the stores was caused by rain leaking through the ceilings.
Samuels says quite a bit of merchandise was destroyed, but the company had no problem restocking the shelves. “We had a lot of merchandise in our warehouse ahead of time, so we really fed those stores with [on-hand] stock. And then eventually when those commercial flights began again we were able to replenish. But we didn’t run out of anything; we had quite a bit of warehouse merchandise in New Orleans.”
And then there’s Rita. Hudson’s stores at Houston Hobby were affected by the airport’s closure. Employees were also affected by the mandatory evacuation.
“The interesting thing for us,” says Samuels, “was, in New Orleans, despite the fact that many of our people were affected by the storm at home, they came into work. So our main stores in New Orleans stayed open throughout — they didn’t close at all. Those [employees] came in, even though back home their homes were suffering severe damage. “They’re the heroes of our company.”
According to Samuels, the retail stores staying open at the airport, which quickly became a hospital/evacuee center, is part of everyday operations — not necessarily disaster operations.
“Our folks come in at 5:30 a.m. We open the airport and we close it. That’s just normal operating procedure. Our everyday plan is to be there when our customers need us.” There was confusion and some unknowns for the company and its employees soon after Katrina hit, says Samuels. “We had some employees that did not know what to do. They weren’t heard from for a while so we put in an 800-number, a hotline, and tried to get as many of our people as we could to call in just to find out how they were doing and if they were okay.” Hudson has 75 employees between New Orleans, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Mobile.
Additionally, says Samuels, “The general manager from that area went down to the Houston Astrodome where a lot of people had been evacuated to that first week and he spent four days just searching through the Houston Astrodome looking for employees of Hudson Group. Of course, cell phones weren’t working and emails weren’t working. And he just felt the best thing to do was to go there and look for people; and, he found a couple of our people in the Astrodome.”
Hudson Group has established a Katrina relief collection fund at all of its locations for patrons to make donations. The retailer will match donations up to $50,000 and all funds will be given to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, says Samuels.
Caught in the Crossfire: The Million Air Chain
The Million Air fixed base operation at New Orleans Lakefront Airport is still closed and sustained “significant” damage, according to VP of marketing Sandy Nelson. “I think that when it opens back up, it will be with a temporary office building and new fuel tanks ...
“Our Lake Charles [LA] FBO is operational right now, with no electricity. They sustained damage as well, but they have the government contracts so they’re fueling FEMA and U.S. Air Force, so they’re very busy with the government support.”