Monday, 31 October 2005 09:00

NO shop owner tells harrowing tale of complete destruction

Written by Janet Chaney

On Friday, September 2, Doug Reed, Jr. locked the doors on his Chalmette, Louisiana business, Custom Body Shop, for what he could not have known would be the last time. Reed packed up his family and some personal belongings to evacuate New Orleans.

"We got ready to hit the road, expecting everything would be fine. It was the third or fourth time this year we have been evacuated," Reed solemnly remembered. After all, when living in hurricane country, evacuation is a way of life.

But life as everyone knew it stopped in the community of St. Bernard Parish when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm.

Custom Body Shop, a family-owned business for over 30 years, was well-established in the St. Bernard Parish, just south of the French Quarter. It was a neighborhood where everyone knew each others' names and people always had a friendly smile and wave for one another. The 15,000 sq. ft. shop with its 25 employees was a long-standing part of this close-knit community.

"Such a strong part of the community that 46% of our customers were repeat customers," Reed proudly stated. "We had great working DRP relationships with six major insurance companies and still 46% of our customers came back to us."

The Friday before the storm hit, Reed pushed to get all driveable cars back to their owners. "The hurricane was just off the coast of Florida, so we did not see this as a real threat," continued Reed. "Saturday the weather got worse and we knew the storm was going to hit New Orleans.

"At that point, my attention turned to taking care of my home and family." On Friday night, Reed and wife JoElle, who is pregnant, took their two daughters, Kodi, 10, and Kamryn, 18 months, to stay with Reed's mother in Baton Rouge - 80 miles west of New Orleans.

Leaving New Orleans

Leaving New Orleans in the bright sunshine granted no indication of the nightmare to come. "It was eerie," explained Reed. "The interstate was contra flow - all traffic going west, with police at every exit directing traffic out of town. At that point, however, everything was still calm. The storm didn't even hit until Monday morning."

Sunday morning, Doug Reed, Sr. phoned his son from Baton Rouge and reported that as this was still a category 5 storm, maybe they should evacuate even farther away. Following their instincts, the family traveled to Doug's sister in Conroe, Texas, where they watched the cataclysmic event that would change their lives forever.

When the storm hit Monday morning, Katrina took everything. Custom Body Shop, a business that provided a livelihood for 25 families, was reduced to a muddy rubble. Everyone's homes were under water.

The good news is that all of Custom Body Shop's employees have been ac-counted for. Three employees were rescued from the rooftops by helicopter, after which they joined in rescue efforts to help others. Reed has located and spoken with all but two of his employees.

"It was like somebody kicked an ant pile. Everyone just scattered," he said.

Including the Reeds, there were four father-and-son teams employed at Custom Body Shop. One father-son team had been with this shop for 29 years - the father for 29 years and the son, 25 years. Reed found them staying with family in Grenada, Mississippi.

What now?

At this point, New Orleans is a ghost town, having been evacuated once again due to Hurricane Rita. It is impossible for the Reeds to create an action plan for rebuilding. With Custom Body Shop only six miles from the broken levee, Reed believes "we would have flooded this badly even if the levee had not breached. Water was coming in at over 100 miles per hour from every angle. The cinder block walls came completely down; it appears now to be more of a pavilion than a building.

"There is a ten-inch thick layer of mud on the floor, with everything from tools to parts hardened in the mud. It looks like the bottom of the ocean."

Reed is ambivalent about rebuilding his shop. After all, it may be years before there are actually customers to deal with. He has been offered a job in Texas, but with a new baby on the way, sticking close to home and extended family is a priority.

Thus far, there is no activity regarding the customers whose damaged cars were still being worked on. Having been through the evacuation procedure before, Reed had the presence of mind to take his computer from the office. Therefore, he will have access to accounts receivable, insurance contacts and customer information. The process of locating owners who may have been displaced is a challenge in and of itself. At the time of this interview, there had bes-bad neen no conversations with any customers or insurance company representatives.

Help is sporadic

In the "good newws" department, Reed reported those residents of New Orleans who were fortunate enough to find shelter with relatives and friends have been unable to get much help from the Red Cross, which seems to be concentrating primarily on opening shelters. Reed did receive the $2,000 from FEMA, but that will definitely not go far in trying to keep his family afloat. Because of JoElle's pregnancy, she and the youngest child are receiving some welfare services.

No going home

Reed cannot even get to his home. A holding tank at a nearby oil refinery couldn't withstand the forces of nature, leaking 60,000 barrels of crude oil into his neighborhood. "I may never see my home in St. Bernard Parish again," said Reed. He has heard that many homes in the Parish may have to be bulldozed.

Doug Reed Jr. had just taken over the family business from his father, Reed Sr. The elder Reed owns Reed Performance Motor Sports, specializing in building high performance sports cars, particularly Cobras. Reed Sr. lost nine classic cars, but managed to save four others by driving them to the upper level parking garage at the New Orleans airport.

The devastation and loss to all these people, owners and employees is complete. Reed is putting on a brave smile and moving forward, "I have adjusted my emotions. I am looking forward, not back. I am fortunate to have my family and a few possessions" - this from a family that struggled for years to build a successful business.

Life goes on

Once the storm cleared, Reed found work at a dealership in Baton Rouge. "I have to take care of my family," a soft spoken Reed declared. "My father might relocate to Texas, which may break up my family, but it is what we will have to do."

It is too early for anyone to read the New Orleans crystal ball to see the future of the Reed family and St. Bernard Parish. However, Reed's closing remarks, reflect his optimistic attitude. "I think everybody would love to rebuild and return to Chalmette. Everybody loves this town. We have a strong will to survive."

The fabric of this extended family may be stretched, but it is still intact.

Janet Chaney has served in many facets of the collision repair industry. She is now looking after the best interests of her clients from Desert Hills, Arizona. E-mail her at janetchaney@earthlink.net.