William A. ``Bill'' Hays never took out flood insurance on any of his four Tire Town stores in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Hurricane Camille, which flattened the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 1969 with winds of 190 mph, never flooded the areas where Mr. Hays' tire outlets now stand. So why, he thought, did he need flood insurance?
Alas, Mr. Hays, a gutsy septuagenarian, never counted on Hurricane Katrina.
``A lawyer friend of mine put it best,'' he said in a Sept. 14 phone interview with Tire Business from his store in Baton Rouge, the only one unaffected by the hurricane. ``He said it was a storm of Biblical proportions, and he was right.''
When Mr. Hays, 72, heard the storm warnings, he told his managers to secure the properties that lay in the hurricane's path, in New Orleans and Slidell, La., and Waveland, Miss. Employees boarded up the windows with plywood, got the store deposits up to date and took as many customers' vehicles as possible to higher ground. Mr. Hays' wife's Lexus, at the store in New Orleans, was placed on a lift.
Mr. Hays-a 40-year veteran of tire retailing-kept the New Orleans, Slidell and Waveland stores open until the last possible minute. ``We try to serve the public,'' he said. ``We wanted to make sure our customers' tire needs were taken care of in advance of the storm.'' Employees who lived in the hurricane's path were sent home early on Aug. 27, after leaving contact information.
``I had employees who went as far as Florida, and employees who made it to Arkansas,'' Mr. Hays said.
As for Mr. Hays, he decided to ride out the storm. He has a friend who's an engineer with the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, and he and his wife went with the engineer and his wife to the engineer's office on the third floor of a building on St. Charles Street.
Armed with a generator, fans and a refrigerator, the quartet had a bird's-eye view of events, as the engineer oversaw efforts to pump floodwaters from the city.
Under normal circumstances, Mr. Hays said, New Orleans would have seen only minor flooding, even with the inundating rain and 145-mph winds the hurricane brought. But the day after the storm raged through, the levees failed.
``My friend had to stop pumping water because how could you pump water if you're only going to pump it back into the city?'' he said. ``There were people in a bar across the street from my friend's office, and when the levees broke, the owner walked out into the street, fired his gun in the air three times and said, `We gotta get out of here first thing in the morning!'''
The next morning, Mr. Hays and his wife left New Orleans for Baton Rouge in their Chevy Tahoe. Oddly enough, the riverfront portions of New Orleans-like its famed French Quarter-are on higher ground than the rest of the city and never flooded in the hurricane or its aftermath. Mr. Hays said he took a riverfront road all the way out of the city and encountered no flooding at all.
``We saw a lot of people cramming into Wal-Marts and supermarkets, busy `gathering,''' he said of the widespread looting. ``But they were too busy to pay attention to us. I kept thinking of the last day in Saigon, and the only difference was that I didn't have a helicopter.''
Safely in Baton Rouge, Mr. Hays made phone calls to assess the damage to his business and personal property. The news was grim.
The worst damage occurred at the store in Waveland, where the winds gusted up to 175 mph. ``We had six feet of water in the store,'' he said. ``The storm surge reached 25 to 30 feet in Waveland. We had 3,000 tires in inventory there, and most of them were washed out into the parking lot. The Waveland store is a metal building, so it withstood the storm pretty well. I would say the damage there was 25 percent wind and 75 percent water.''
Even more shocking, if slightly less severe, was what happened at the Slidell store. ``It wasn't even in the flood plain, yet we had four or five feet of water in the store,'' he said.
The New Orleans outlet, which sits on higher ground than most of the city, escaped flood damage altogether. ``Four blocks away, the buildings were under six to eight feet of water,'' Mr. Hays said. However, there was another, even worse problem there: Looting.
His New Orleans store provided the greatest concern for him since he had not been able to get in to survey the losses there himself and had to rely on second-hand reports from the police and from employees who stayed in the city. When he finally got into the outlet Sept. 17, it was as had been reported to him.
``We had 10,000 tires in that store, and those were pretty much looted,'' he said. ``They stole the customers' vehicles, and also our 14-foot stake-body truck and our half-ton pickup truck. They used the stake-body truck to ram the front door to get into the building. They couldn't reach my wife's Lexus on the lift, but they did sever the fuel line and siphon out the gas.
``We did manage to get my main-frame computer out of there, and the mechanics' tools were in big boxes that were too heavy to take,'' he added. ``I told the police that if they'd let me back in the city, at least I could lock the building down.''
Though he can laugh about it now, Mr. Hays recalled when he and a work crew including a carpenter finally got to his store in New Orleans. National Guard troops were stationed nearby. The carpenter cranked up an air compressor, and as he began firing his nail gun, Guardsmen with rifles drawn came running to the store fearing a gun battle had erupted.
Mr. Hays owns a house and four other properties in New Orleans, all of which, he said, ``were either flooded or vandalized big-time.'' A two-story boathouse he owns on Lake Pontchartrain was reduced to soaked wood on the first story, ``but you could have held a cocktail party in the second story.''
All of Mr. Hays' 35 employees are accounted for, though a few are still out of state, he said. Meanwhile, he's purchased a house in Baton Rouge and is determined to rebuild his business.
``We're ready to get going, though probably the last store to reopen will be the one that did not flood,'' he said.