It's a chronicle of tire dealers pulling together to cope with disaster.
A collection of more than 50 e-mails sent among tire dealers, tire makers' regional representatives and other industry professionals in the first days following Hurricane Katrina's devastating blow to the Gulf Coast shows the highs and lows of the storm's victims and their friends. It's punctuated by calls for help, worries about unheard-from friends, frustrated exclamations of helplessness and feelings of guilt for not being there.
As phone service and most forms of communication-save the age-old word of mouth-broke down, Rick Lambert of wholesaler Consolidated Tire & Oil (CTO) in St. Gabriel near Baton Rouge, established himself as a clearinghouse for information on the whereabouts and status of affected tire dealers. CTO-which operates two warehouses and sells primarily Bridgestone/Firestone and Michelin Americas Small Tires products-supplies 12 to 15 dealer outlets in the region. Information remains sketchy in some of the hardest-hit areas, and much more work remains for Mr. Lambert and the others. Mr. Lambert sent the e-mail collection to Tire Business.
The e-mails start on Sunday morning, Aug. 28, lighthearted enough-and on a familiar tire dealer conversation tract.
``Can I have your (golf) clubs if you don't make it?'' a friend writes to Mike Staley, a salesman for CTO, who plans to ride out the storm and banters back about the clubs. ``Buckle down! You'll be fine!''
Mr. Lambert also writes after his 18 holes later that night, wishing Mr. Staley well and offering help if he needs it.
``We plan on teeing off @ 9 Monday a.m. since we're off for the hurricane!!!'' he writes.
After no e-mails on Aug. 29 as the storm blew through, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, the tone shifted immediately.
The first e-mail Mr. Lambert receives is at 7:59 a.m. ``Well, how are all you guys doing?'' the sender asks. ``Can't call, no service in to Louisiana or Mississippi.''
The banter from Sunday is gone.
``I'm a little worried about Mike Staley though,'' Mr. Lambert replies. ``He decided to ride out the storm in Ocean Springs (Miss.) at his cousin Ricky's house. I'm sure he's OK, the house is made up of 8-inch thick concrete walls, but I'm afraid Mike's condo got leveled.''
Mr. Staley had called Mr. Lambert Monday morning as the storm started raging, saying they were OK for the moment but worried. On Wednesday Mr. Staley was able to call again, this time in a series of 10-second conversations, asking for help.
Mr. Lambert and his brother-in-law loaded their Suburban with gas, ice, water, beer and bread and headed down to Mississippi. Passing along Interstate 10-down to one lane in spots-Mr. Lambert saw flipped cars, downed wires and other debris. In Ocean Springs, near Biloxi, he saw felled trees and torn shingles.
``It looked like a lot of damage until we saw what damage really was,'' he said.
Once police made sure they weren't looters, Mr. Lambert reached the devastated coastline. Mr. Staley's condo was destroyed and many in the affluent neighborhood were left with nothing. Mr. Lambert gave six new T-shirts to one man whose wardrobe then consisted of seven shirts. Once he salvaged what he could and rented a home, Mr. Staley worked closely with the others to contact and help affected tire dealers.
``It's like a giant took his hand and he started at the coast, moved his arm up four blocks, and he just scraped everything,'' Mr. Lambert said. ``And in that four-block area there's four blocks' worth of debris piled up probably two, three stories high. And it's cars, it's motorcycles, it's roofs, it's splintered wood, it's everything.''
Only two kinds of structures were left standing in this destruction: Waffle House signs and one-piece chair and table units from McDonald's and Burger King.
``(The devastation) cannot be described by the human mouth,'' Mr. Lambert told Tire Business. ``It just doesn't do it justice.''
After his first trip down to the coast, the e-mails started flying.
Kyle Stevens, an area sales manager for Bridgestone/Firestone, was relieved to hear from the owners of Graywood Firestone in D'Iberville, Miss., who lost their homes but didn't have much damage to the shop.
``I can't believe your business made it through the hurricane,'' Mr. Stevens wrote. ``Unfortunately, I've got a feeling many of your fellow dealers aren't going to be so lucky.... I'll do my best to help you guys with ANYTHING I can.''
Mr. Stevens told Tire Business that initially he thought New Orleans had been spared the worst, but by the time Katrina's wrath was evident, he couldn't reach anyone by phone. Whole days were spent trying to get through but only getting the familiar scratchy recording and busy signal.
``I felt helpless because there were no flights down there,'' he said.
The flurry of e-mails continued on Thursday and Friday as dealers and industry professionals tried to find out if others were safe. ``I feel helpless,'' another BFS official wrote to Mr. Lambert, asking what help was needed. A small trickle of dealers started to report on their status, also offering tidbits about other dealers.
Many, still in disbelief about the ferocity of the storm, offered to help in any way they could.
Mr. Lambert said gas was a critical need for dealers in the first days as hurricane victims needed fuel to run generators. By Saturday, CTO and BFS were sending generators to dealers for both their businesses and homes plus trying to arrange mass shipments of gas to the area.
``We understand that trucks obviously hauling fuel have been commandeered by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and diverted to New Orleans for government use,'' Mr. Lambert wrote on Sept. 3. ``Fifty-five gallon drums could be transported to our dealers discreetly on our trucks and would be easily loaded/unloaded.''
Within five days after the hurricane, Mr. Lambert organized two to three trips to the coast with these drums of gasoline.
By Monday, attention also turned to communication. CTO and BFS officials distributed cell phones with different area codes that seemed to connect better.
Mr. Lambert's sister wrote to him days after the storm. ``Yesterday I thought you were crazy to go to Mississippi,'' she said. ``Today, I see it in a different light. I understand how close you are to your extended tire family.''
Mr. Lambert, who called CTO ``one great company,'' was given a green light to return to the area to check on dealers. BFS, which Mr. Lambert said also was very helpful and committed from the start, sent representatives. By Sept. 16 he had been to the Mississippi coast three times and parts of New Orleans two times. It was largely ``seek and find missions,'' leaving messages on businesses' walls and just searching for any information.
Mr. Stevens said many bad rumors made their way north, so he and Mr. Lambert wanted to see dealerships' fate with their own eyes. A case in point was Roubion's Tires & Auto Care in Belle Chasse, La., which many had feared was wiped out but, in fact, was up and running with only some damage.
``We weren't really taking care of business for business' sake,'' Mr. Lambert said. ``We've got close personal relationships with these people, and we were worried about them.''
So far, Mr. Lambert had received word of one employee drowning at Wingfoot Commercial Tire Systems of Harahan, La.
Some dealers' homes and businesses were left standing but flooded beyond being salvageable. Other dealerships were looted when their bay doors were blown open. Vehicles left inside a Twin Tire Auto Care Inc. outlet in New Orleans were stolen. Police later found the cars with Twin Tire's invoices on the dash.
Danny Leggett, owner of Danny Leggett's Firestone in Long Beach, Miss., manned his shop around the clock to prevent looting. While business was booming right away, Mr. Lambert said Mr. Leggett is worried about how many locals-his customer base-will return. ``You don't know if they're going to move back, rebuild,'' Mr. Lambert said.
Even dealers who didn't suffer major damage to their shops are unsure about the future. With the widespread destruction prompting forecasts of a major reconstruction effort, it's unclear when dealers will be able to find workers to make even small-scale repairs.
Mr. Stevens said many dealers who are open probably haven't even had time to really assess their damage. ``I don't think they had time to slow down because business kept them on their toes,'' he said.
Picking up the pieces
Twin Tire, which has four locations in New Orleans, e-mailed passes to Mr. Lambert so he could get past military checkpoints, though he still didn't get into the hardest-hit areas of the city.
Driving into part of the city, he said, he was struck by its emptiness. One of Twin Tire's locations is among a huge shopping area with massive chain stores on a four-lane boulevard.
``I've never been there where there's not just like a million people right there,'' he said. ``There's nobody. It's a ghost town. It's like you're in the Twilight Zone.''
Twin Tire was without power, adding to the ``eerie'' feeling, he said. They couldn't get to the CTO warehouse in New Orleans, so Mr. Lambert gave Twin Tire a key to get what they needed on the honor system.
By Sept. 8-more than a week after Katrina slammed the coast-Mr. Lambert received e-mails asking for help finding temporary housing.
``According to local real estate agents, they're getting over 100 calls a day looking for rental property and they already have a list of over three pages of folks looking to purchase property,'' Mr. Lambert wrote back on Sept. 12.
About a week after the storm, CTO also set up a meeting in Hammond, La., for a team of insurance specialists to review some dealers' insurance policies individually. About 20 people representing some 12 locations from New Orleans and the Mississippi coast attended, Mr. Lambert said.
``Some people found out good news and some people found out bad news, but everyone got to meet with and talk to other tire dealers and other folks that shared similar experiences,'' he said. ``I think that the meeting helped them not feel so much alone in their upcoming battles and let them know in a small way that people cared about them and were doing whatever they could to help them in their time of need.''
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Rick Lambert of Consolidated Tire & Oil (CTO) compiled the following list on the status of a number of Gulf Coast-area tire dealerships. The information may include omissions and errors as it was collected ``haphazardly and by hearsay,'' he said.
New Orleans area
* Boudreaux's Tire & Auto Repair-The store was flooded, and owners still couldn't get in to assess the damage. It's not clear when they'll be allowed back.
* Briscoe's Tire & Auto Center-The store suffered severe damage and flooding.
* Claude Bean's Auto Care & Tires-The dealership was flooded and still closed.
* CTO's New Orleans warehouse-The facility has no power and wasn't flooded but suffered only wind damage. It is not open, and officials have not been allowed in yet.
* Firestone Auto Center of Slidell-The building had four to five feet of ``sludge'' throughout it and was without power. Officials were assessing damages and doing some cleanup.
* Gene's Tire Center-The dealership didn't suffer severe damage at its stores except for Picayune, La., where the building suffered wind damage. They are without power.
* Roubion's Tires & Auto Care in Belle Chasse-The military was using this location to repair its vehicles. The shop was ``very lucky'' and was spared from severe damage.
* Twin Tire Auto Care (Hammond)-The shop is re-opened with only minor damage.
* Twin Tire Auto Care (Holmes Blvd.)-The shop opened briefly on Sept. 7-8, but closed again because of lack of power.
* Twin Tire Auto Care (Manhattan)-The shop opened briefly on Sept. 7-8, but closed again because of lack of power. The store was heavily looted.
* Twin Tire Auto Care (Morrerro)-The store was without power.
* Wingfoot Commercial Tire Systems of Harahan-The building looks repairable, and the shop should be able to begin recapping tires once the power goes back on, though it's unclear when that will be. The company is fairly certain they lost one employee to drowning.
Mississippi Gulf Coast area
* Andy Brown's Tire in Gulfport-The store re-opened with power. They are short-handed but business is good; overhead doors were blown in.
* Danny Leggett Tire & Auto Service in Long Beach-The shop reopened shortly after the storm with a generator. Overhead doors were blown out, so owner Danny Leggett and daughter Lisa were there around the clock to guard inventory. Business is booming.
* Graywood Firestone in D'Iberville-The store re-opened, but many employees' homes were destroyed. The owners are living in a trailer in the store parking lot. All of the workers are safe.
* Jack's Firestone in Waveland-The business, as well as the owner's home, suffered very heavy damage. The owner plans to rebuild and restart business as soon as possible.
* Joe's Garage (Biloxi)-The shop is completely destroyed. The owner reportedly does not plan to rebuild this location and instead hopes the area's wounded casino industry will buy the land.
* Joe's Garage (East)-The store is damaged and without power, but it re-opened.
* Joe's Garage (West)-This brand new store, slated to open after Labor Day, lost a wall but no equipment was damaged. It should be able to open once repairs are made.
* Pascagoula Tire & Service Inc.-The shop suffered some damage but is open, performing basic tire repairs. Owner and manager Jerrod Ladner's wife gave birth to a baby girl in Pensacola, Fla., after the storm, Mr. Lambert reported. Everyone is doing well.
* Performance Tire & Wheel-The dealership's four stores in Gulfport, D'Iberville and Ocean Springs all suffered some damage with some facing severe damage.