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Katrina aftermath: Tire dealers prove their worth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 'They were lifesavers,' said one firefighter

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Katrina aftermath: Tire dealers prove their worth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 'They were lifesavers,' said one firefighter

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, causing catastrophic damage and killing nearly 2,000 people. It was the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, and was the costliest natural disaster in United States history.

It was responsible for $84 billion in damages to homes, businesses, schools and everything else in its wake.

Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC (BFNT) recently offered Modern Tire Dealer a unique opportunity to travel with its representatives while they checked on the progress of six of its independent dealers who had lived through the disaster. The guides included Carl Douglass, general manager, key accounts, and Mike Staley, sales manager for local BFNT distributor CTO (Commercial Tire and Oil) in Baton Rouge, La.

Traveling from dealer to dealer, the damage is still very apparent. In some areas the term "ground zero" springs to mind. Whole communities have been wiped out, signs are bent in half, bridges are buckled, and there are no leaves on any remaining trees.

Those who know what the before was like must be grieving for the after.

Yet the dealers we spoke with do not dwell on the past. They push onward. They remain upbeat and consider themselves fortunate.

When the hurricane hit, each one of them rose to the occasion when they were most needed. They returned to their tire dealerships as soon as they were able and worked non-stop, fixing flats caused by storm debris and making sure emergency workers could get to the injured. They provided tires, coffee and a shoulder to cry on. They worked in the sweltering heat, they worked without electricity and running water, they worked until their wrists ached from performing thousands of tire repairs. They worked without considering their own family burdens. They were, as one emergency worker told us, "lifesavers."

They are all heroes. And here are their stories.

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'Everything I've worked for is here'

Scott "Scotty" Zimmerman, owner of Scotty's Tire & Automotive Inc. in Kenner, La., a suburb of New Orleans, had evacuated his wife and 12-year-old son to Tyler, Texas, on Sunday, the day before the storm.

His dealership sits less than two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain, which, at 630 square miles, is the second largest salt water lake in the U.S. and the largest lake in Louisiana. Its southern shore forms the northern boundary of New Orleans and the suburbs of Kenner and Metairie.

All the water in Zimmerman's area drains into canals, and pumping stations are supposed to keep the water at a safe level. When the hurricane struck, the electricity went off, the pumps stopped pumping, and water backed up into the lake. Add to that a storm surge that reached heights of more than 20 feet and it's not surprising the lake's levies breached. It is estimated that 25 billion gallons of water flooded 80% of the New Orleans area.

Flood water and wind damaged Zimmerman's whole business district. A friend called him in Texas and said, "I don't know if you want to see this or not, but there's a photo of your shop on an Internet site that's showing damage in your area." In the photo his dealership is seen sitting in standing water -- a condition that lasted two days. There was about seven inches of muddy water in the shop, about five inches in the showroom.

Looting started as soon as the water subsided. Lucky for Zimmerman, however, the National Guard and state police set up their staging area just around the corner from his shop, so order was quickly restored. And the first people allowed into the devastated areas were power company electricians who were sharing quarters with the military, so his dealership was one of the first businesses to have electricity.

The police and military units wouldn't let anyone back into his area immediately following the flooding. But Zimmerman said he was able to sneak in four days after the storm. When he first pulled up to his dealership, the first thing that struck him was the rotting, stinking fish everywhere. He assessed the damage and left. (When he was able to return a couple of days later, he said the fish had somehow disappeared.)

Several of his employees were anxious to reopen the shop. They came to the store and started to clean up as much as they could, and people were now beating down his doors for help. They concentrated on tire repairs, plugging holes in tires caused by all the nails and debris in the streets. They would fix emergency vehicles' tires first. Scotty's Tire & Automotive has four bays and can do almost any kind of auto service, but those repairs would have to wait.

In addition to the crisis at Zimmerman's dealership, his wife's father was missing. He had Alzheimer's and had been in a nursing home before the storm hit. For three weeks the Zimmermans did not know where he was or even if he'd survived.

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Also, they needed to get their son's life back to normal, if possible. And that meant making sure he went to school. Since his was destroyed in the storm, they decided it would be best for him to go live with friends in another part of the country.

(Zimmerman's father-in-law was eventually found safe, but during the storm he'd been evacuated twice. He died some months later, as did Zimmerman's own father and the daughter of a close friend. "We had three deaths within a year following the storm," Zimmerman said. "I do business with the local funeral home, and they tell me they still can't catch up." Their son lived apart from them for about six months before coming back to be home-schooled by a friend's mother. He was then placed in a private school in the New Orleans area that had been reconstructed.)

It took three weeks to fully reopen Zimmerman's shop. He had to replace his dealership's drywall and insulation from the floor level up about four feet. He had to pressure wash everything he could with bleach to prevent mold from growing.

His main tire line is Bridgestone Firestone products, and his contact at the company, Carl Douglass, made sure he had fuel, generators, storage tanks and a refrigerator within a few days.

"They were incredible. At first I thought, 'Will I have any business?' But then my second thought was, 'How will I pay for everything?'" Bridgestone Firestone people simply said, "Don't worry about it." The company offered him whatever he needed.

Zimmerman had the foresight to take his main computer with him when he left for Texas, so his customers' records were intact. He had to replace printers, copiers, jacks, two tire changers and his air conditioning unit; an alignment rack is still on order. "It's weird, though," said Zimmerman. "Equipment that was working after the storm broke down after six months or so. I guess the salt water, heat and humidity finally did them in." It didn't help that the days following the storm recorded temperatures of close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and with so much standing water, humidity was close to 100% as well.

Through all this, Zimmerman still feels he was lucky. His house was one of only four on his street that wasn't flooded. "I was fortunate. Some of my customers lost everything -- their business, their house, their loved ones. I listen to everyone's stories, I try to console people."

Before the storm, Zimmerman had been thinking that his nine-year-old store needed to be updated. The storm just forced his hand, he said (see sidebar). "When something bad happens, something good comes out of it."

Business has been great. It is back to normal levels now, following the increase he experienced after Hurricane Katrina. "You take the Katrina factor out and I'm still up," said Zimmerman. Although he emphasizes BFNT products, he will sell any brand of tire a customer asks for.

"In the back of my mind I know it could happen again. I think about that morning all the time." Yet he doesn't consider relocating. "Everything I've worked for is here."

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'I'm not scared of anything'

In the days before the storm hit land, Jack Andry, owner of Jack's Firestone in Bay St. Louis, Miss., had boarded up his home and his business. He left for Mobile, Ala., on Sunday, and a trip that normally took one-and-a-half hours took five because of all the evacuee traffic.

Hurricane Katrina sent a wall of water through his community that was more than 13 feet deep. The water pushed 11 miles inland. It was seven days before the roads were clear enough for Andry to come back.

"We had the perfect weather conditions to create the worst storm damage," said Andry. "We had high tide combined with winds that blew for six to eight hours."

Out of 18,000 homes in his area, that "perfect storm" damaged all but 23. His own house was hit but still standing.

At his dealership he saw that the surge had blasted in his four 12-foot by 18-foot bay doors. Fortunately, Andry also had four doors on the backside, so the river of water kept going, blowing out the back doors but leaving the building's steel frame standing.

There was damage and debris everywhere. All the windows were blown out; all his service equipment was ruined. The storm had deposited a huge commercial freezer on his land from a convenience store down the street.

He and his workers, the ones who remained in the area, jumped in with shovels trying to get rid of the deep silt and mud. When they could, they rented a Bobcat to help dig out the dealership. Jack's Firestone was out of commission for three months.

"I kept most of the people employed just to help them out," said Andry.

He had built his business from scratch in 1999. He had worked as a technician before opening his own dealership. The company was profitable, and then the hurricane hit.

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His signs were blown down, and he hurried to get them replaced so people would know where to get their tires repaired or buy new ones. He also concentrated on performing nail hole repairs, and sold as many tires as he could get his hands on. "It was good for the tire business, but not good for others," Andry admitted.

CTO's Mike Staley rushed in to help him after the storm. Along with tires, CTO got him gasoline-powered generators and drums of fuel. It took three weeks to get electricity.

"It looked like a Third World country," Andry said. "The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was here. The military was here. It was eerie. You'd see people standing in long lines all day for free bread, milk or ice."

His service shop normally did almost everything except transmissions. He employed four technicians and a secretary. Some of his technicians fled the area with their families, and some didn't return. His secretary only works part-time now; her children's daycare center was demolished and she's had trouble finding babysitters.

His nearby Wal-Mart, which also was destroyed, put up a tent to sell its wares so survivors would have things they desperately needed -- like soap, shampoo and bleach.

Restoration teams went from house to house. Andry used his business contacts to pull in favors and get things done as quickly as possible. Andry and his workers "became the cleanup crew, the construction crew and the mechanics," he said.

The biggest obstacles included replacing the bay doors and all the machinery. At that time of year, some suppliers didn't have equipment in stock, so he had to wait for it. "It was a battle to get the materials you needed - not the tires, but the tools.

"You make lemonade out of lemons," Andry said. "You can sit and dwell on what happened to you or you can turn it into an opportunity."

Andry and his staff tried to look at things as optimistically as possible. He said they celebrated over small victories, like having water and a toilet available. "We learned to not take the little things for granted."

He says since the storm he's been able to broaden his customer base and created a lot of good will by doing free tire repairs.

It took him about seven months to get back to normal business.

There has been another fallout from the storm, however -- he has seen insurance rates rise three-fold.

"I'm not scared of anything," said Andry. "I'll run from a hurricane, but I'll come back and rebuild."

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’It looked like you were standing on a science fiction movie set'

Danny Leggett is the retired owner of Leggett's Firestone Tire & Auto Service in Long Beach, Miss. Day-to-day operations of the dealership are now run by his daughter, Lisa.

Danny Leggett started in the tire business in 1979, and his dealership has been in its present location for the last 20 years. It is five blocks from the beach.

The day of the hurricane, he stood in the front yard of his home about a mile from his dealership and watched the storm rage around him. He knew it was bad, worse than Hurricane Camille in 1969. When the winds subsided, he grabbed chainsaws and drove a backhoe to the dealership, clearing the streets of tree limbs and other debris as he went.

The police followed in his wake to get to the injured.

His dealership was wind-torn, but the building still stood. His 10 bay doors were ruined, his roof was tattered and he'd lost insulation. Leggett's office and showroom were not damaged, however; he'd covered the windows with heavy corrugated tin.

Nearby, the water surge had created a debris pile 40 feet high and 26 miles long, full of lumber and nails.

There was nothing south of the railroad tracks near his dealership. "It was like you took a broom and swept everything away. Three coastal communities were completely gone. It looked like you were standing on a science fiction movie set," said Leggett.

He re-opened his shop at 7 p.m. the night of the storm and didn't close it for 29 straight days. He and his crew, including Lisa and his son, Chris, worked around the clock with diesel-powered generators he had on hand. (Danny has a passion for buying and refurbishing generators, so he was able to offer them to others for use, too.) The dealership went 13 days without electricity.

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He called his many contacts to get things done so he could stay open -- from electricians to builders to roofers.

With his generators, he was able to keep his lights glowing, including his outdoor signage. He said helicopters were constantly flying over his shop. "It made you feel like you were in Vietnam," Leggett said. What he didn't know until later was that the military used his illuminated store sign as a landmark. With power out for miles and miles, pilots on their way to New Orleans were told to "turn left at the light."

His employees routinely put in 17- to 19-hour days. Early on they were their own security, which was necessary because looting started immediately after the storm passed. Federal marshals were called in to restore order, and they and other emergency workers, from the police to volunteers to firemen, all came to Leggett's.

"We were one big, old family," said Leggett. "You just had to get through it. People were coming into the store in shock, dazed, with no clue where they were, people who had lost everything. Some were barely clothed. People would sit here half the night because they had no place else to go.

"There was not a dry eye anywhere, from the policemen, firemen, customers... and us.

"I'm not going to stand here and complain, because we had a building. So many people didn't have anything."

For the first couple of days, "All we did was fix flat tires," he said. Leggett and four employees were patching and repairing an average of 250 nail holes a day.

"They were lifesavers," Deputy Chief Mike Brown of the Long Beach Fire Department told MTD. "With all the debris, our equipment picked up nails left and right. Leggett's was the only place we could go to get our tires fixed. Without their help, our rescue operations could not have gone forward."

When Leggett's started selling tires again, the store sold 550 tires a month for three months in a row, when it usually sells about 250 (the company sells Bridgestone Firestone products as well as Toyo and Uniroyal). Staley "made sure I had the tires I needed," said Leggett. "When Mike couldn't get his trucks in, he got the police to bring us things.

"Banks were closed for a week and a half. We couldn't pay him. But Mike just sent the tires and knew we'd settle up later. We took 300 checks from people before the banks were open. And those were the people who had checks. We had customers who couldn't pay us by check because they'd lost their checkbooks."

Leggett stressed that "food was not readily available. When I was able to, I bought $1,200 worth of non-perishables and fed anybody who came in our store. We warmed up food in the microwave.

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"The police sought us out as an 'oasis' and in turn served as security for our business."

Leggett's Firestone Tire & Auto Service offers brake service, tune-ups, alignments, balancing, everything except transmission and engine service.

And as it happened, one of the vehicles parked in his shop awaiting repair was a coffee distributor's truck. Someone thought to look in the truck to see if it carried any of the company's products. There sat boxes of coffee, sugar and powdered cream. Leggett instructed his crew to make a list of any items taken from the truck so he could pay for it later. The company was therefore able to provide hot coffee to anyone who wondered in ("and could bring their own cup -- we were limited!" he said).

When phone lines were restored and the coffee distributor was able to ask about the fate of his truck, he was thrilled to hear it had survived -- it was the only truck in his fleet that had. And when he came to pick it up, he tore Leggett's "bill" in half.

Leggett has since spent $1,000 for steel reinforcements for his bay doors. Salt water eventually rusted his equipment and ruined his lifts, but Leggett said his insurance covered most of his losses and he was able to replace everything.

"We lost a lot of customers," Leggett noted, letting it go unsaid that while some had moved away, some had died.

"I survived Camille in 1969, but I don't want another one like this one," Leggett said. Then he added, "Someday, a hurricane will probably kill me."

'There was no place to go but up'

Jimmy and Toby Taylor rode out the storm at their home, which is 13 miles inland from the gulf. They were thinking to themselves, "Well, this isn't so bad. A little wind, some rain. No big deal."

"Little did we know that complete devastation was happening just 15 miles from us," said Toby, Jimmy's wife.

Performance Tire & Wheel in D'Iberville, Miss., where Jimmy had been manager for the last 12 years, was being flooded by eight and a half feet of water, not from the gulf but from nearby Back Bay.

Jimmy went to the dealership as soon as the storm subsided to secure the shop from looters and help others protect what they had left.

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"When he saw dead fish in the store, he knew something big had happened!" Toby said.

The showroom had been completely submerged, and the service bays had been heavily damaged and were full of debris, including an 845 pound tire that had floated in from God knows where.

The Taylors kept the store closed for two weeks while they and their crew shoveled out silt and tried to get the showroom back in order. Jimmy's goal was to get the store open and his workers back to work as soon as possible.

"We weren't waiting around for someone to help us," said Toby. "We started cleaning with shovels and rakes. We felt there was no place to go but up. So we just grabbed shovels and started shoveling!"

No electricity meant no air conditioning, and it was hot. The Taylors worked in the steamy conditions all day, but did not complain. They realized how lucky they were. "We were able to live normal lives after 5 p.m. That helped us get through it.

"Other people had nothing - no homes, nothing to drive, no gas, nothing but the clothes on their backs."

Tire repair work was heavy and tire sales were brisk after they reopened. The dealership sold a lot of "ones and twos" to get the people on their way. "You took what you could get," Toby said.

Jimmy credits his local NAPA store and CTO for getting them parts and tires. "We wouldn't have been able to stay open without them. They got us whatever we needed.

"I'd done a lot of people good over the years," said Jimmy. "I called in a lot of favors."

Toby said, "Remember, even if your business was open, there was no place to eat, no restaurants. It was crazy."

The military dropped off MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) which you shake to heat up. The beer company Anheuser-Busch brought in truckloads of ice and water, and there were long lines for these supplies.

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"People would stand in line 24 hours straight to get water, and if the supply ran out before they got any, they'd stay in line so they wouldn't lose their place in hopes of getting it the next day," Toby said. Stores were not open to offer "personal hygiene items. There was no soap, no shampoo. We also needed lots of bleach and mops to fight the mold."

To keep the tire store open, Jimmy had been patching together alignment machines, tire changers and compressors to keep things running. But it got to a point where he felt his workers might get injured working with the salt-water-damaged machinery. So he decided to close until he got safe equipment for them to use.

And following the storm, Jimmy got the opportunity to go from a store manager to store owner. He now leases the building, but owns the 13-year-old business. The dealership sells Bridgestone and Firestone tires as well as Goodyear, Michelin and Uniroyal. It also offers alignments, brake service and tune-ups.

The only changes, according to Jimmy, are a new name (Taylor's Automotive) and a new checking account. "A new individual just starting out wouldn't have had it as easy. But the company was established," Jimmy said.

Yes, they, too, plan to stay put and face what comes. "What are you going to do about Mother Nature?" asked Jimmy.

Hurricane Katrina had brought them new opportunities and new customers, added Toby. "It took a lot of people to get together to do a lot of things. We made a lot of new friends."

’It was about people helping people'

Andy Brown is the owner of Andy Brown's Tire Inc. in Gulfport, Miss. Before opening his own dealership, he worked as a Firestone store employee.

Andy Brown's Tire was opened in February 2000, and it offers Bridgestone tires and all types of automotive service. It has a staff of seven, including five in the shop.

Brown and his wife had left for New York when the storm was about to hit land. They were safe, but they didn't know where their daughter was. Andy even tried to track her down using OnStar, to no avail. It turned out that she was OK, but those were tense times, he said.

The hurricane winds damaged his store, blowing out his bay doors. No doors meant there was nothing to deter thieves -- nothing, that is, but a loaded gun resting on the knee of a Vietnam veteran who lived nearby and who took it upon himself to protect the dealership after business hours. "He sat on a bench in front of our store night after night with his gun and protected this store like it was his own," Brown said. Sadly, the man was later killed after coming to the aid of a woman who was being held up at a bank ATM across the street.

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(Brown also was resigned to the fate of the memorabilia showcase in his showroom full of Southern Miss football items. He also had a collection of Corvette model cars. He's a member of a Corvette club, and that passion helps him attract high-end tire customers, he noted. He was sure the wind had ruined it all, or that looters had stolen everything. But when he was able to return to the shop, he was relieved to see all the items were still there.)

It cost Brown nearly $15,000 for temporary bay door replacements and another $9,000 for permanent ones when he could finally get them.

Andy Brown's Tire's roof also was damaged, and he lost insulation, which fell into the service bays and dried on a customer's car, damaging the finish.

Yet it was still one of the first three automotive repair businesses able to open up after the storm.

Prior to the hurricane, his dealership would do 15 to 20 nail hole repairs a week. Afterward, the company was doing that many each day. He would perform repairs, tire rotations and balancing free of charge, especially for the rescue workers' vehicles.

Banks were closed following the storm, so how were people to pay? Other retailers warned Brown not to accept checks. But he continued to do so, and also took down credit card numbers. When the banks reopened and credit card machines were back online, he processed his customers' payments which totaled $26,000. Only one check for $300 turned out to be bad.

Some of his competition did not reopen at all, and he said some that opened were price gouging. He kept prices the same. He'd open at 6:30 a.m. and close at dark, around 8:30 p.m. "And I was grateful I had a home to go to after work," he said. Some of his employees were not so lucky.

After putting in an insurance claim for damages at his shop, Brown said "insurance adjusters questioned it. They looked at my numbers and said, 'You didn't lose any business.' But were they paying attention that I had been working 14-hour days to keep up with the needs of the people? No."

He says a major force in getting the community back on its feet following the storm was the area's churches -- all denominations. They came with food, clothing and helping hands to rebuild lives.

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"The government was slow to react, but some of the first responders were churches that sent truckloads of goods.

"It was about people helping people."

And Brown hopes to help his community recover even further. He's working on bringing an Indy Racing League (IRL) IndyCar race to his area. The plan has been approved by the city, and he's now working out details with the IRL. He hopes the race will bring in money and something else the hurricane-affected area desperately needs -- tourists.

’It still has a great ending'

David Gray and Neil "Spanky" Wood are the owners of GrayWood Automotive LLC in D'Iberville, Miss. The office manager is Gray's wife, Anjanette.

The store has been open since 2001. During the storm, the roof was damaged, two doors were blown in, and some signs came down. There was some water damage, and it took two weeks to get back up and running. Their first priority also was flat tire repair for emergency vehicles.

Spanky said he felt like he was going to have to claim carpal tunnel syndrome, his wrists hurt so badly from fixing so many tires. For $10 they'd break down the customers' tires and patch and plug them. They'd fix emergency workers' tires for free. They went through thousands of tire patches, they said.

CTO brought GrayWood Automotive gas, generators and refrigerators. "You have no clue what that meant to us," said David. Spanky believes the two things most useful in an emergency turned out to be gas to power the generators -- and a bathroom.

David mused that a divine hand might have had something to do with the dealership being spared.

"There is no reason why we should not have been flooded," explained Spanky. "We are well below sea level. When the eye of the hurricane came through, it pulled the water out instead of flooding us."

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However, that protective shield only extended so far. David and Anjanette lived 10 miles from the dealership. Their home was flooded up to the roofline.

They had evacuated their two children, a daughter 12 years old and a son 15, but took little with them because they'd been through hurricane warnings before and felt that, "we'd be back in a day and rake up a few leaves and pick up a few shingles," said Anjanette.

Instead, Hurricane Katrina ravaged their home. Only the frame remained. Before letting the children return, the Grays showed them a video of the devastation in their neighborhood to soften the blow.

The kids were able to salvage one small piece of furniture each out of the mud-covered remnants. David miraculously dug out Anjanette's jewelry box -- containing her wedding ring -- from a foot of mud. That was it.

The family didn't dwell on the lost possessions. Before the storm there were 52 homes in their neighborhood. Twenty-two neighbors -- including five children -- had died.

When he drove to his dealership, David recalls seeing bodies lying in the heat on the sidewalks. Emergency workers would tag them and leave them where they lay while they attempted to save the living. And, due to no electricity and no refrigeration, workers had run out of places to take the dead.

"If you had planned to ride out the storm, firemen were telling you to write your name and social security number on one arm, your address on the other," said Spanky. "I understood the name and number, but asked why the address. They said that was for when they found your body, they'd know how far it had traveled."

What you saw on the news reports of hurricane devastation could not do justice to what the residents saw in their community, the Grays pointed out. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Whole families were lost. Electrocution was a constant threat with all the downed live wires. Although having a boat was often a life-saver, a metal boat could be a death trap.

People lived in fear of snakes and cutting themselves on something because of infection from unknown viruses and the lack of health care facilities. Where possible, nurses were dispatched to offer tetanus shots from their own vehicles.

All of GrayWood Automotive's employees' homes were lost, too. Many had fled the area with their families. One didn't return to work for three months. Once they returned, some were living under carports, in the back rooms of the dealership, even in their cars.

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The Grays were able to buy a travel trailer, which they parked next to their business and lived in for three months. Then they bought a house and let one of their employees live in the trailer. Having someone on the property 24/7 gave the business much-needed security from looters, who were stealing everything that wasn't bolted down.

"You had to keep an eye on everything. Looters would even use cordless drills to punch holes in vehicles' tanks to steal gas," said Spanky. "An emergency either brings out the good or the bad in you. You get to see both sides."

With no electricity and phone lines down, there was no way to process credit card information. The Grays were paying for needed items by check, but when people heard they'd lost everything, many told them to hold onto their money.

Prior to the storm, the Grays had scheduled a trip to Disney World, which they decided to take, mainly to get their children out of the destruction for a short time. (When Disney found out they had lost everything in the storm, they got upgraded rooms and other gifts.) But, David said, "We were constantly thinking about home. We had survivors' guilt.

"We were able to buy a trailer, and a house three months later. Some people still don't have homes. (Their insurance company gave them just $17,000 to cover all their losses. To this day insurance claim battles are still being fought by hurricane victims, the Grays noted.)

"Someone always has a worse story than you do," David said. "You just deal with it. As bad as it all sounds, your story is nothing compared to the next guy's."

"This is not something I ever wanted my children to live through," said Anjanette. "But now that they have, I think they're better people. Their priorities are different."

Spanky added, "It still has a great ending. Business is great. Bridgestone Firestone and CTO stood behind us. And if it weren't for them, we wouldn't have made it."

All the principals of GrayWood Automotive remain upbeat about life and their dealership's prospects.

"You ask why we're still smiling? Well, we're still in business, and we still have our whole family around us," Anjanette said simply.

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Hurricane motivates dealer into remodeling

Scotty Zimmerman, owner of Scotty's Tire & Automotive Inc. in Kenner, La., had been thinking about updating his nine-year-old store and fashioning it after how things are done at a popular coffee house.

"I was always fascinated by the way Starbucks ran its business," he said. "I wanted to make my showroom like a Starbucks experience."

When he did start remodeling after Hurricane Katrina, he got new displays, help with color schemes, new flooring, etc., compliments of Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC.

He is now a "model" store for the company's new store design concepts geared for its independent dealers. This follows BFNT’s rollout of a new design setup for its company-owned stores unveiled last year.

"To sell it, you have to have something to show," said Zimmerman, explaining the company's reasoning. BFNT uses photos of his showroom or brings other customers by to see what a redesigned store can look like.

It took six months to get new furniture to replace what was lost in the flooding -- everyone in his area was ordering new furniture. The colors he chose are warm and soothing, with deep reds and yellows.

Jeff Tillman, BFNT's senior area sales manager, used the company's interior design computer program that allows you to input showroom dimensions and shows where displays can go, what color schemes are available, etc. The company has contracts and national pricing programs with Sherwin Williams, Armstrong flooring, and the like. Dealers can pick and choose what they want.

The reaction of the people who now walk into Zimmerman's shop is "Wow," he said. The waiting area -- complete with coffee, tea, cold drinks, a television, comfortable couches and chairs -- is so nice that people often don't want to leave. When they're told their car is done, their reaction is, "I'll be there in a second."

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Plan ahead to save lives and minimize damage: Expert advice from dealers and government agencies on disaster preparation

Last year's storms were not as bad as 2005's, when there were a record 28 named storms, 15 of them hurricanes. Four of those hurricanes hit the U.S. coasts, the worst being Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.

According to the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University, we can expect 17 named storms this Atlantic hurricane season (from June 1 to Nov. 30), five of them major hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater.

Add to that an average of 10,000 thunderstorms, 2,500 floods and 1,000 tornadoes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts for the U.S. each year, and you can see that no business is immune to a natural disaster of some kind.

Plus there's the possibility of un-natural, man-made mayhem. You can see why every tire dealer needs to plan ahead to safeguard his business and family.

Some of the dealers we spoke with offered advice. Scotty Zimmerman of Scotty's Tire & Automotive Inc. in Kenner, La., said, "(1) have all your insurance coverage in order and in your possession, (2) hire a certified public adjuster to handle all your insurance claims if a disaster happens, (3) have a good backup of all your computer data in your possession or -- as in my case -- take your main computer with you if you evacuate, (4) have a good relationship with your vendors so when you need them they will be there for you, and (5) go over all your insurance coverage yearly to make sure you are up-to-date with everything."

Lisa Leggett of Leggett's Firestone Tire & Auto Service in Long Beach, Miss., said, "The most important thing a dealer can do to prepare for a storm is communicate with the employees about what to do in the aftermath. All our employees returned to work immediately, and without them we could not have done such a good job. Also, we were prepared for the worst with supplies and a generator."

Andy Brown of Andy Brown's Tire Inc. in Gulfport, Miss., said, "Make sure you take a backup of your computer with your accounts receivable and your inventory. This is very helpful for insurance adjusters. Have a list of all phone numbers and backup phone numbers for your employees and also know their evacuation plans. Also, secure everything for protection against looting. The most important thing is the wellbeing of your employees, because material possessions can be replaced."

And Toby Taylor, co-owner of Taylor's Automotive in D'Iberville, Miss., with her husband, Jimmy, said the best advice they can give to anybody for the next storm "is to get good insurance (and understand what you have), secure your property and get out!"

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Here are some additional tips from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov) and the Web site www.ready.gov:

For your business:

1. The first important decision is whether to stay or flee. Have well-thought-out plans ahead of time based on different disaster scenarios.

2. Have easy and reliable access to weather reports and news updates.

3. Have a continuity of operations plan to assess how your company functions and what is necessary to keep it operating.

4. Plan what to do if your store is not accessible. Will you be able to help out customers from home or another location?

5. Have evacuation routes planned out and have employees plan alternate roads to and from work in case some are blocked.

6. Plan for payroll continuity and consider how you will pay creditors.

7. Plan for caring for any co-workers with special needs.

8. Conduct safety drills.

9. Keep an up-to-date record of employee emergency contact information.

10. Know how to turn off utilities such as gas, water and electricity.

11. Consider buying portable generators that run on gas in case you have no power. Periodically check to make sure the backup systems are working.

12. Communicate all aspects of your disaster plan with your employees via internal communication tools such as newsletters or periodic e-mails.

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For your equipment:

1. Conduct a room-by-room walk-through to determine what needs to be secured.

2. Attach equipment and cabinets to walls or other stable equipment. (Also plan where you will put tool boxes to minimize movement, and what to do with any vehicles left on lifts.)

3. Put heavy or breakable objects on low shelves.

4. Move workstations away from large windows in case of heavy winds.

5. Elevate equipment off the floor as much as possible in case of flooding.

For your family:

1. Have planned escape routes.

2. Discuss how you will communicate with each other in different situations.

3. Know how to turn off home utilities such as natural gas, water and electricity.

4. Know where to find your important documents such as insurance and vital records (including medical).

5. Consider having an emergency money fund at home in a safe place.

6. Make sure family members with special needs will be taken care of in an emergency.

For your animals:

1. Identify a shelter in your area that may be able to help.

2. Gather pet supplies including food and water.

3. Make sure your pets have a proper ID and up-to-date veterinarian records.

4. Locate pet carriers and leashes.

5. Find out which hotels accept pets and where boarding facilities are located in and outside your area in case local facilities close.

6. For large animals, also make available transport vehicles and drivers for evacuations. Make sure your destinations will have food, water and veterinary care.

Everyone at your business and at home also should learn how to administer first aid and CPR and know how to use a fire extinguisher.

And one of the most important tips: Review your disaster plans annually.

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Here are other Web sites that offer disaster preparation information:

The Department of Homeland Security www.dhs.gov

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services www.hhs.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) www.cdc.gov

Citizen Corps www.citizencorps.gov

American Red Cross www.redcross.org

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) www.noaa.org

FloodSmart.gov www.floodsmart.gov

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office of Emergency Management www.epa.org

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) www.hsus.org

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) www.aspca.org

North Shore Animal League America www.nsalamerica.org

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