One Year Later

By Bill Mosser
PFM - Picture Framaing Magazine, August, 2006

Last year’s storm seriously hurt many New Orleans framing businesses—although some escaped with minor damage. Here’s a look at the hurricane’s impact on a number of Crescent City framers.

My first trip to New Orleans was in 1984 for a PPFA convention. It was a few weeks before Mardi Gras, and the city was filled with music and revelers with strings of plastic beads flying everywhere. I fell in love with the city. When Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, I was heartbroken. The images of New Orleans under water were unbelievable. In March 2006 I went back to see how the city was recovering and to speak with some of the framers and suppliers whose lives and businesses had been upended by Katrina.

Lakeview Gallery and Framing
On Friday, three days before the hurricane hit, owner Kyle Daigrepont of Lakeview Gallery and Framing was at his main shop in Kenner and Ellen Buckley was working at the Harrison Avenue store in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. When Daigrepont heard that Katrina had been upgraded to Category 5, he called Buckley and asked her to start moving customers' work as high as possible, which was about six feet off the floor. He did the same, went home to secure his house, and then drove to his brother's home 80 miles away. With most of the New Orleans' population on the road, it took him eight hours to get to Baton Rouge. His brother's two-bedroom home there would shelter 14 family members, four dogs, and one cat for the next three-and-a-half weeks—two without electricity.

On Monday, Katrina hit as a Category 3 storm and left the city looking like it had suffered only high wind damage. The party on Bourbon Street was just getting underway when the levees failed and the city filled with water. The Lakeview neighborhood, near the 17th Street Canal levee breach, was under 10 feet of water, a foot higher than Daigrepont's shop. About a month later he was able to get back into the city. “When I opened the door of the Kenner store I cried," he said. "There was no damage. But when I saw the Lakeview store, I laughed. I had never seen such devastation. Everything paper had turned to pulp. Debris had floated into the shop—children's toys, stuffed animals, cans of pet food, shoes. It was a surreal scene. We had driven in from Baton Rouge. First, we went to my aunt's house [which was a total loss] to salvage whatever we could. We decided to go look at Harrison Avenue. The destruction was beyond belief. It looked as though someone had physically picked up my entire shop, shook it vigorously like a snow globe, and then sprayed 3" of muck and mold everywhere. The windows and doors had been blown out. I had to crawl through a broken window because the doorway was blocked by tables, moulding, and stuff. Everything was topsy turvy. A week later, when I went back to muck out the shop, I found that it had been looted. Some of the tables that had blocked the entrance were gone. Merchandise that could have been salvaged was missing."

Although Daigrepont didn't have flood insurance, he was covered for the wind damage the building sustained before it was submerged and for loss of income. The shop in Kenner wasn't damaged or looted. When it re-opened, he was able to put his employees back to work immediately. He and the other picture framers who still had shops were taking in more business than ever. Customers were replacing art and bringing in things that needed to be restored. Some objects that survived the hurricane acquired new meaning and, when framed, became part of post-Katrina decor. Daigrepont has no plans to reopen the Lakeville location at this time, though he may entertain the thought in four or five years.

New Orleans Conservation Guild
In May 2005 New Orleans Conservation Guild president Blake Vonder Haar had moved her operations to a larger building. The10,000 square foot facility in the Bywater neighborhood near the Mississippi River enabled her to offer multiple art services under one roof. It housed the Guild, the Bywater Art Market, New Orleans Art Supply, and the Antique and Vintage Frame Gallery and Custom Framing Studio. The Saturday before Katrina hit, Vonder Haar had an appointment that kept her away from the building in the morning so she returned that afternoon to secure things. This was her first hurricane season at this location, so she didn't know what to expect. All records, art supplies, flat files for storing artwork, and framing equipment were downstairs. The conservation lab on the second floor had more than a dozen skylights. Vonder Haar moved everything on the lower level away from windows and doors, while upstairs she wrapped conservation work in progress in Visquine, placed it on storage racks, and covered the racks with tarps. Vonder Haar evacuated New Orleans on Sunday.

Three weeks later she was able to slip back into the city to see how things were at the Guild and at her home, five blocks away. All the damage was wind related. Eight skylights were blown off, resulting in substantial water inside. Equipment was rusted, work tables and sheetrock walls were swollen, and matboard and tools were ruined. But all artwork was undamaged. With Hurricane Rita on the way, there was no time to replace the skylights so Vonder Haar covered the second floor with giant tarps. Later, she removed about 400 gallons of water that pooled on the second floor with a ShopVac and a borrowed generator. Her losses were covered by insurance and she was able to re-open in six weeks.

Vonder Haar must have had a premonition when moving into this area. What seemed like more than enough space was suddenly “flooded” with conservation work. The gallery is now filled with frames, paintings, objects, and furniture—some damaged almost beyond recognition. The unique combination of automobile fluids, fresh and salt water, and whatever else wound up in the floodwaters and has caused reactions in materials not seen before. “Today, business is booming. The entire city needs new art for their homes, so all the frame shops in town that I've spoken with are doing great business,” she says. “This is a silver lining in all the suffering we've been through.”

A.L. Lowe Frames
Doug Mabile, owner of A.L. Lowe Frames, had record sales last August and was wondering how he and his employees would be able to deliver orders on schedule. Like everyone in the area, Mabile had only a day to prepare for Katrina. After wrapping artwork in Visquine and placing it on work tables, he evacuated to his mother's home in Napoleonville, 70 miles away. When New Orleans flooded, it wasn't clear that he would have anything to go back to. Telephone service was down. Mabile was worried about his employees. Miriam Hirsch and Donovan Killeen had worked with him for 22 and 17 years respectively and were like family. He deposited a month's wages into their bank accounts.

One day while watching the news he saw his shop. Some looters had driven a front loader into a nearby Rite Aid and were shown driving past his shop. It was on dry ground! It took another six weeks before electricity was restored and Mabile was allowed to re-open his business. He did get there before that to make sure that everything was secure and to take photos for the insurance claim.

Mabile was lucky. His home and shop were on high ground. While stores nearby were looted, his was not. And his employees were fine. The roof was torn off the part of his building leased by a florist shop, but not above his frame shop. Insurance covered his loss of sales and the minor damage to the building. Today, business has never been better. A painting of Our Lady of Prompt Succor by local artist James Mouton remained in the window throughout the storm. When a CNN reporter asked if Mabile had jazz festival posters for sale, he went inside, rolled up a poster, handed it to her, and said, “Let everyone know Southern hospitality is alive and well.”

In 2003 New York-based AMPF purchased Zinsel, a long-established New Orleans distributor of framing supplies, and turned it into its second national call center. On Friday, August 26, 2005 the call center staff moved everything off the floor—to no avail. AMPF lost all its equipment and 95 percent of its inventory when water rose to about four feet in the warehouse. Many employees evacuated New Orleans and didn't return. The loss of data and its entire order center had national consequences. AMPF finally resumed operations in December and, with support from local framers, business was brisk.But AMPF was not out of the woods. On February 1, 2006, a tornado ripped the roof off the building. Currently, partial operations are running out of that facility while construction is being done to rebuild it. This time, the AMPF staff is keeping their fingers crossed.

Laville Frames
In Baton Rouge, 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, Thomas Laville of Laville Frames and employee Adam Breidenbach spent four hours Saturday morning securing their building against the storm. Baton Rouge didn't get the severe winds New Orleans had, so Laville was able to get back to work with a skeleton crew in three days, running generators for six days until electricity was restored. But he lost touch with several employees for more than a week. As New Orleans was evacuated, Baton Rouge became the state's largest city overnight as well as ground zero for recovery efforts. There were long lines everywhere and more traffic than the roads could handle. Freight deliveries and shipments were delayed and phone service was intermittent for more than three weeks.

Laville Frames manufactures a line of distressed picture frame moulding by reclaiming lumber from old “shotgun” houses. The beadboard interior siding and the studs and joists milled from old growth heart pine and cypress have lots of character, layers of paint, and history. As a result of Katrina, Laville Frames suffered a significant loss in sales. Months later, Laville is still coping with Katrina's consequences.

“The biggest problem for me has been employees," Laville says. "Wages have risen by 25 percent or more. We normally get about 10 applicants per help wanted ad for shop help. We have had a total of 11 applicants after running ads on six different occasions since the storm. We made one hire but lost two employees to stormrelated work." On the bright side, there is at least plenty of distressed material coming their way. Framers throughout the New Orleans area have proven remarkably resilient, responding with flexibility and equanimity to the unprecedented challenges presented by Katrina. As Stella Jones of the Stella Jones Gallery, says, "The city won't get caught unprepared again. And that means having a disaster plan suitable for your business and location."

The Future
Daigrepont, Vonder Haar, and Mabile were fortunate to have businesses that prospered in post-Katrina New Orleans. Their customer base is mostly the resident population. They didn't lose any employees, and Vonder Haar was even able to find qualified conservators willing to relocate to New Orleans.

For others, it hasn't been so easy. The rebuilding has created opportunities for laborers to earn good wages, and that makes it difficult to attract applicants to manufacturing and service jobs. AMPF and Laville Frames, for example, found it difficult to hire help.

This year's hurricane season also finds these framers feeling apprehensive. Mabile says, "I'm on pins and needles. I'm scared." Daigrepont adds, "Do I feel safe this year? Not at all. By next year, I'm sure we'll be fine—as long as no hurricane comes near us in 2006."

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