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Gustav: The aftermath

Hurricane Gustav wasn't the ruthless monster everybody feared, but it still socked small businesses.

By David Whitford, editor at large
Last Updated: September 3, 2008: 1:14 PM EDT

A damaged gas station in Schriever, La.
Along Highway 20 near Schriever
A small store in Thibodaux, about 100 miles from Lafayette

LAFAYETTE, LA. (Fortune) -- Doug Keller is old enough to be a grandfather. He remembers Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Camille four years later, and Katrina and Rita, of course, just three years ago. But Gustav is the first storm he's ever run away from.

I reached him by phone in Marble Falls, Tex., near Austin, the day after Gustav blew through his nearly deserted hometown of Lafayette, La. "The thing that happened with Katrina and Rita made us realize what we all had to do," Keller said. "We'd never seen that in our lifetime."

Keller is VP for sales for Knight Oil Tools, a global tools and services rental company with headquarters on Highway 90 in Lafayette, where the eye of Gustav passed yesterday around 2:15 p.m.. He says his company will lose about a week's worth of revenues from the storm - as much as $3 million.

Katrina was much worse, he says, making Knight's experience typical of early estimates that Gustav will prove far less costly - by an order of magnitude - than Katrina. Less than 24 hours after Gustav's arrival, Keller had yet to receive reliable reports about the extent of damage to rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, or inland, but broader estimates of Gustav's economic impact suggest the final bill will be but a small fraction of Katrina's more than $40 billion in insured damages.

One thing Keller's not expecting this time around is a post-hurricane bump. After Katrina struck three years ago, business boomed as drillers throughout the region rushed to restore operations. That won't happen now because business is already strong and Knight has neither labor nor machinery for further expansion.

"I'm not sure how much of a bump we can handle," said Keller, "because we're all working full force, 100% capacity."

Disaster averted, this time

Doug put his son-in-law on the line, Parrish Cline. Cline owns Body Masters Sports Industries, an exercise equipment manufacturer with about $10 million in revenues that was founded 30 years ago by his father. Body Masters' 80 employees work mostly in Rayne, La., just west of Lafayette. They worked a partial shift on Friday and will start returning tomorrow. Cline expects to lose only about $150,000 to $250,000 to Gustav, mainly due to interruptions in deliveries and supplies.

In Lafayette, the morning after Gustav revealed downed power lines, fallen trees, collapsed awnings and tattered billboards. A 27-year-old man was killed here when a tree fell on his house; at least two others died the same way in Baton Rouge.

About 100 miles south and east of Lafayette in Thibodaux, where I drove Tuesday morning, there were no reported fatalities, but the visible damage to land and property was much more dramatic. The roads were mainly empty, save for caravans of utility workers working to restore power, and ambulance trucks searching for storm victims who, happily, may not exist.

As I headed back to Lafayette, a hard rain was still falling and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were on the radio. Their message: We got lucky, but only because when the storm hit, most coastal residents had heeded orders to evacuate.

Remember that when Hannah hits the East Coast later this week, with Ike and Josephine lined up right behind and gathering strength. To top of page

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