Katrina Series: September 2005

07 Oct

On August 28, I was as ready as I could have possibly been. I had heard all of the reports in the media and, being a resident for over 25 years, I knew almost instinctively what I needed to do. I had to protect myself, and my family, and I had to do what I could to preserve my small business. A category five hurricane was bearing down on my hometown-New Orleans.

In 1993, I opened my own glassblowing business: Rosetree Glass Studio. Three and one half years later, we renovated a vintage Art Deco movie theater into an award-winning studio that houses our business. Rosetree sells work to over 400 retail shops, galleries, and museum shops across the country. I make the handblown glass pieces along with the help of three employees and my wife, Brenda. We wear many hats, as most people with small businesses do. We design the artwork, make the pieces, do publicity, market the work, handle sales, and run a gallery that is located in the front of my building. Each piece is individually made with care.
On that fateful day, while my wife prepared at home with my teenage children, Marcy and Max, I prepared the studio. I intended to take everything necessary to re-establish our business, if we were wiped out. The most important thing was the computer with all of our back-up files. I also took my Rolodex with years of contacts, a notebook in which I keep track of everything that I order for the studio along with phone numbers, copies of our accounts receivable, and copies of our upcoming orders. I emptied 400 pounds of molten glass out of our furnace and turned off the gas and power to the building. As I screwed the final piece of plywood across my door, I took one last look at everything that we have spent the last 13 years building, not knowing if there would be anything left when we returned.

We planned to evacuate to Magnolia, Texas. This is the home of Brenda’s brother and his family. With the car loaded with essentials, mementos, and cherished items, again I surveyed what we had accumulated in 16 years. With the dread that we might not ever see our city and our lives the same way again, we entered a sea of traffic that would ultimately take 16 hours to navigate through the, typically, six hour drive.

When we arrived in Magnolia, I knew that there were many things that were out of my control. I tried to concentrate on the things that would be positive or beneficial to my family and business. All of the reports and warnings indicated that this was the “perfect storm” that would crush New Orleans. We were told that we might not be able to return to our beloved city for six to eight months. This was out of my control. What I could do was try to get my family back to some sense of “normalcy.”

The first thing I had to do was to become financially sound. We had to contact everyone possible in our accounts payable and work out a payment plan. The response was resoundingly positive. The first credit card that I called was American Express. The person I talked with went out of his way to defer payment, add to my credit limit, let me know that emergency cash was available, and to even give me his home phone number in case I needed him at any time. He told me that I had been a loyal customer for many years and now it was their turn to take care of me! It was an incredible expression of customer service that will be appreciated for years to come. Next was my cell phone provider, Sprint. I knew that I would have to use my cell phone extensively for business during our time away from home. The customer representative changed our payment plan to give me more minutes and free text messaging (two teen-agers take up a lot of minutes) for less than I was paying before the storm. One week later I received a text message from Sprint that told me they were giving me a free month of service. I received similar service from most of the accounts that I called.

Setting up a place to work was next. A glassblowing studio is not something that can be set up without logistic problems. A furnace that holds 2000-degree molten glass is not quickly thrown together. I had an incredible response from both friends and strangers I had never met before. I was offered studio space at over 15 studios across the country. The problem was that I would have to leave my family, and I had always maintained that remaining together as a whole family unit was the most important part of our evacuation. I explored finding a studio in Houston and found two wonderful people, Dick Moiel and Kathy Poeppel, who turned on their studio, Houston Studio Glass, and allowed me to start making my art.

As I sit writing this from Magnolia, Texas, we are waiting out the next hurricane, Rita. I have had reports that our home and studio have both sustained damage, but not irreparable. The area of New Orleans that our studio and home are located in, Algiers, was not badly damaged from the storm.

When we are able to, we will go back to New Orleans and re-establish our business. In the past few weeks we have learned a lot about what transpires ina disaster of “biblical” proportions. We also have learned that there are some very thoughtful and caring people who are willing to help their friends, as well as those whom they have never met.