New Orleans: 'No signs of life'

Monday, October 31, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - The waters of Hurricane Katrina have receded, but it's anyone's guess when the business tide will turn for local HME providers.
"Things are still pretty much up in the air as far as what's going on," said Linda Watrous, manager of Rent-Tech, one of the few local providers whose phone line was working in late September.
With only parts of the city open and a dusk 'til dawn curfew in place to prevent further looting, New Orleans is in an emergency state. Electricity and phone service are spotty and shipping and mail service is basically nonexistent. And there are not a lot of people.
"You go up and down the street and see no signs of life," said Jeff Friedman of Total Health Solutions. "We've probably lost 50% of our customer base that will never come back. Their homes are destroyed."
With most city hospitals closed there are few patients and fewer referrals. Providers are doing what they can to conduct business in the nearly deserted city.
"People want to stay but you can't," said Melissa Tramuta, a customer service rep at Masters Medical. "It stinks, it's dirty. Pictures don't do it justice."
Masters' New Orleans location was destroyed, but the company forwarded its phones to its Baton Rouge location and is open for business, even picking up a few new customers who evacuated to Baton Rouge.
"We are serving patients," said Tramuta. "We have a guy on standby in New Orleans. His truck is on standby. It's an emergency situation." She said the company will rebuild.
Friedman's warehouse received 8 inches of water. Insurance will cover the loss of $100,000 in inventory but not lost income.
"Unfortunately, I'm only 20 months old so we weren't even profitable yet," said Friedman, who will apply for Small Business Administration loans to get back on his feet. "We were just starting to really turn the corner."
Friedman is not the only one unsure of total losses.
"We had a lot of equipment out before the hurricane," said Watrous. "Apparently, we have had patients that were on our equipment that were evacuated with the equipment as far as we know. We don't know the situation with that."
Even as local providers try to reestablish their livelihood, many must grapple with personal loss as well.
"Five of my people lost their homes," said Friedman. "I've got one family of five living with me." Friedman has personally given money to those in need.
Meanwhile, providers can only wait and see.
"We're still here to provide if and when they do need it," said Watrous.