September 6, 2005--David Gross sums up the impact of Hurricane Katrina on his Gulfport, Miss.-based laundry business with a blunt assessment: "It knocked the crap out of us."
Over the weekend, Gross wandered through the tattered remains of Gulf Coast Laundry Services, a 2003 Inc.500 inductee that posted over $6 million in revenue the previous year. Caught in the storm's path, the plant lost a third of its roof and is now filled with a foot of water, cracks tearing through a reinforced concrete firewall. "What kind of force can do that?" Gross asked.
His only consolation is that the building remains standing. "It's there. It wasn't flattened. That's something anyway. We could rebuild on that," he said.
For now, that process seems a long way away. Gross, who was vacationing in Florida when the storm hit, has only just returned to the ruin of his once thriving company. On Saturday, he headed back to Gulfport along the Pensacola Highway (CQ), trailing behind the one working delivery truck left in the company's fleet. It had been loaded with food and supplies for local victims. En route to the plant, Gross discovered his nearby home "blown out and destroyed" by the storm's 150-mile-per-hour winds. All he could salvage were a few family photos and heirlooms.
He's now begun tracking down Gulf Coast Laundry's 140 employees. So far, the entire front-office staff has been found safe and sound. An emergency contact number is now posted on the company's website. "We're working our way down the organization," Gross said. "It's frustrating. Communications are just impossible, but we have every reason to believe we'll contact everyone soon," he added.
The future of the company itself seems less certain. Gulf Coast Laundry, whose main clients were hotels and resorts throughout the region from Mobile to New Orleans, not only lost its operations. It lost its customers.
"They're all gone. I mean wiped out," Gross said.
Some analysts have estimated total property losses in the Gulf Coast region, homes as well as factories, plants, refineries and infrastructure, as high as $100 billion. Insured losses are expected to range between $10 and $25 billion, though with much of the area inaccessible a full assessment is unlikely any time soon.
Groups like the Small Business Association and the National Federation of Independent Business are reaching out to thousands of small owners across the region, hoping to jumpstart the rebuilding process with some $2.5 billion in available loans.
For Gross, that's still a long way off. Yet despite the devastation, he remains fully committed to rebuilding his shattered business: "With entrepreneurs the word 'can't' simply doesn't exist."