NEW ORLEANS - Sonny Knobloch and Ted Offner operate successful HVAC residential service and replacement businesses in New Orleans. They share a common parking lot and common good business practices. In other words, they know how to run a good business with a good future.

But nothing prepared them for Aug. 29 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and New Orleans flooded. Both men saw their fortunes and the future of their businesses change forever in just one day. The flooding destroyed much of their customer base and left question marks as to how the future market will look.

Knobloch, owner of Help! Air Conditioning & Heating [featured in the Oct. 10 issue of The NEWS] said he lost 52 percent of his service customers. Most of these people are simply gone. Their homes were in some of the worst hit areas of New Orleans, where water made it to the roofs. On Oct. 27, The NEWS toured some of the worst areas with Sonny's son, Korey, who pointed out some of the homes he used to service.

"We had zero service calls in September," Korey said. "Right now so many people are in a bad way and don't know what to do. I worry about them being taken advantage of. I've heard from customers that companies are charging $199 just to come out and look at a unit. That is not right."

Speaking of money, Offner, owner of Blue Flame Inc., said he has changed the way he does collections now - for the people he can get to.

"You try to get your money right away now because mail service is slow or doesn't exist," he said.

"I'm trying to take care of my oldest customers first. Some people don't want to hear it when you tell them there are liability issues if my men have to go under the house where the ground has been contaminated."

Besides losing customers, both companies lost employees, too. Not all of the them have returned yet. Those that have are facing uncertain times. Offner's foreman lives in a travel trailer parked in the company lot. His family remains out of town. "Without his family, I don't know what his mental state is," Offner said. "This whole thing is mentally and emotionally draining."

Offner added that he has offered extra money to his techs to work more hours, but not everyone is taking advantage of it because they are just too exhausted. Even Offner is having trouble keeping pace. He said he had at least 50 quotes on his desk and the day of The NEWS' visit he wasn't taking calls. He needed to sort things out.

A hand-painted sign advertises “house gutting” — a popular job in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Riding With Help

Korey Knobloch stopped by one home where his tech, Phil Rholden, needed a hand getting a new condensing unit through the underbrush and mounted on the pad. The homeowners told Help! that the tech could pull his truck up to the fence and come through the back gate. The problem was that debris and brush blocked the path.

Knobloch helped Rholden muscle the box through the mess and through the gate, narrowly missing all of the debris in the yard and on the deck. A large plastic container on the porch was still filled with old floodwater.

The homeowners had requested the new unit so that once they returned to the home and power had been restored, they could have immediate air conditioning. For now, the home was still without power and undergoing repair.

The job was typical of most work being done by Help!. Since there was little service work to perform, the installers and service technicians were replacing units for people who wanted everything in place once they returned. Many were paying for the equipment up-front before getting any insurance settlements.

A “mini-mountain” of debris from New Orleans’ neighborhood homes.
Knobloch drove by a home in Orleans Parish, next to the 17th Street Canal, which had flooded, sending water up the rooftops of area homes. One of his service customers lived in the neighborhood. Her home appeared to be damaged beyond repair. Debris and twisted trees dotted the neighborhood. There was very little sign of activity.

She is one of many service customers who left New Orleans and whose whereabouts are unknown. The uncertainty of her return is like that of many other homeowners, which makes Help!'s future service business unpredictable.

Knobloch also stopped at a home in what he called the uptown section, an upscale neighborhood with nicer homes. His crew was installing a completely new system, including a downflow furnace and condensing unit. The crawlspace below the home and part of the floor were under water and ductwork below the floor had to be removed.

A luxury boat lies on the grass across from a Lake Ponchartrain marina.
"We are trying to tell a lot of people in this area that they have to get their systems out from under their house," Knobloch said. "There is business in relocating these units."

He also stopped at an apartment complex that sustained major first floor flood damage. Help! is working with the owner to replace the eight systems that were destroyed on the first floor. Knobloch hopes to eventually replace all of the units in the two-story building.

As the drive continued, Knobloch pointed out the many lawn signs that had become the most common way to advertise after the flood. A lot of HVAC companies were among the advertisers. "I don't recognize some of these company names," said Knobloch.

"I'm sure some people will come into town and operate for a couple of years, making a lot of money. Then they will leave and the homeowners will be stuck with warranty work that won't get done."

A destroyed building in downtown New Orleans provides a background for a burned-out truck with the words “New Service Vehicle” painted on it.
Knobloch noted that some of the area restaurants are coming back to life. He said he had gotten used to eating "meal-ready-to-eat" (MRE) packages every day for 3-1/2 weeks while New Orleans struggled with its food supply. To this day, he won't sit down to eat fish at a local restaurant fearing that it may have come from nearby Lake Ponchartrain, where New Orleans pumped its toxic floodwaters.

Knobloch stopped by Lake Ponchartrain, pointing out the area where million dollar homes along the shoreline were washed away or damaged. One of them was a service customer. To protect homeowners from looters, the area was being guarded by Louisiana National Guard troops. In other parts of the city, there was a noticeable lack of security.

"The looters have already come and gone," said Knobloch. "There's not much left to steal."

Even Help!'s suppliers were not immune from the flood damage. While some of its equipment suppliers were able to stay high and dry, others in the warehouse area near downtown New Orleans were not as fortunate. One supplier, Taylor-Seidenbach, who sells sheet metal supplies to Help!, was under 4 to 5 feet of water. Owner Hal Shepard was inspecting the damage and making arrangements to open up after cleaning the mess. He wanted Knobloch and all of his customers to know he is coming back.

A common sight in New Orleans’ neighborhoods — the entire destroyed contents of each home on the front lawn.

What Lies Ahead

For now, Help! will not be joining the other companies in lawn sign advertising. Knobloch said his company is booked solid with replacement work for the next month-and-a-half. He said that after that, homeowners should start seeing insurance money - and Help! will continue to stay busy.

Offner can remain busy, but he is pessimistic about the future of New Orleans. "There are no Fortune 500 companies here," he said. "And when you have big companies like Wal-Mart and Lowes saying they won't come back [to St. Bernard's Parish], that's a big problem. There are no people there."

He is also concerned about Jefferson Parish, which depends on nearby Orleans Parish for much of its revenue. Orleans Parish includes the upscale neighborhoods along Lake Ponchartrain and the many local shoreline parks, restaurants, and marinas. As an example, a landmark restaurant on the shoreline, Fitzgerald's, was completely destroyed. "If Orleans Parish is slow to come back, that will affect everything around it," Offner said.

A common sight among New Orleans’ damaged buildings, rescue workers’ markings and several water lines.
As for Blue Flame, Offner sees a lot of work ahead. "We'll be busy in the next six months," he said. "I hope things get back to normal before next summer."

He also hopes to hire some more people, as do many other businesses struggling to reopen. Offner ran help wanted ads in the local newspaper and got one call in two weeks. The local fast food restaurants, which had been operating as drive-thru only businesses, were sweetening the pot for applicants. Burger King was offering a $6,000 signing bonus, payable in 12 $500 monthly installments for new employees.

For now, installers and would-be service technicians are being crowded out by the newest and most popular profession in the area: house gutting.

And where there is a gutted home there will be new equipment, a prospect that makes Offner a little uncomfortable.

"We make our money on service calls and there won't be a lot of those because of all of the new equipment," he said.

Sidebar: Katrina Also Hits Hard In Jackson, Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. - Tom and Barry Dent have a bad taste in their mouths from Hurricane Katrina. While the world focused attention on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina ravaged the landscape, the town of Jackson, Miss. went through its own version of hell. The world may not have heard much about it, but the local citizenry will never forget it.

Katrina was still packing winds of 100 mph when it came through Jackson, after cutting a swath of destruction along a path 200 miles long down to the Gulf Coast. All along southern and middle Mississippi, homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and trees and power lines were snapped into unrecognizable masses of splinters and debris.

The Dent brothers, owners of Dent Air Conditioning Co., were among the 97 percent of Jackson that lost electrical power immediately after the storm. Communications were seriously affected.

"There was work to do but no way to get a hold of anybody," said Tom. "The storm shut us down for a couple of days. Even when the power and phones came back we had problems with both."

Barry added, "We would have been better off staying shut down for a couple of days."

The company tried its best to get back to work, but they were faced with a problem that many Jackson citizens faced - little or no gasoline for their vehicles. Some of the Dent employees couldn't make it into work because they didn't have enough gas in the company vans that they drove home.

"We siphoned gas out of the vehicles we don't use," said Tom. "We parked our trucks in line at the local gas station, waiting for the gas trucks to come. We came very close to shutting down because of the lack of gas.

"I know of one competitor who had to shut down because of the gas shortage."

Ironically, the 51-year-old company founded by Tom Dent Sr. (the oldest continually family-owned business in Jackson), also sells gas generators and does electrical work. The company sold and installed a lot of generators following the storm because the generators run on natural gas, which was still available.

Tom said if there was one lesson to be learned from the storm it was to make sure all of the vehicles are gassed up and there is an extra supply of gasoline before another storm comes through. "I just didn't figure we would have this problem," he said.

"The storm was worse than anything we had seen in our lifetime in Jackson," said Barry. "My wife and I were in our sunroom watching trees getting blown over. There weren't a lot of places to take shelter but luckily our house held up. The main damage came from falling trees."

The company building was undamaged, as was the good year it had been having up until then. Luckily, the storm didn't have a big impact on sales, thanks in part to the generator sales. "This was our best September despite being down the first couple of days," said Tom. "This year has the potential to be our best year ever."

If the Dents decide to spread their work to the south, they will likely have a banner year. "There will be endless business south of us," Tom said. "There will be a lot of blow and go remodeling."

Coming off a hot summer where August and September were banner months, Tom said the storm might have left a good indelible imprint on Jackson residents. "If people didn't appreciate air conditioning before the storm, they sure did afterwards," he said.

- John R. Hall

Publication date: 11/28/2005