Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I've had a difficult time writing an ending summary of this trip, and here it is three days later and the words aren't exactly flowing. The return journey was long but uneventful and I found myself back in the office on Monday morning without much of a transition. That might have been a mistake, because right now my mind is spinning in many different directions.

On the day of departure, Luke and arrived early in the morning at the Gulfport airport. The airport was going through renovations before Hurrican Katrina arrived, and with the additional damage it looked more like a facility one would find in third world country. As we walked into the terminal we both commented in not so many words that it was indeed time to go.

So our story ends with this last post. I've grown to appreciate how the business people I dealt with in Mississippi were solving their problems with surpising optimism. They are friendly, caring people that usually carry a smile on their faces and have a good joke to tell. It took two weeks, but now I realize that under extreme circumstances that humor was probably their best means of defense.

We had a lot of assistance on this trip especially from the Mississippi SBDC and the Michigan SBTDC. I'm glad that Luke was around to be the voice of reason in some borderline crazy situations.

Thanks for the 300 plus visitors to this site in a short two week period, and for those who quickly spread the word of its existance. And last but not least, Deb Donovan and Bill Palladino offered tremendous moral support, and covered brillantly for me in my absence from the Traverse City office, Thank You!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Swan Song

Luke and I are back today at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for one last day on the job before we head back to Michigan tomorrow morning. Being Saturday, we're not sure what to expect for traffic flow.

Yesterday was an unusually busy day in this classroom that has morphed into the Mississippi Business Assistance Center. Luke and I typically handle general questions while Bob and Wendell from the SBA handle detailed questions about the Small Business Administration loan documents. When it gets hectic like yesterday we all help with the SBA paperwork.

The setup here took a week to organize, and now people are finding and utilizing what we have to offer. The strange part will be leaving here and not knowing if the people we've helped will get their loan assistance.

The parking lot which was over flowing with commuter students yesterday is virtually deserted today. I noticed early on that there are no bike racks, or stops for public transportation here on campus. In fact there are no bike paths or pedestrian friendly intersections anywhere in Gautier. There is no doubt that the car is king here.

Much has been written in the local papers this week regarding the opportunities that exist for Gulf Coast communities to rebuild in a way that will make them more people friendly. In other words, recreating the compact, vibrant, walkable towns and neighborhoods that withered away, and were swallowed up by bigger, busier roads from the 1960's to present.

Now I've been an advocate of this New Urbanist philosophy for years. In fact I rallied for years when I owned a business in Leland, Michigan to attract more year-round businesses that would cater essential goods and services to the locals. The idea was to maintain a village center that would prevent unneeded trips to Traverse City, and to provide a thriving environment for Leland business owners.

Back then people weren't paying much attention, but over time I think my therory proved to be correct. Now Leland is an even weaker seasonal tourist town with high business turnover rates. Meanwhile, people from Leland many times will run in to each other at the Meijer or Target store in Traverse City 35 miles away.

With the latest spike in gas prices and the overflowing traffic patterns we've seen here in towns along the Mississippi coast, a major mindset change would be the perfect remedy.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Knowing when to get out

Did the title get your attention? Actually our lesson today will deal with exit strategies. We've heard many stories here on the Gulf Coast from business owners who are weighing the costs of rebuilding their business versus selling the land and skipping town.

I mentioned previously how most of the people we've met with are in generally good spirits. They've already made the choice to stay here and are now at the point where they're ready to dig in and get to work.

A few others are still on the fence, and they seem much more stressed. This tends to be the case when someone is getting on in years and thinking of cashing in their chips rather than using their nest egg and starting over.

When counseling someone who is just starting a business, I like ask them questions regarding their "exit strategy". For example:
1. How long do you plan to operate and be a vital part of the business?
2. When you move to the next phase of your life (ie. retirement), what will happen to the business?
3. When you decide to get out of the business will you sell it to partners or family members, sell the business before the business approaches a downward part of its business cycle, or simply sell the assets and move on?
4. When will the benefits of running this business no longer fit into your overall life plan?
5. If you make an early exit and die (the extreme exit), what will happen to the business and those who are left? How can the risks to others (employees, bank, suppliers, investors) be minimized?

As we continue with this business lesson, let me say that most people don't ever consider how they will get out of business before going into business.

This has become even more real and more important here in Mississippi, when people lose buildings, customers, equipment, paperwork, and years of hard work in a hurricane.

So, what's the moral of the story? Think about what conditions would cause you to not want to be in business anymore, and have a plan in place for making a graceful exit.

My Dad, Peter Wendel is an expert in this field, especially in dealing with the succession issues of family businesses. I'm sure that along the line I've picked up a lot of skills that I use everyday from listening to him. So here's my shameless promotional plug (and free counseling session) for today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Sidewalk Sale

Drove past this interesting sight in the parking lot of the Grace Baptist Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Piled up are clothes sent from caring folks from other parts of the country for those here who are in dire need.

Now I'm not so sure how the distribution system works for all of this, but I've seen similar scenes in other local areas. The piles are there for anyone to pick through.

Fortunately I was good to go with laundry, and I'm glad it hasn't rained, because all that would be left would be wet clothes. Wait, wasn't this what these parking lot items were supposed to replace in the first place?

Here's Luke on the left pictured with the afore mentioned ball of lightning known as Billy Lawson. I joined them at the new setup we have with the Small Business Administration at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

I'm still on call at the local Hancock Bank here in Gautier, but they have no office space for me to use. It's tough talking to people about financial matters in a open bank lobby, so I'm usually walking between locations, which means I'm spending a lot of time in parking lots in 85 degree heat.

Billy read the blog and said he liked it. Later he told Luke he actually didn't care for the blog, it was just a Southerner's way of being polite. We decided that we had to qualify the earlier comparison to Sean Penn (10/5 entry). Although the picture doesn't show it, Billy looks more like Sean Penn post Falcon and the Snowman and pre Madonna.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Thinking about tomorrow, when dealing with today

Every day a pervasive question it seems is inevitably discussed here; Could or when will a hurricane of this magnitude strike this area again? In other words, how does one plan longterm for something that may never happen again?

Personally I think it will happen again, and it won't be another 36 years before another category 5 hurricane hits the Gulf Coast. Most educated opinions will admit that we're way behind the curve on curbing the burning of fossil fuels that produce global warming and atmosphere altering weather patterns. And messing further with nature has serious and far reaching consequences for all of us.

But what if you live here? How does one rebuild one's house and survive in the short term, and still have the presence of mind to think about what may occur in the long term?

I've heard plenty of people in the office we share talk about moving north of Interstate 10. I-10 seems to be a line of delineation for escaping future ocean flooding and serious damage.

The remains of ocean front homes I've shown in previous posts may be rebuilt, but the word on the street is that there won't be anyone who will underwrite an insurance policy for any of them.

Luke and I went somewhat stir crazy today. We wanted to be busier so we called our friend Billy Lawson (see entry of 10/5). Billy, who Luke and I call a "big time operator" made some calls, and starting Wednesday we're relocating for the remainder of our stay to separate locations that may see more traffic.

I'm heading to a nearby bank branch, while Luke is going to the Gulf Coast Community College next door. We've enjoyed the friendly staff at Southern Mississippi University (and their internet access, which may not be available at the bank). They apparently enjoy seeing an outsider's perspective, and have dozens of people here reading this blog.

Worth a Thousand Words

Due to popular request, today I’m showing more photos, that demonstrate the strength and power of nature in its most extreme form.

The first two shots show what was once the two-mile Biloxi Bay Bridge between Ocean Springs and Biloxi, Mississippi.

We’ve been told that an engineering and construction team will use $150 million to rebuild the pilings and spans that make up this vital link to Biloxi’s Casino area.

The photo to the right comes from Celene Mielcarek, a enrollment specialist here at the University of Southern Mississippi.

This was her home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi that was lost along with most of her personal belongings in the storm. Celene maintains an upbeat and enthusiastic demeanor in the office we share with her, despite the tremendous adversity she has faced.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Tale of Two Cities

The newfound freedom of a rental van gave us the opportunity to explore the Gulf Coast over the weekend. Heading east past Mobile we ended up in Gulf Shores, Alabama a resort town that lies at the end of a peninsula, known for its golf courses and miles of white sand beaches.

The only evidence of Katrina damage here were front loaders moving sand back into place. There were so many new high-rise condos under construction; it was difficult to delineate hurricane repairs from new work being done.

Sunday was a different story. In the afternoon, we traveled west as far as Louisiana. The most stirring sight was Bay St. Louis, Mississippi pictured above. There isn’t an adequate way to describe what was left of what was previously an upscale beach town.

There were no (repeat no) businesses that were reopened. Cars were turned over in ditches, debris hung from every tree, and sections of buildings were scattered everywhere. The house shown above was the only one left along a mile coast stretch west of the city.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Weather or Not

Overall yesterday was uneventful, or maybe it was day to look for the unordinary and glean something useful from it. I haven’t mentioned much yet about the weather here, so maybe that’s a good place to start.

A local woman was in our makeshift office, talking about an impending cool down that will get the temperature down to 65 at night. Of course the daytime highs will still approach the upper 80’s, but the weather is after all a relative thing.

Just as someone who grew up in Gautier, Mississippi can’t imagine 200” of lake effect snowfall, I can’t imagine living here April to November in muggy tepid temps of 85+.

Years ago I put together a not so ready for a comedy club routine that centered on the Weather Channel. I nicknamed it the “Worry Channel”, because I realized that many of its viewers were looking for bad weather somewhere, anywhere, especially when there was none to speak of in their own backyard.

After being here for a few days, I’ve decided that this kind of “weather envy” is misguided, sort of a meteorological version of slowing down on the freeway to see the accident on the other side. So now I’m calling a truce.

We have Saturday off so Luke and I are renting a car and exploring the Alabama coast. Oh and we’re excited about the Gauthier Mullet Festival taking place this weekend. More about that on Monday.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

"We're with the Government mam; We're here to help."

Due to the confidentiality agreements with the people we work with, I’m unable to detail stories of the folks we see here everyday. One though can’t help but notice their kindness, patience, and politeness, especially with the bizarre and severe life situations they have witnessed.

Luke and I make a good team. I like to hear the human side of a client story when working through the paperwork, while Luke is able to gently bring people back to the task at hand. Too bad he’s a comptroller, because I think he’d make a good business consultant.

After work we went on another run, this time through an adjacent residential neighborhood. We spent a lot of time dodging garbage and refuse still waiting by the side of the road for pickup. The smells alone made us curtail the run.

These houses, a good 3-5 miles inland have serious rebuilding to do. Both Luke and I talked about how much destruction had taken place in this tiny three-block area.

Multiplying it out by hundreds of miles in three directions started to boggle our minds, especially when you think of the labor and materials needed, and time it will take before the region regains normalcy.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Today we were able to see serious shoreline damage, and got a handle on the real wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Billy Lawson the SBDC Regional Director for this part of Mississippi visited our outpost in Gautier late in the afternoon, as things were winding down for us. Lawson, a Sean Penn look alike with the demeanor of a gracious (but not too overzealous) game show host, decided it was time for us to take a ride.

Our side trip took us to the ocean front town of Pascagoula, a few miles to the east, on the Gulf of Mexico shore. The access road from Route 90 took us past severely damaged homes with mountains of garbage piled up on the road waiting to be picked up, just how long we could only guess.

Finally we met the ocean and the saw the remnants of huge Antebellum mansions and homes that felt the full brunt of the storm. One has to remember that these houses had survived Hurricanes Camille in '69, Frederick in '79, Elaina in '85, and Georges in '98.

The picture above shows what remains of one such home. In this case the house was located less than 150 feet from the ocean and had its first story completely wiped out by the swelling waves and 90 mile per hour winds. The second story then collapsed and fell to become a very dysfunctional first level.

What you don’t see are numerous lots on either side of this home where several houses were completely leveled. Now six weeks later, all that remained were brick ruble and random wall studs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Work is work

Met with several people this morning, most were in good spirits not upset or out of sorts as we anticipated. For me it was just like the work I do in Traverse City, but this time the business owners had likeable Southern accents that I eventually found myself mimicking.

I do this when I’m in Canada, not speaking in a Southern accent, but mimicking the dialect I hear. This doesn’t mean that the people here are buying into any of this. To them I’m sure I’m still a Yankee that can help them with their SBA loan.

The building we are housed in is a testament to the damage from the hurricane. The walls, ceiling tiles, and floors are all suffering significant water damage. The sleek cherry office furniture we are working from must have been covered or removed during the storm and it now contrasts the floor that is an interesting mix of carpet glue and concrete.

Luke and I weren’t able to go anywhere too exciting today. A post work run was our only opportunity to see anything new. The big attraction was the Singing River Mall an aging shopping center that looked like it was built in the late 70’s.

Some stores were closed, apparently out of inventory or suffering water and roof damage. Not all of the mall’s interior lights were operating, and the lack of light and half empty stores created a creepy kind of shopping experience.

I was in search of a bookstore, but the all we found was a dollar store that offered nothing but trashy novels. If I don’t find anything else new to read in the next day or so, I may have to stop back.

Of yes, the Traverse City Record Eagle published a nice story today about our trip. I read the article online and fortunately it didn’t include my picture that ran in the printed edition.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Seeing Blue

Flying into Gulfport on a small plane the first thing you notice are bright blue blotches. At first I thought they were an abundance of above ground swimming pools. It didn’t take long to realize that they were actually roofs of houses and buildings covered with blue tarps, and they were everywhere.

Once on the ground I was told that FEMA distributed most of the blue plastic tarps. On this first day I heard all kinds stories and claims about everything from farm animals in trees to casino buildings floating inland so one can’t be sure if FEMA actually supplied the cadre of blue plastic. without digging further.

I’m on this trip with Luke Bates the Comptroller for our state office in Grand Rapids. Sitting around the Grand Rapids and Atlanta airports on the way down I asked Luke what he thought it would be like once we got to Mississippi. We both had our theories, but overall we both hoped that things would be organized and we would be able to keep busy for two weeks.

So what does it actually look like here? Without seeing the area before Katrina, it’s hard to get any perspective on the damage. The area along the coast was devastated the most. Today we drove to a point about ½ mile away from the beach, clearly marked by razor wire and signage stating that only military and property owners could go any further. Looking towards the ocean, it was clear that there was plenty of carnage ahead that we'd never see.

We later drove along a commercial strip where metal pole buildings took the worst hit. One building had the front blown off, along the remaining wall written in spray paint was: “Available, 20,000 sq. ft, storage with partial shade, call 662 832-2378”.

At the end of the day we had a meeting with some other consultants who have been here for a week, and a review of how we are to process the SBA Disaster loan packages for the people we’ll start seeing tomorrow.

Luke and I have been assigned (along with two security people) to nearby Gauthier (French/Southern pronunciation “Go-shay “), staying in a somewhat pimped out RV with AC, and what appears to be decent food. During the day we’ll be working out a branch of Southern Mississippi University located a few steps away, more about that tomorrow.