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New Orleans businesses survived Katrina and Covid. Now they’re contending with Ida

By Chauncey Alcorn, CNN Business

Wayne Encalarde’s utility truck and trailer were parked in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward 16 years ago when Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ravaged the city and all but completely destroyed the neighborhood.

The 68-year-old, a plumber and owner of the local Wayne Jude Encalarde plumbing and public works business, says the deadly storm ruined more than just his vehicle and equipment. It disrupted business operations for years, causing him to lose most of his customers.

He was just starting to bounce back. Then Hurricane Ida came along.

“My business was just now starting to see a profit,” Encalarde told CNN Business. “I was just getting things together.”

Encalarde is one of many New Orleans business owners who say that Hurricane Ida could be a nail in their company’s coffin. The storm left at least 13 people dead and knocked power out for hundreds of thousands, plunging the city into crisis.

Those with insurance may have to wait weeks or even months before they receive funds for claims, according to Kelisha Garrett, executive director of the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation, a group working to advance economic growth for the state’s minority business community.

Encalarde says he and his eight employees were supposed to begin a series of public works projects for city government next week, but the hurricane has put the fate of those jobs, and their livelihoods, in serious jeopardy.

“There’s a lot of stuff that has to happen for me to go back to work next week and I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Encalarde said. “My next four jobs have to go through city hall, so it depends how fast city hall gets back to work.”

Ida arrives on the heels of Covid

Garrett says most of the business owners she serves were still contending with the fallout from Covid-19 and the Delta variant disrupting their operations when Ida arrived.

“Many were running their businesses and working from home during the pandemic, but were among the millions of city residents who lost power, leaving them unable to earn money,” Garrett told CNN Business last week. “You have now taken the little that we had that we were operating with and you, Mother Nature, have pulled that from under us.”

Much like after Katrina and the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Garrett said the city’s minority business community is being forced to turn to the government for solutions to keep their companies alive. She and other business leaders say making federal funds available in the short term and including small local companies in the city’s infrastructure rebuild projects are key to helping New Orleans’ economy rebound from both Ida and the pandemic.

“We want to work. We have people to work,” says Tina Balthazar, owner of Balthazar Electriks in New Orleans. ” I just need the projects and access to capital to get there.”

The 58-year-old Louisiana native said it took her and her late sister two to three years to get their electrical supply and wholesale distribution business back up and running after Katrina. She evacuated the city ahead of Ida more than a week ago and spent last week trying to get her business back up and running from a second home in Mercerville, New Jersey.

Balthazar says she’s not sure how she can maintain payroll for the foreseeable future without some sort of government aid now that her company isn’t bringing in any revenue.

“I don’t have a blank check to write to my business to keep it afloat,” she said. “I want everybody, government and business owners to realize we’re here. We can contribute very positively to the recovery effort and the overall economy, but we need a chance.”

Help for small businesses

The Biden administration is encouraging small business owners affected by Ida to apply for assistance through the US Small Business Administration, said Alejandro Contreras, director of preparedness, communication and coordination in the SBA’s office of disaster assistance. Business owners can call the SBA’s office of disaster assistance at 1-800-659-2955 or email the agency at to apply or receive more information.

Contreras said most businesses that apply are eligible to receive up to $2 million in low-interest loan funds for any combination of physical damage or working capital disruption. As of Sunday, he said the SBA has approved 125 disaster loans for more than $4.5 million for Ida-related relief.

“Some businesses may want to take the time to decide if they want the loan or not,” Contreras told CNN Business on Sunday. “We’ve been encouraging them to take the funds if they qualify. Don’t wait until after you hear back from your insurance company that maybe your claim is not as high as you want it to be. If you need the funds, they’re available.”

Contreras also said ensuring local minority small business owners have a fair shot at securing infrastructure contracts to rebuild after Ida is a priority for the Biden administration in conjunction with the infrastructure bill passed by the US Senate in August.

“The Biden administration has been very forward leaning on improving equity within the recovery programs,” Contreras said. “From the beginning of the administration’s first days here, we started hearinga about how equitable recovery is going to be a priority. There is progress being made on that.”

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