"I'm so sorry about all of your equipment."
That early morning text from a customer was how Kelly Emery learned her business had flooded last August. The president and owner of Emery Equipment Sales & Rental had done a last-minute check of the property before leaving for the day. Ward's Creek was rising, but Emery wasn't worried. The company had been at the Airline Highway location nearly 50 years; the creek had never overflowed there.
Yet, the building took on about a foot of water in the unprecedented flood. In some parts of the yard, where the company kept its and its customers' equipment, the water was waist-high.
"Even when you're watching it come in, you think that that's as high as it's going to get. Every hour I would look and it would be higher and higher and higher," Emery said.
Across town in nearby Baker, Scevera F. Alexander was trapped by rising water that didn't enter his house, while his restaurant on Plank Road, Big Buck's Snack Shack, drowned.
The building took on about 2 feet of water, "just enough to ruin everything," Alexander said. All of his cooking supplies and equipment, including a meat cooler upended by the high water, were lost.
Granted, the small take-out business had struggled to find a steady clientele, but pre-flood Alexander thought he could hang on until things picked up. The flood put an end to that plan.
Emery was lucky. Her business is well-established and was able to absorb a big loss. Emery Equipment was only closed for a day.
Her company's survival a year after the flood appears to be far from isolated, despite Alexander's and others' unfortunate experiences.
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Although the National Flood Insurance Program has estimated that 40 percent of flooded businesses never reopen, local business licensing numbers suggest the Baton Rouge area is bucking the depth of that trend.
Economists say two things have helped: the strength of the area's economy, which has been bolstered by billions of dollars worth of industrial projects, and billions in repairs spending, which has been fueled by personal savings, federal assistance and insurance settlements.
"We went from $500 being a bad day to $50 being a good day."
For now, exact figures on the number of area businesses that flooded and stayed open or flooded and closed remain hard to come by. No single agency or group tracks those figures. Estimates of the number of flooded businesses have ranged from 6,000 to as many as 12,000, with the bulk of those in more populous East Baton Rouge Parish.
Based on the typical 40 percent closure rate after a flood, 2,400 to 4,800 area businesses would be closed.
Numbers that do exist point to far fewer closures.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, 6 percent of firms that had occupancy licenses have closed since the flood, about 800. In the 12 months before the flood, nearly twice as many closed. Only a fraction of the post-flood closures, about 120 of them, were in inundated areas.
In harder-hit Denham Springs and Livingston Parish, about 20 percent of businesses failed to renew their occupancy licenses this year — nearly 550 combined. It's possible the numbers may improve. A number of businesses continued to renew their licenses after a March 31 deadline. And some of the companies that had yet to renew were operating when contacted by The Advocate.
While East Baton Rouge Parish tracks business closures and Livingston Parish and Denham Springs track business licenses, Ascension has neither available. That said, Ascension's numbers would have to be unimaginably huge — a range of 1,000 to 3,500 failures — to push the area to a 40 percent closure rate.
Stephen Barnes, director of LSU's Economics & Policy Research Group, said one reason the business closure rates are much lower here is the expansion and industrial activity along the Mississippi River.
That has provided a strong, underlying economic base that propped up local businesses, he said.
Businesses also are benefiting from the "recovery economy" that follows any major disaster, when enormous sums are spent on repairs and replacement of belongings, Barnes said.
"That kind of boost is something you see hitting at the retail level, people buying home goods, people buying building materials," Barnes said. "But all of that increase in activity in the construction sector spills over toward general spending in the economy, generally helping to keep businesses across a broad set of sectors humming along and busy."
For the first five months of this year, consumer and business spending in East Baton Rouge Parish is up more than 9 percent to $5.1 billion, on the heels of double-digit gains that came in during the four post-flood months that ended 2016.
George Jones, president of Baker Hardware, said his business has increased its customer base by 30 percent and nearly made up the $100,000 lost in inventory from the flood.
Baker Hardware took on about 28 inches of water. A third of its inventory was ruined. If the water had been 8 inches higher, the store would have closed, he said. Instead, Baker Hardware reopened 10 days after the flood.
"We had people beating down the doors to get in," Jones said. "We opened up and threw away probably $100,000 worth of inventory and went from there."
Just a few hundred feet away, Major Eye Clinic never reopened. Albert Langlois, who owns the property, said his tenant abandoned the shop.
The damage was worsened by a tractor-trailer rig that plowed through the high water on Plank Road. The wake blew out four of the six windows in the building and pushed in the window frames, Langlois said. Restoring the building is costing $30,000 to $40,000, although Langlois is doing the work himself. On the plus side, he has a new tenant lined up.
Purdue University Agricultural Economics Professor Maria Marshall said her research shows the number of business closures is usually overestimated.
Marshall studied Hurricane Katrina's impact on small and medium-sized businesses in Mississippi.
About 25 percent of the businesses closed, but only 10 percent were directly caused by Katrina, she said. The overall percentage included retirements, deaths and people selling their companies.
Marshall said the numbers are affected by when the closure estimates are done. Some businesses remain closed for months, even years.
Whitney Bank's Greenwell Springs branch, for example, celebrated its grand reopening on Thursday.
In general, larger businesses fare better after disasters. Bigger companies have more resources. Experts say mom-and-pop shops' slimmer margins mean they can't afford to close the doors for more than a few days.
Pamela May, manager of Denham Springs' business license department, said lots of the businesses that didn't renew were based in people's homes.
"When their houses flooded, their businesses closed," she said.
The floodwaters that swept through south Louisiana over the past week may have reached 31 pe…
Alexander, the owner of Big Buck's Snack Shack, thought about making a comeback. The obstacles were too daunting. In addition to losing his cooking equipment and supplies, the building's wiring was affected.
"I still tried to play with it for a minute … but you just had to run too many extension cords, and I just didn't do it," Alexander said.
His landlord didn't want to invest the money to rewire the building and make other repairs. He wanted to sell. Alexander wasn't ready to buy.
The Snack Shack drew most of its customers from the neighborhood, but many of those people were gone. And so was Alexander's business.