When the deadline hit for Livingston Parish and Denham Springs businesses to renew their occupational licenses last year, just about all of them did. This year, roughly 1 out of every 5 did not file renewals — another troubling sign of the scale of disruption from August's catastrophic flood.
Those who didn't renew were mostly "mom-and-pops," said Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry. "The majority of them were home-based businesses like an attorney or somebody like that."
One business owner that closed was Louisiana Purchases Antique Mall proprietor Deanna Welch, who ran her business for 21 years. Like so many people, she didn't have flood insurance, and with no income, she couldn't secure the Small Business Administration loan she needed to make repairs.
In Denham Springs, 90 percent of which went underwater, 186 businesses, or 22 percent of the total, hadn't renewed their occupational licenses as of Thursday with a Friday deadline. A year earlier, 20 to 25 businesses, only about 3 percent, didn't renew, Landry said.
Outside Denham Springs and Walker, 410 businesses, or 23 percent of the total, didn't renew their licenses this year. In a normal year, the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office might see 40 to 50 nonrenewals, spokeswoman Lori Steele said.
Still, Livingston Parish may be in for a pleasant surprise. The Advocate called a random dozen businesses that had yet to renew and found nine were either open; displaced but still in business elsewhere; or planning to reopen. Recovery is a slow process — for businesses as well as homeowners competing for contractors and trying to adjust in a world turned upside down.
Brandon Buhler, owner of Total Custom Carbs & Dyno, a custom-built carburetor business in Walker, said he's still trying to make repairs to his building and could be back in full operation within a month or so. For now, he's displaced, working out of another garage. Buhler said he's not really sure what he's supposed to do about getting an occupational license for a building that can't be occupied yet.
Gene Nelson, director of operations for Winco, said he wasn't sure what happened with Red Rocket Fireworks' business licenses. It's possible the renewals are still being processed, he said. Red Rocket reopened some time ago and is looking forward to a big Fourth of July, which is just three months away.
As for Welch, she may have closed, but she sold her property to a jewelry business.
License renewal notices went out in December, with reminders distributed in early March. The big rush was in January, and some renewals still could come in late, Landry said. So far, 14 renewal notices returned "no such address," meaning there was nobody to deliver it to.
The scary part is it's still possible that a higher percentage of the nonrenewals may be permanent; a scenario based on National Flood Insurance Program statistics shows 40 percent of flooded businesses never reopen.
Livingston's commercial utility account closures fall right in line with the flood program's projections. Some 169 commercial and industrial customers in Livingston Parish have closed their Dixie Electric Membership Corp. accounts since the flood. That's a 37 percent increase over the same period a year ago.
At Entergy Corp., 59 Livingston Parish business customers closed their accounts from July 31 to Oct. 31. The 2015 numbers were not available for comparison.
Experts say disasters fall more heavily on small businesses, few of which carry flood insurance or the resources available to large firms. Being closed even a few days can kill or cripple a small business. Many Livingston Parish businesses were closed for weeks or even months.
The flood convinced Dr. Phil Thiac and his wife, Janet, to close their Maurepas veterinary clinic and retire after 43 years in business.
"The flood has taken it's toll on our facility and our lives, so we are going to let a younger, smarter, more energetic generation take it's turn to provide the love and care your pets need," the Thiacs said in a March 5 Facebook post.
Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce CEO April Wehrs said it's frustrating that eight months after the flood, there's still no central clearinghouse that can provide data on the number of businesses flooded, reopened or closed.
The chamber has the software to compile that data, but it doesn't have the manpower or funding to track down every business owner in the parish to ask how they're doing, where they're based and those sorts of things, she said. The result is that no one has a handle on the exact number of businesses that have closed because of flooding.
"Everybody wants to know what the numbers are … but as far as having a pulse on every single business in the parish, it’s been very tough to pull those numbers together," Wehrs said.
About 200 of the chamber's members flooded and 100 or so did not, she said. Lots of the member companies are doing well, but the chamber members' recovery percentage is undoubtedly better than that of the parish as a whole.
Business recovery overall is hit or miss, Wehrs said. Although a number of smaller businesses are definitely having issues, others have returned. Both Wehrs and Landry said the recovery has been slowed by the enormous demand for contractors — for home and commercial repairs.
Even well-heeled corporations have taken time to return. The Denham Springs Wal-Mart reopened last week. Other retailers, like Kohl's, aren't coming back.
Landry said the recovery is just going to take time.
So far, the business interruptions and closures haven't affected Denham Springs' sales tax collections, mainly because so many people had to buy new cars, do home repairs and replace furniture and appliances, Landry said. Those sales are starting to taper off, but more commercial businesses, like Wal-Mart, are reopening and that should help.
"Obviously we can't maintain the 20 percent increases that we've been seeing. So where are we going to level off at?" Landry asked. "I just hope we are even with last year. I would be happy with that. Am I being optimistic? Of course, I am."