Surging Back in Slidell

Nov. 1, 2005
With Hurricane Katrina approaching full-speed ahead, Ralph Kastner, president and owner of Slidell, La.-based Tuff Equipment Rentals, knew he had to do

With Hurricane Katrina approaching full-speed ahead, Ralph Kastner, president and owner of Slidell, La.-based Tuff Equipment Rentals, knew he had to do everything possible to protect his business. After all, he'd just done a complete remodel of the building in 2001 that included a new metal façade around the structure. Located about 25 miles north of New Orleans, Tuff Equipment Rentals is very close to Lake Pontchartrain, which feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.

To shield the 200 feet of glass at the front of his showroom from damaging wind and debris, Kastner and his employees strategically placed 15 Genie scissorlifts against the front of the building. Smart planning saved all but three windows that were damaged by the storm. And major backups to the Solutions by Computer software guaranteed important customer data would be safe. Despite Kastner's best efforts, his property sustained more than $200,000 worth of damage.

Unfortunately, nothing could be done about the equipment in the yard and out at jobsites. More than 7 feet of water from the tidal surge filled the yard. Of its $5 million in inventory, Tuff Equipment Rentals lost $2.5 million to saltwater damage. Nearly two dozen, 18-wheel trailers were needed to haul off the 600 lost pieces of equipment. The 5,000-square-foot showroom and office space were flooded by 3 feet of water, and another 13,000-square-feet of warehouse and workshop were under 4.5 feet of water.

Not one to sit around waiting for the resources to rebuild, Kastner has been very proactive in efforts to get everything back on track. Working on site in a 12- by 60-foot trailer, the staff is working hard to get back into the building. Based on high demand, Kastner had the foresight to purchase new sheetrock at his first opportunity, even before he was ready for it. He also sent one of his trucks to Jackson, Miss., to pick up new floor tile because shipping it could have taken weeks.

“Once we get back into our building we'll have so much more room to operate,” says Kastner. “Then we can get the trailer moved out of the yard for more room out there as well.”

After the storm, Solutions by Computer quickly shipped replacement software to Kastner via UPS, but the nearest UPS depot was in Hammond, La., 60 miles away. Instead of waiting for it to arrive, Kastner sent an employee to pick it up. Regular mail service was also affected by the storm and was still running about a week and a half behind in mid-October, causing delay of insurance payments. Kastner's daughter, Amy Barrios, who handles the business' accounting, has been picking up incoming mail from the post office and hand delivering checks to their local vendors to make sure payments arrive on time.

On pace to do about $3.6 million in business this year, Katrina slashed that number to between $2.5 to $2.7 million. The storm also disrupted Kastner's plans to open a new branch in Hammond, La.

“I had ordered $1.3 million worth of new equipment back in May to supply that new store,” Kastner said. “A lot of it had started to come in and some of it was already out on rent; some of it was just waiting to be moved to the new location. It was mostly all ruined.”

Adding to Kastner's misfortune, the seller of the property he was poised to buy in Hammond defaulted on the sale after Katrina. Increased demand for area property has sent asking prices soaring, a situation the seller took quick advantage of. Though he still plans to open a second location nearby, Kastner is reevaluating its locality. He may still choose Hammond, but he's also considering a site closer to Gulfport.

Left with the need to replace half his fleet, Kastner is managing the frustrating task of dealing with his insurance companies. Payments are coming in slowly and steadily, and Kastner has ordered and begun receiving a lot of new equipment. It all needs to be uncrated, assembled, fueled, oiled, decaled and engraved, which takes about an hour per piece. “Add up the hours for almost 600 pieces of equipment,” Kastner says.

Despite losing more than a third of his employees to evacuation, Kastner and his team are working hard to get back on pace by the first of the year.