Janet Wheat, owner of Nutrition Fair in Metairie, La., just outside New Orleans, has seen her fair share of hurricanes since opening her 3,500-square-foot store in 1986. But when she and her family were told to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina last August, they packed three days of clothes, emptied the store safe, gathered important papers and headed north to Canton, Miss., to stay with family.
It was four weeks before Wheat saw her store again and another two weeks until she could reopen, but she counts herself among the lucky ones.
"The hurricane followed us up [to Canton], so we had a house full of people and no electricity—no air-conditioning," Wheat says. Wheat and her family "were like gypsies" for four weeks, traveling to stay with assorted family members. Finally they were allowed to go back home.
When Wheat arrived to check on her store, a hodgepodge of debris was piled up along the front and a huge hole was in her door. Across the street, buildings stood in a two-feet-deep lake of water. Wheat had been concerned about looting, but when her awning ripped off, it fell, covering the hole in the door. Nothing was stolen or vandalized.
"Everybody that comes here, you hear their story. The first question you get is: 'Did you have water?' And then you compare notes," Wheat says. Wheat only had a little bit of water seeping in the back door. Because she was able to get back home relatively soon, she was able to prevent the mold that bloomed inside many buildings. However, the heat and humidity had ruined much of her stock.
"I, personally, am so lucky," Wheat says. She called some of the vitamin companies and was told that most vitamins are safe up to 300 degrees but that she should shake the bottles to make sure the gel caps hadn't melted.
"We lost stuff like vitamin E tablets, but some of the other vitamins were OK," she says. "The worst part was cleaning out the freezers. The one that had turkey sausage was completely putrid—it went out, we had to get a new one."
"When we first reopened, people coming in were so nice. They were so happy to see someone open," Wheat says.
Since the hurricane, Wheat has noticed an increase in sales of supplements that help increase energy, relieve stress or alleviate allergies. Products that contain 5-HTP, Relora or valerian have been particularly sought after. Bottled water has also been a best seller, especially mineral water.
"We've all got the Katrina cough," Wheat says. "It's this kind of hoarseness and sore throat." She explained that a lot of people are working as hard as they can to rebuild, refurbish and clean their homes, which explains the rise in sales of energy boosters.
As for the stress relief: "A lot depends on what happens this summer. We're all holding our breath." A hurricane spotted out in the Gulf of Mexico in June scared a lot of people even though it never came anywhere near the shore.
Wheat's advice to retailers dealing with a disaster is to document everything. She took pictures of all her spoiled stock, hurricane damage and freezers before she cleaned anything. She also kept records of everything that had to be replaced. "Persistence," Wheat says. "It took a lot of hard work, and I've seen humidity that [was] too hot to work [in]. We were lucky but we opened again."
Officials predict that the New Orleans area will regain more of its population this fall once hurricane season is over. Unfortunately, many people haven't returned at all. "We've had some of our good customers come in and say, 'Well that's it. We sold our house. We're moving.'"
All of this means tough times for Nutrition Fair. Wheat estimated that she is pulling in about half of what she did before Katrina. Customers now have financial concerns that may prevent them from putting natural foods high on their list of priorities. Wheat is working six days a week, and she gets worn out from hearing all the sad stories people tell.
"We survived. But we're still surviving," Wheat says, emphasizing that the struggle is not over yet. She hopes that if the region can make it through another hurricane season safely, things will start to return to normal. In the meantime, folks are still working to get back in their homes and back to work. Wheat is doing her best to help people stay healthy through the hard times.
Hope Bentley is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 58