Last August, Chris Reams sat in a Las Vegas hotel room transfixed to the TV. Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster ever to hit the country, was unfolding live on the screen. "It was like watching my own 9/11, only Mother Nature was the terrorist this time," says Reams, 31. "I kept thinking of how different the city I loved was going to be upon my return and wondered what would be left." Of all the images of businesses being destroyed, Reams desperately searched for one that would show if his clothing shop, Ichabod's, had survived.
It didn't. Like tens of thousands of others, the business was in ruins.
Reams had flown to Las Vegas a day before the storm hit to attend a trade show. It would take him more than a month to return home after staying with family members in St. Louis. He found that although the shop had avoided the full affects of flooding, the looters had spared nothing. "It was horrible," Reams remembers. "I didn't stay in there long; I couldn't bear it." They had broken in, stolen most of his goods and destroyed what they couldn't take.
Ichabod's had opened in New Orleans just a few months before Katrina hit. The trendy clothing store featured many of Reams' own designs. Originally located in nearby Covington, where he lived, Reams had moved the operation in April, hoping to profit from the lucrative young market provided by the nearby Tulane and Loyola University campuses. "Normally, the summer is a slow time for retail," Reams recalls. "We were taking it easy, waiting for school to start."
When he returned to his home 30 minutes outside of New Orleans, there wasn't much left to greet him. "I have a plastic-sheet roof, no garage and plenty of debris," Reams says. "I'm trying to keep from going crazy most days."
While surveying the damage done to his house, Reams found that his clothing inventory and screen-printing equipment had survived. Determined to find a way to get back on his feet quickly, he took what he could and set up a temporary workspace in his fianc�e's father's home in Covington.
With help from his sister and other friends who had internet connections, Reams successfully re-launched his website in one week, complete with new pictures of his shirts. But what really saved Reams was his idea to talk to his competitor in New Orleans, Sarah Wheelock, owner of Funky Monkey. Somehow, the vintage clothing store across the street from his evaded the wrath of looters. "Maybe people didn't want used clothing," Reams laughs.
After reopening, Funky Monkey faced inventory trouble. Some of the nearby residents of the city had moved back in, and they needed clothes, but shipping was a nightmare. So Reams proposed an alliance: He would supply her with his designs, and she would give him 50 percent of the sales on his clothing. The partnership worked, and Funky Monkey has even dedicated more space to Reams' designs. With 2006 sales projected to exceed $500,000, Reams says he--like many other business owners in the area--has no plans to reopen his old store. (Seven other businesses on his street have permanently closed.)
Says Reams of the lessons he learned from the disaster, "[Katrina] forced me to really just move faster on some things I should have done a long time ago, [like] converting [the website] more... [and] getting to know your neighbors."