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Surviving Katrina: One Entrepreneur's Story

A New Orleans clinical lab owner weighs the future of her business as the floodwaters begin to subside in her hometown.

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When Gail Provost last saw her clinical laboratory in New Orleans, water was filling the first floor of the building. One of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees left homeless by flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans entrepreneur was in temporary housing at a Dallas hotel a day later when reality hit.

"I woke up in the morning and started crying," Provost says. "When you really struggle and work 14 to 15 hours a day doing everything you can to make your dream come true, and you put everything on the line, and now it's under eight feet of water in New Orleans and all our clients are moving out. . .We worked so hard--it makes you sad."

A few days later, she was camped out with her husband and teenage son on mattresses on the floor of the gym of a church in Ennis, Texas. The Provosts had found the shelter through a friend of her mother, and while a host of kind volunteers hovered around to help, Provost contemplated the future of her fledgling business.

Provost, 53, came from humble beginnings in Louisiana's Lower Ninth Ward--and she determined early that growing up poor wouldn't stop her from realizing her dreams. "Being poor in Louisiana, I found that if you worked hard, you could accomplish anything you set your mind to," she says.

After working hard to put herself through Southern University in New Orleans, Provost attended night school to get her MBA. A few years later, after working for several companies, including a clinical laboratory, she mortgaged rental property she owned to start her own clinical lab. For a few years, she held down an outside job teaching phlebotomy until she'd built her business to the point where she could stop teaching and start working at the business full time, a leap of faith that turned out to be well-founded.

Incorporated in 2001, Lab Site Inc. was strategically located on the second floor of an office building near Memorial Medical Center in the heart of New Orleans. Provost put in a draw room, a patient waiting area, a testing area, a processing room, a patient rest room and a break room. Her equipment included expensive hematology machines and analyzers, an industry-specific computer plus desktop computers for tracking and billing. The little firm employed a team of six employees, including phlebotomists, billing clerks and medical technicians. And of course, Provost herself was there as both owner and manager, driving sales and making sure standards were kept high. "I wore several hats as we grew," she recalls.

As the owner of a small company, she could specialize in things a small company could do best--those calling for flexibility and quick turnaround. "If a nursing home called us after midnight and said they needed blood cultures times two, we'd go. We'd draw it, test it and report it all within a day, and we wouldn't charge physicians 'stat' fees for doing it quickly. Lab Site was known for being responsive--we'd do things the large companies wouldn't do--and we had a reputation," Provost says. "Our niche was service."

That, along with her personable demeanor, earned her a steady following of customers, including drug screenings for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office. The company was set up for reimbursement with major insurers such as Medicaid, Medicare, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, UnitedHealthCare and Aetna. "We served doctors from the South Shore and the North Shore," says Provost. "That bridge that was split up into little pieces by Katrina? We had to cross that bridge several times a day."

An emphasis on following through won her a spot in a David and Goliath marketplace, competing toe-to-toe with large labs like Quest and Labcorp. Quality had to be strictly top priority, as it was a main selling point. When Katrina hit, Lab Site Inc. had just passed inspection with top ratings. "We were very proud of that," she says.

Provost was making her mark as an entrepreneur, with revenues expected to hit $500,000 this year. She had put five years of serious sweat equity into the business. "I don't think there's anything [like] overnight success--not in my business, anyway," she says with a rueful grin. "We were just getting over that hump, and then came Katrina."

As polluted seawater came flooding in over the broken levees, Lab Site Inc. was the Provost family's last holdout, the final place of refuge for her extended family. They'd evacuated their Orleans Parish homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, hoping the waters would subside. No such luck, emergency officials told them grimly. "They told us to leave and we left," Provost recalls. "When we left, water was coming in on the bottom floor."

A week later, safe on the higher terrain of North Central Texas and preparing to move into an apartment paid for by FEMA, Provost could only wonder if the waters had risen up to the company's second floor, where all the lab's delicate equipment was located and where August invoices waited to be sent to clients who've relocated to who knows where for revenue needed now more than ever.

"I want to get there before the bulldozers do," she says. "Our concern is that people might vandalize or tamper with the equipment." She was told that later this week, she might have an opportunity to return to New Orleans for two hours to assess damage and pick up business materials. "I hope my equipment's OK--if it's not, then we're just devastated and it'll put us back 10 years in my little business."

With immediate needs for food and shelter met, Provost is just one of many thousands of Gulf Coast entrepreneurs weighing business options against unknowns. "I'm considering relocating the majority of our operations and just keeping a draw center in New Orleans, separate from the lab," she says "If the hospitals get up and running with physicians, that's one thing, but if Tenet [Healthcare Corp.] doesn't reopen that hospital, there's nothing for me to do there. If the people don't come back to New Orleans, there's no work. And if my employees don't come back, there'll be no one to do the work.

"I know that physicians' assets are their abilities to see patients. They can do that anywhere--they can go and hang out their shingle where the people are--and I believe we can do that, too," says Provost. "We're hoping to start up here in Texas, either in Houston or Dallas, because I believe that where we were is going to be desolate for a very long time."

Jackie Larson is a freelance writer in Ennis, Texas.

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