Employees at dozens of Louisiana car dealerships are striving to rebuild their lives.
At least 1,500 families with household members working at dealerships are among the 100,000-plus families across the Baton Rouge area trying to recover from devastating floods. They’ve been displaced from their homes and separated from their loved ones. They’ve lost cars, family photos and most household belongings.
Dealers in the region and across the country are helping in multiple ways. The National Automobile Dealers Charitable Foundation Emergency Relief Fund is distributing checks of up to $1,500 directly to affected employees. The National Automobile Dealers Association is campaigning to raise $2 million more from its members for the fund.
“The devastation I saw was beyond belief,” NADA President Peter Welch said last week after visiting Baton Rouge dealerships and surrounding neighborhoods. “We drove down through some subdivisions, and the lawns were not big enough to contain all the belongings ripped out of the house. And it was just house after house after house, just as far as the eye could see.”
Welch expects the NADA fund could end up distributing more than $2 million to 1,500 applicants from about 60 dealerships. It is likely to be the second-biggest disaster relief effort for the fund after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Will Green, president of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Association, accompanied Welch on his visit and described the communities as looking “like somebody picked up a house, shook it all out and emptied it on the road. I mean, it’s pretty clear people lost everything.”
No flood insurance
The parishes hit hardest by floods, including the East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, hold the largest collection of dealerships in the state outside New Orleans, Green said.
Most of the dealerships themselves escaped damage, but thousands of employees were hurt by the floods. NADA’s estimate of 1,500 dealership employees displaced from their homes is likely to grow, Green said. Just a small fraction had flood insurance, as the damaged homes generally were outside flood zones.
Dealership employees have pooled resources and tools to help put their lives and work back together, Green said. “One of the main goals is to return to some sort of normalcy for everyone,” he added.
At Fabre Group, 26 of 126 employees have lost their homes or vehicles, owner David Fabre said. For Fabre, helping them may include supplying beds and dehumidifiers, lending vehicles or even giving manicure-pedicure spa certificates to a few female workers who continued to help at the store during the toughest times.
Fabre said he’s already canceled the group’s Christmas party, which he called “the party of the year in Baton Rouge.” Fabre and his brother, co-owner John Fabre, pay for the party, which sometimes costs up to $40,000. That is money better suited for employees who need major financial assistance right now, Fabre said.
The dealership group sent an email to employees saying the Christmas party resources would go to employees who need help and then asked workers to send descriptions of items they’ve lost. Fabre praised NADA for delivering the first wave of relief checks last week.
“It’s just the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen,” Fabre said. “I never dreamed that they would be that fast and efficient and that generous to employees that have lost most everything.”
Back at work
All Star Automotive Group CEO Matt McKay said 143 of his 11 stores’ 800 employees have been displaced by the floods, which also damaged inventory and buildings at three of his stores.
The first Monday back to work, on Aug. 15, McKay said he had 27 percent of his work force available. The following Friday, it was up to 68 percent, and on Monday, Aug. 22, the number increased to nearly 80 percent, he said.
Flooding in Denham Springs, La., near Baton Rouge, displaced thousands.
His employees will bounce back, McKay said, adding that Louisiana residents are a resilient bunch who have grown up with floods and hurricanes.
Dealers generally have continued paychecks for affected employees even when they were unable to get to work because of the storm and immediate cleanup, Welch said. They’ve also distributed water, passed out keys to the vehicles on their used-car lots and handed out cash so employees could buy necessities — including insulin for an employee’s diabetic wife in one case, he said.
“These people are really hurting,” Welch said. The damage can affect their livelihood, too. He talked to a 30-year master technician who’d had more than $50,000 in tools submerged. The electronic tools are ruined. Some technicians are still paying loans on tools that are now worthless.
The Southern Quality Ford Dealers association pledged $50,000 for affected full-time employees at Ford stores, a Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman said. It was matched by the Mid-South Ford Dealers for a total of $100,000 to be administered through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
Drywall on the way
At Robinson Brothers Ford-Lincoln in Baton Rouge, owner Chip Robinson filled the store’s parts department with a trailer load of supplies — drinking water, breathing masks, cleaning agents, gloves, pry bars — that employees could use to start cleaning their homes, General Manager Chris Savage said. A tractor-trailer with 1,000 sheets of drywall was on its way last week for the employees to use in their homes.
Of the dealership’s 140 employees, 31 were directly affected, Savage said. Many lost everything they owned. Over half of the store’s technicians were away from work for more than a week.
The first priority for Robinson and the store managers was to track down employees and make sure they all had a place to stay, Savage said. Robinson gave affected employees an extra week of vacation so they weren’t docked any pay while they were away from the store. Most had returned to work by Monday, Aug. 22.
Although they’re back on the job, the aftermath of the floods will linger far into the future.
“The problem is, there’s not going to be a new normal anytime soon because the vast majority of the people affected in this region have anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 in damage and no flood insurance,” Savage said. The maximum relief available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is $33,000. As Savage noted, “It’s a rough road.”
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