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Displaced businesses still hope to move home

Christine McAtee hopes to go back to New Orleans some day, but for the foreseeable future, The Woodlands, Texas, is where she'll live and run her marketing firm.
Mimi Bowen
Mimi Bowen is among thousands of small business owners who have returned to New Orleans to rebuild their companies. Bill Haber / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Christine McAtee hopes to go back to New Orleans some day, but for the foreseeable future, The Woodlands, Texas, is where she'll live and run her marketing firm.

McAtee, owner of Adventures in Advertising/Insignia Marketing, is one of thousands of small business owners forced to leave the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and start over someplace else.

The storm left water in McAtee's home and her office, but the dampness that pervaded everything was just as destructive, damaging files and leaving computers inoperable. And with the city paralyzed, it was clear it would be hard for McAtee to rebuild her company and take care of her two children.

There were awful moments as she salvaged what she could: "You think, this can't be happening, when you slip and fall in the grime and you're covered with who knows what and there's no running water to wash it off with."

And outside her office, it was catastrophic.

"There weren't a lot of people around. I looked around and thought I was deathly scared to lose the business I'd built all those years," she said.

McAtee decided to look for temporary office space in another city, with the expectation that she'd move back to New Orleans, where she was born and grew up. But so many other business owners were competing for space, and she thought about having to uproot her business again at some point. So she decided, "instead of going for temporary office space, I looked for something I wouldn't have to close down in a few months."

McAtee ended up in The Woodlands, near Houston, opened an office and continued working; while she had New Orleans clients who were displaced, her company also has many clients in other cities. She believes the move saved the business, because it allowed her to get back to work faster.

"We're back on track, where we should have been at this time," McAtee said. "I can see the growth starting to come back."

But she's also hoping someday to go back to New Orleans: "We'll see what happens."

For Greg Mangiaracina, the move from New Orleans to San Antonio is permanent. After seeing how the storm had unsettled his family, the safety of his wife and children became paramount.

Like McAtee, Mangiaracina, owner of A-Pro Home Inspection Services, knew he had to act quickly to save the business. The problem he faced was the destruction of the city's infrastructure - his business includes running training programs for franchisees from around the country and without a functioning airport and tourism industry, he couldn't get people to come to New Orleans.

Mangiaracina said he knew he could survive — "I could go back to New Orleans and be in an engineering firm" — but he felt a responsibility to the 120 franchisees in his system, so he knew he needed to move.

He had a Sept. 30 deadline for getting a new training facility set up somewhere else, as he had a class scheduled then. So he chose San Antonio: "I was looking for a place relatively free of natural disasters, a large city that had easy access to around the country. I needed a place that had good tourism."

The training facility was intact, although Mangiaracina's original leak detection business, the one that spawned the franchise system, was destroyed. With help, he loaded trucks with 7,000 square feet of furniture including stadium-style seating, and transported the facility's contents to Texas, set it up and made his deadline.

The move has been fortuitous; Mangiaracina said his sales have doubled. But, he said, he's not going back to New Orleans.

"I can't put my family through this again," he said.

Relocating was easy for Andrew Jaeger - he was already opening a San Francisco version of his New Orleans restaurant, Jaeger's House of Seafood and Jazz. But he still plans to restart his business back home.

Jaeger said his New Orleans restaurant, on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, had little physical damage, but the dearth of tourists meant he had had little business.

"We tried to reopen it a few weeks later," after the storm, he said. "We eventually closed it - we were waiting for it to get better and it never quite did."

Jaeger said his new restaurant is doing well, and that "I feel fortunate that I was here before." But he goes back to New Orleans every few weeks to help out friends and relatives including his brother, whose restaurant was wiped out. Jaeger's keeping an eye on the city's recovery and waiting to see when he'll be able to return.

"There's no way I'm going to give up on New Orleans," he said. He's also planning to open his restaurant in a different location, perhaps closer to Bourbon Street - "where the action is now."

"If we find the right location, we'll jump on it," he said. "My heart's there."