A decade ago, America’s Gulf Coast was battered by one of the most devastating storms in the region’s history. Hurricane Katrina gutted infrastructure and leveled neighborhoods, and wreaked havoc on local industry.
Over the past 10 years, the region as a whole has made a remarkable comeback, though there is still much more work to be done. In New Orleans, in particular, a resurgence of tourism and a strengthening downtown area has helped to bolster the city’s historical retailers.
Footwear News spoke with storeowners in the area to get their take on the progress that’s been made.
At Rubensteins, which has been open on Saint Charles Avenue since 1924, the family-owned menswear store was lucky to be only minimally damaged when the hurricane hit.
“The water literally stopped at our doorstep,” said co-owner David Rubenstein. He said the store only lost a few rugs, and most of the inventory was undamaged, save the suede shoes that looked like “chia pets” after getting wet and molding.
Roughly 50 days after Katrina, Rubensteins reopened for business. “We thought about moving the store to Baton Rouge, but we talked as a family and decided to stay in New Orleans. We’re a New Orleans store. We decided we would figure it out and come back,” said Rubenstein. “We put a sign in our window saying ‘We’re Open.’ We wanted to show we were still there, that New Orleans was open for business and wanted people to understand that about the city.”
Similarly, at family shoe store Haase’s on Oak Street, which has been open since 1921, the store went relatively unscathed, as flood waters stopped across the street.
“A lot of people affected by the storm didn’t reopen after Katrina,” recalled owner Kevin Caliva. “In that way, we lost some competition [for awhile], but then definitely gained more as new stores moved here.”
Since the storm, downtown New Orleans has experienced a major revitalization, with more people and businesses moving to the area. The population of residents in the downtown area has doubled since Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, Tiffany’s and the Art of Shaving recently debuted stores on Canal Street, and the new $80 million Outlet Collection at Riverwalk has opened across the river from downtown, catering to visitors. In addition, Charity Hospital, which was destroyed in Katrina, has been replaced with a new $1.1 billion University Medical Center.
“Downtown is suddenly a big place to be again,” said Rubenstein. “There’s the new multimillion-dollar hospital and infrastructure, and some of the dot-com groups are opening here. It does feel like the city is coming back.” He added that sales at his store are up past pre-recession levels — another detrimental event that set retailers back just a few years after the storm.
According to Caliva, with all the buzz of new stores and the possibility of continued growth, one important trend remains at the heart of New Orleans’ community. “The storm made people really loyal to what they lost,” he said. “They are proud of their unique city and the stores in it, so there’s been a ton of support for the local business.”