RVs, Satellite Phones in Demand

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

A natural gas company in Texas begged for it. So did a Louisiana electric utility and a German television crew, which said cost was no object. But in the end, the 38-foot motor home was rented to a man from California who needed it to house his stricken relatives outside New Orleans.

"People were pretty desperate," said the RV's owner, Lynn Lincecum of Fairbanks, La., who rents his $150,000 Coachman Sportscoach, with a flat-screen TV and ice maker, for $350 a day.

After wreaking economic destruction across the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina has created a boomlet for small industries such as RV dealers and satellite phone sellers whose products are far from staples of disaster relief.

Motor home dealers in Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana have run out of rentals and are turning away frantic families. In some cases, dealers said, frustrated would-be renters are simply buying RVs.

A satellite phone dealer in Alabama has gone through all of his 450 rentals -- and, even after hiring three more workers, says he can barely keep up with purchase orders that now filter in 24 hours a day.

"At night now, we have a primary person on call, a secondary person on call and a third person on call," said Hobert Pruitt, the owner of Globalcom, who has hand-delivered phones to Louisiana officials passing through a nearby airport. "We are getting hammered."

For the most part, those buying RVs that top $100,000 and satellite phones that start at $700 work for government agencies trying to operate in hurricane-devastated areas, businesses trying to keep their operations running, relief agencies struggling to set up operations and media organizations covering the aftermath.

But they are also victims of the storm, desperate for a place to sleep or a way to track down their sons, sisters, mothers and co-workers. "People are begging us," said Angela Sieli, co-owner of Atlanta RV, which rents and sells motor homes.

One couple, their home in New Orleans destroyed, walked into the dealership with $8,000 cash trying to buy a motor home. "He didn't have enough money to buy," said Paul Sieli, the other owner. "So he left."

As far as Angela Sieli can tell, there are no RV rentals left in the Southeast. She has referred calls to dealerships as far away as Chicago and Louisville.

Bill Claypool, a partner at the Private Motorhome RV Rentals, which represents 150 RV owners who rent out their vehicles when they are not using them, has fielded inquiries from CNN and CBS, Verizon and Pep Boys auto repair centers. In a typical year, September is the end of the RV season. "But I am inundated with calls and e-mails," he said.

John Dark, a senior marketing manager at satellite phone provider Globalstar, said the company has sold 14,000 phones in the past week, boosting its global network by 10 percent. "Monday it was 500 phones, Tuesday 1,500, Wednesday 2,500, Thursday 5,000," Dark said in an interview.

Dark took an order for 30 satellite phones from members of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working on the Gulf Coast. A woman on the other end of the line, he said, "was in tears when she realized we could get them to her."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company