Greg Sibley rummaged through a cardboard box in the hardware store he runs with his father 10 miles outside of downtown New Orleans, looking for 2,000 metal screws.
"All's I got is 375," he finally told the gray-haired customer who needed the screws to replace a blown-off grocery store roof. "And when I'll get more I don't know," Sibley said. "I'm at the mercy of getting freight in."
Such is life at Sibley's store, R.J. Marchand's, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped through this area. With traffic snarls making it a two- to three-hour trip in and out of the city, gas in short supply and few goods to sell, small businesses in New Orleans are having a hard time rebuilding and reopening.
"I'm happy to be up and running," said Sibley, 42, who operates the hardware store with his father, Frank. "We're selling what we've got, but it is frustrating not getting stuff in here."
When The Washington Post first chronicled Katrina's impact on Sibley's business two weeks ago, the storm had shut down the store, costing it $15,000 to $18,000 in daily sales. Sibley's store also suffered water damage, and looters later broke in and took some $30,000 worth of goods. The owners are still trying to determine how much inventory is gone.
Since reopening on Sept. 12, the store has been waiting for goods such as drills, saws, routers and shop vacs that were supposed to arrive before Katrina.
"What supplies were on their way to us they sent back to the warehouses and put back because they couldn't get it through to us," Sibley said.
In normal times, up to three delivery trucks reach R.J. Marchand's every day. Sibley's customers include home builders, steel manufacturers and general contractors. But only three trucks have arrived during the last month. Sibley's suppliers are as close as Tennessee and Georgia and as far away as Illinois and California. All seem to be having problems getting materials in to Marchand's.
For example, the store is still waiting on a $40,000 order of drill presses from a manufacturer in Jackson, Tenn. The presses, which will go on a Navy boat in a nearby shipyard, were supposed to be delivered the week Katrina struck, but Sibley was unable to track them down until the trucking company contacted him on Tuesday.
"They asked us when are we coming to pick it up," Sibley said. "I asked where was it and they told me it's at a port in Dallas. I said, 'Well, I'm waiting for it here in Metairie, outside of New Orleans.' " Sibley said he's waiting on roughly $100,000 worth of material, including the drill presses. Where is it all? "I don't know," he said.
Hurricane Rita hit the area just as R.J. Marchand's was reopening after Katrina, causing only some minor tree damage and blowing around debris left on the roads from the first storm, local business owners said.
But Rita further delayed local employees who had not returned after being evacuated due to Katrina. Sibley still lacks four employees -- out of a staff of 19 -- who have not come back because their houses are flooded or lack electricity.
"If they can't get to their house, they're not coming back [to work] yet," Sibley said. "I've got people all over the place, in Houston and in Baton Rouge. I'm shorthanded."
The three R.J. Marchand's employees who keep track of billing, supplies and payroll returned a week ago -- although one is commuting 70 miles every day from a Motel 6 in Baton Route because her house in Chalmette, east of New Orleans, was filled to the ceiling with water.
"It feels good to come back to work because you feel productive," said a teary-eyed Ginger Trapani, who orders supplies for the store.
The store is beginning to do business again, selling out of small drills, handsaws, crowbars and utility knives. Other hot items have been knee-high plastic boots, gloves, face masks and $2 white paper suits to protect from the fat, black flies buzzing around in the air. Blue tarps haven't been selling -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been giving them out for free.
One of Sibley's customers, David Roussel, bought a few blades and plastic gloves he needed to tear out drywall in about 20 homes in the area. "I'm in the hole for $70,000 worth of labor and materials and I'm unsure when and how much I'll get back," he said. "I have no clue of what to charge people because the insurance adjusters haven't been able to get around to everyone.
"I got my neck stuck out pretty far right now," said Roussel, who has been building houses in the New Orleans area for 25 years.
R.J. Marchand's also is having a hard time delivering equipment to construction jobs in New Orleans because its drivers have not returned to work and also because much of the city is blocked off as cleanup crews work. Many businesses in downtown New Orleans are still dealing with cleaning up rotting food in restaurant refrigerators, black muck on floors and checking inventory for looted items.
One cleaning crew -- made up of Tampa painters Mark Ferguson and Stan Hoelderlin -- stood outside the Golden Wall Chinese Restaurant in downtown New Orleans on Tuesday morning, a few doors from the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Canal Street, carrying cases of purple and green chemicals and heavy-duty power washers.
Ferguson and Hoelderlin recently drove up from Tampa looking for post-hurricane work, and struck a deal to wash away the grease that had emerged from underground pipes onto the pink tile floor and walls of the Golden Wall. They charged $100 an hour, said Ferguson, as he donned a white paper suit, black plastic boots and a plastic respirator for his mouth. The two expect to earn about $7,000 in the week they plan to stay here, minus the $110 for gas for their work van. It's not easy money, considering the maggots that started crawling by midday on the mounds of rotting chicken and lettuce in the dumpsters behind the Chinese restaurant.
"You're talking about a job that's stifling with the heat and no AC, in a space that's got at least an inch-thick layer of grease on it and we've got to push a 170-pound power washer through it," Hoelderlin said. "Yuck!"