The orange “X” crisis markings on the sides of homes are still visible. Their ominous message registered counterclockwise the date the house was searched, the National Guard division that searched it, and how many were found dead inside. It’s a chilling reminder of Katrina’s devastation slightly more three years removed, but what seems like a lifetime for New Orleans residents—including landscape contractor Dan Standley.
“I won’t even drive by some of the more ravaged communities,” Standley says as he maneuvers his pickup along neighborhood streets bordering one of the rebuilt levees. “Many of the neighborhoods have been rebuilt but others may never be.”
Standley owns Dan’s Landscaping in nearby Terrytown. He was one of Katrina’s victims; not of the flooding but of the wind and undercurrent of destruction that followed the storm. In addition to dropping a pine tree on his house, Katrina ripped off a section of his shop’s roof. Between the damage he incurred and that of his customers, the hurricane put him out of business for three weeks.
“What saved us was our new Super Lawn Truck,” Standley recalls. “We were able to use it to service customers in outlying areas untouched by Katrina. The vehicle became our traveling shop, housing our mowers, fuel and parts. In lost income alone, the storm cost us between $300,000 and $500,000, but the figure would have been much higher without the truck.”
DOWN BUT NOT OUT
Standley launched his company in 1983 after attending the University of Texas and working seven years for an oil field service company. “I started out like most everyone in this industry,” he recalls. “I hauled around a Sears mower, push broom and push edger in the back of my Chevy Silverado pickup and charged $20 per cut. After a year or two struggling in the residential market, I switched gears, put an ad in the Yellow Pages and targeted commercial accounts.”
The move paid off. The young company started on a steady growth path. The owner joined the local horticulture society, became a PLANET member and began to network with other landscape contractors from around the country. Within 20 years, just prior to Katrina’s arrival, Dan’s Landscaping employed 14 people who spent most of their time maintaining commercial properties. In fact, 85% of Standley’s business was generated by maintaining shopping malls, office buildings and other commercial establishments. The remainder was made up by installation projects.
Katrina quickly changed this business model. Gradually getting up to speed after the storm, Standley’s crew spent the next full year doing cleanup work. Maintenance still isn’t back to pre-Katrina levels, either, thanks in part to the initial loss of four large maintenance accounts. Today Dan’s Landscaping has 13 employees instead of 14, and installation work comprises 20% of revenue.
“I can’t say enough about how the lawn truck saved our bacon,” Standley reiterates. “We were able to service eight to 10 regular clients who were not affected by Katrina. It literally acted as a warehouse on wheels, carrying a full compliment of equipment, and approximately 15 gallons of two-cycle gas and 30 gallons of regular gas.”
As Standley vividly recalls, gas was a hot commodity during and directly after the hurricane. “We had evacuated to a relative’s home in Alabama and tried to get back right after the levees broke,” he tells. “At the time, we didn’t know if we had a place to live or a business to operate.
“We stopped at a gas station and asked the owner if she had any extra gas cans,” Standley continues. “She didn’t, but instead placed a Bible in my hands. Coincidentally, the city commissioner was in the store and overheard our conversation. I explained to him that I had money, but just needed gas cans. We got more than that. He contacted the owner of an area hardware store, purchased four gas cans for us, and even filled them with gas. When we got back home, I opened the Bible and the store’s owner had placed a $100 bill behind the back page, with just a short note wishing us good luck.”