It’s an ill wind that blows no good, and no one knows it better than Nicole Lombas, broker-owner of two Century 21 offices in Louisiana, who saw 50 percent of her business literally blown away by Hurricane Katrina.
“We are on the southernmost tip of Louisiana, two hours south of New Orleans,” Lombas explained. “About 30 to 50 percent of my company’s business is done in our satellite office on an island, Grand Isle. It’s on the Gulf of Mexico, the only inhabited island in Louisiana.”
That island was the first part of the United States to feel the wrath of Katrina. When the hurricane smashed into Grand Isle, houses built on stilts to resist flooding were lifted and flung into the Gulf. “Whole subdivisions were lost,” Lombas said.
The one bridge connecting the seven-mile-long island to the mainland is still out, Lombas said.
“Not only are we unable to sell there or even get there, we lost probably 30 percent of our listings that were completely blown away,” the Realtor said.
“The rest of the buildings that did survive, including our office, have very drastic damage,” Lombas said.
The fate of Grand Isle hangs in the balance, Lombas said, because the federal government may not continue to insure the island. “Because of that, people may not want to build out there, and the land may be worthless.”
While Grand Isle, where Lombas herself had a second home, may be history, the 14-agent Century 21 Nicole Lombas & Associates main office, now relocated to Golden Meadow, has had a compensatory development.
Because the municipality of Plaquemine, about an hour and a half from Golden Meadow, has suffered so much damage, much of its population is looking for jobs and housing – and many are flocking to the Golden Meadow area, Lombas said. A major employer, Port Fourchon, is located near Lombas’ Golden Meadow office.
“Our whole economy is driven by Port Fourchon. Million-dollar companies work out of there. The majority of the economy here comes from the oil field and this is our access to the oil rigs, both the companies that service them and the suppliers to the oil field industry. So it’s a bittersweet situation. We’ve had a hard time and a lot of losses. At the same time, we are blessed with being able to sell property in a different situation,” Lombas said.
The Golden Meadow area is seeing an upswing in real estate business, she said.
“Properties are holding their value and in some cases even showing an increase,” Lombas said. The office has sold 10 properties this week, she said.
Within a week of the hurricane, Lombas and nine of her 14 agents – all of whom have been located– were back in the office “trying to bring order out of chaos,” she said. “We had 170-mile-an-hour winds and it pretty much tore down everything.”
Though the office was still standing, it had suffered roof damage and flooding. There was no electricity and no running water when Lombas and her agents first returned, she said.
“We used candles. We came in during the day only,” the Realtor said. When they needed to use the bathroom, the agents had to either drive to nearby homes or businesses with running water or use an outside shed.
“When we knew the storm was coming we stacked the files on top of desks. It took eight agents helping out raising the computers, knowing the water was going to come up. My crucial paperwork I actually brought with me not knowing if we were going to come back to an office,” Lombas said.
Currently, phone service is not reliable in the area, throwing a monkey wrench into the works for the brokerage. Lombas said she and her agents are going back to basics, driving to peoples’ homes or workplaces when they need to discuss something.
“A lot of people are still evacuated and therefore we don’t know what they want,” Lombas said. “We’re trying to locate some of our clients who have lost their homes and see what they want to do. Do they still want to sell the lot the home was on? Are they planning on rebuilding?”
Cendant, which owns Century 21 and a number of other real estate brands, is supplying Lombas with a 600-square-foot modular office unit from which to run her business during the recovery period, she said. Cendant will foot the bill for transportation, installation and up to a year of rental costs, along with signage.
“They should have something to us in the next week or two. It’s amazing they (Cendant) are being so generous with the modular units, rather than us spending our time repairing and working under less than the best conditions,” Lombas said.
The broker-owner said she is grateful for the help that has come from all over the country. “We have received tons of help nationwide. They trucked in food, supplies, water, ice and clothing for people who lost everything.” But, Lombas said, more than anything she is grateful that all 14 of her agents have been found.
The group will continue to work despite the lack of phone service, the damage and the difficulties, Lombas said. “Only because we’re really dedicated and trying to get back to business, even if it means working under really bad circumstances.”
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