An alligator in the pool, good news about property records, a bustling industrial market and a stalled residential market are the realities a major Louisiana brokerage is encountering on the way to recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of residents who fled New Orleans to escape Katrina began returning this weekend.

An alligator in the pool, good news about property records, a bustling industrial market and a stalled residential market are the realities a major Louisiana brokerage is encountering on the way to recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of residents who fled New Orleans to escape Katrina began returning this weekend. Agents and brokers at Louisiana’s Latter & Blum have found some unexpected developments as they struggle to get back to business as usual – not all of them unfortunate.

“We had initially heard that critical court records such as property records and title conveyances were underwater in the basement of New Orleans’ City Hall,” said Rich Stone, director of commercial sales and leasing for NAI/Latter & Blum. “Last week we got terrific news – all of the records can be saved,” Stone said.

It is a “miracle” that the real estate documents, estimated at 12 million pages, can be saved, New Orleans Custodian of Historical Records Stephen Bruno told the Times-Picayune. Latter & Blum got the news Sept. 22.

As it turned out, the records weren’t underwater as had been previously reported. None of the records were wet, but all were exposed to potentially damaging moisture, media accounts said. The records are currently drying out, with most stored in 18 refrigerated trucks hauled in by tractor-trailers and protected by armed guards, the Times-Picayune reported.

“Looks like we can start closing sales in New Orleans sometime after Oct. 3,” Arthur Sterbcow, president of Latter & Blum Realtors, told the firm in an e-mail announcing the news last week.

Because the records were (and still are) unavailable after the hurricane struck, the company is currently unable to close sales in Orleans Parish. Instead, Sterbcow told Inman News, the company is doing lease purchases with options to buy in a year.

Latter & Blum has a residential real estate practice, a commercial real estate practice and a property management practice. The company has offices all over the Gulf Coast. Before Katrina, the company had 28 people in New Orleans, Stone said; 12 of them are now working daily out of one of the company’s New Orleans offices.

After an initial buying and leasing frenzy in Baton Rouge, where the brokerage moved its operations immediately after the hurricane, things have calmed down in that city, Stone said.

Now, the focus has shifted to industrial activity. “A lot of companies are helping to rebuild – Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors, roofers, communications people need space and staging areas to work from,” said Stone. “A lot of our initial activity as New Orleans comes back is in the industrial arena. We’re also working several office relocations.”

The company is “still super-busy,” Stone said. “Things have settled down in Baton Rouge now after a couple of weeks. Our New Orleans industrial people have been busy and our office people are kicking it up a bit.”

There are currently a lot of questions around the retail market, Stone said.

“Shopping centers, retail space, some of the properties did not fare well,” Stone said. “Retailers have choices to make because for some of the local tenants, their customer base has disappeared. You have to throw the demographics out the window, pay attention to traffic patterns and which part of the city will come back to life and which will not.”

Currently, the residential side of things is slow, with New Orleans property owners still working with adjusters and not making decisions. “Owners are taking a ‘wait and see’ before they either sell or buy property. I think that will continue to evolve over the next 12 months,” Stone said.

The company’s corporate headquarters were located in New Orleans, but the brokerage doesn’t expect to return anytime soon. “There’s life safety issues with a high-rise building you don’t have with a smaller building, such as water pressure, sprinkler, elevator, things that have to be 100 percent before the building can be re-tenanted,” Stone said.

“All our agents are accounted for. Everyone’s fine,” Stone said. “Many are coming home. Some have actually been able to move back home,” though only four or five have been so fortunate, he said. “Some have actually lost their homes.”

Agents’ adventures in the wake of the storm have ranged “from the funny to the sad,” he said. “One of my staff people went to her home in St. Bernard Parish and found dead fish stuck to the windows.”

One agent got a call from a client who said he found an alligator in his pool. No intelligence is available as to the ultimate disposal of the reptile, but the humorous story seems to symbolize the slow, but real, recovery at work in New Orleans.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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