October 2005

Katrina’s aftermath
by Donna Currie Contact the writer

David Hickman of David Motor & Scrap in Biloxi had a run-in with Hurricane Katrina and he said, “We were pretty hard-hit.” A quarter-mile of fencing is gone, one building was completely demolished, the warehouse and office for the metal operation lost its roof and was under about 7 1/2 feet of water, an office trailer was destroyed and about a half-million dollars worth of equipment spent some time underwater.

Now, Hickman is fighting back. As of September 8, the yard was open to the public again, for those who can make it in. “Business will be slow,” Hickman said, as he planned the opening, “but people will need money for gas and food.” The gas shortage is hitting everyone hard, Hickman said, and is one of the biggest hurdles his customers face.

“If you’re hauling scrap, you spend six hours trying to get gas so you can spend two hours hauling scrap,” and after the wait, the limit is $40 at the pumps, which will buy about nine gallons of gas. “It’s nothing to see a gas line a mile long,” he said, “from one exit to the next exit on Interstate 10.”

Even before the official re-opening, one of Hickman’s oldest customers showed up. The customer lives in Biloxi, just turned 80 years old, and has been hauling scrap since 1965. “He came out yesterday, I believe. He was up in his attic,” Hickman said. “Every day you hear stories about people, been found up in their attic days later, trapped, you know,” he said.

And although Hickman will be doing a lively business cleaning up storm debris, he said, “It’s not a good thing.” He pointed out that they still don’t know how many people were killed, and so many more lost homes, property or jobs. “Seventy percent of the employees are here because of the casinos,” Hickman said, and now the majority of those casinos are gone.

In fact, the casinos were some of the first businesses to call Hickman to begin demolition and scrap removal. The first priority was the casino barges. “They want to get the barges off land, they want to get them moved, and they know that we’re so close – we’re not but three miles away from them.” Hickman said. The Biloxi yard is about a half-mile north of the interstate and about three miles from the beach, which made it both vulnerable to the storm as well a good base of operation for storm clean-up.

The casino owners want the barges moved in two weeks. “There’s no way you can process one in two weeks,” Hickman said, “you might cut one up and move it in two weeks, but not process it.”

Out-of-state companies are coming in to help with demolition and removal, but some of the businesses don’t want processing done on-site. “You have to downsize it and move it,” Hickman said, and with his 20-acre facility just up the road, he can do just that. The problem with the out-of-state companies is, “they don’t have a location, they don’t have a business license, and you can’t process it on site, you have to downsize it and move it and process it on your own site.”

Besides casino barges and buildings, Hickman said, “you would not believe the automobiles.” When the water came inland, there were cars parked under “six to seven feet of water,” in areas that no one expected would flood. He saw cars from a dealership on the beach that “looked like a tornado had made a pyramid out of them – it went straight up in the air.”

“You wouldn’t believe the scrap that is piled up,” Hickman said. When asked how much scrap will come out of this storm, Hickman said, “If I had to take a wild guess – I’m going to say 50 thousand tons, plus.”

Hickman has 25 employees and two operational yards one in Biloxi and a second in Pascagoula. He had started construction on a third facility, an auto shredder, in Mobile, Alabama when the storm hit. Scheduled to open in November, about the only thing built was the scale house, which was destroyed by the storm, and the yard was under about two feet of water. He also lost some fencing at that site, but he still plans on opening it as soon as he can. But for the next eight months, he will be stockpiling cars and light sheet metal at his other yards, in anticipation of the opening of the new yard. Structural scrap from the storm will be processed and sent to a nearby mill.

“It’s unreal,” Hickman said of the devastation. As far as getting back to normal: “For the whole community, it will be years.”

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