The 88 cabins and 370 RV sites at Maurice LeBlanc’s Jellystone Park Camp Resort in Robert, La., are rented, but few of his guests are buying Yogi Bear souvenirs or taking advantage of his canoe and paddleboat rentals.
LeBlanc’s 100-acre park is one of many private facilities across the Gulf Coast that are now serving as temporary living quarters for families displaced by Hurricane Katrina as well as park insurance adjusters and construction workers as cities and parishes across southern Louisiana rebuild from the devastating storm.
Many of the people staying at LeBlanc’s park require serious medical attention. “We have two pregnancies, children with asthma, bronchitis,” LeBlanc said. “One was undergoing chemotherapy and his oncologist disappeared. It took him six weeks to find him. The VA came in with their doctor teams. They set up on the front porch of our café and they were seeing more people here than in their mobile clinics.”
But while he can obviously feel good about doing his part to help Louisiana residents recover from Katrina, LeBlanc said he worries about the long-term impact of the hurricane and subsequent relief efforts on his business.
The financial impact has been significant. While LeBlanc’s park is full, he is getting only half of his normal rate for campsites and only a fourth of his normal rate for cabins. He’s also taken a big hit on equipment rentals and sales at his grocery store, which are normally solid revenue generators for the park.
LeBlanc is also worried about his existing customers. “I had $180,000 in reservations on the books I did not honor,” he said.
Many Louisiana campers, he added, are weekenders who aren’t necessarily interested in driving four or five hours to camp in another state. So if he doesn’t keep them happy, he could lose some of them to other parks.
LeBlanc believes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will begin to encourage many of the hurricane evacuees to move on after the holidays. LeBlanc plans to add his own incentives as well, primarily by imposing rent increases in March and again in June as he gradually restores his rates to their normal levels.
But LeBlanc also remains sensitive to the disruption that has occurred in people’s lives following the storm. “We’re not talking about a storm that’s just larger than anything they’ve ever dealt with, but larger by 10 or 20 times,” he said.
LeBlanc’s park, which he evacuated prior to the hurricane, sustained about $150,000 in storm damage. Since then, he has been catering to the needs of hurricane refugees. “The first few weeks, we were really strapped for cash,” LeBlanc said. “We were spending money to run generators to keep the food we had cold, to keep the ice cold, to run our well and run our sewage lift station. We spent $120 a day on gasoline just to keep that running. We were cooking for all these people – breakfast, lunch and supper.”
The money situation is better now, but far from perfect. FEMA is running about three weeks behind in paying for the campsites and cabin rentals the refugees are using. It’s also running three months behind in paying LeBlanc for the 24 FEMA trailers that he agreed to temporarily house on his campground.
LeBlanc said the FEMA workers are compassionate but the overall effort is very disjointed. He said teams of FEMA people would come to his park to interview him or his staff, and then another team would come back and ask the same questions. He also noted that Red Cross has a policy to provide money to hurricane refugees for hotel rooms, but not for campsites.
LeBlanc is hopeful that the people staying at his park will aggressively look for work and not take advantage of government assistance. “I think people are going to wait Thanksgiving and Christmas out before they really make a move,” he said.
But LeBlanc concedes that it’s going to be tough to persuade at least some of the evacuees to move on. “I have a family living here right now,” he said. “The mother is bipolar. These people, until somebody forces them, are not going to leave. They’re better off than they ever have been. I’ve told the Red Cross these people need attention.”