It’s been almost 10 years since Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, but the memories and the lasting impacts don’t seem to have faded one bit. From a peak of high ground in New Orleans, small business owners Rob and Lee LaFleur helped the surrounding community get back on its feet as quickly as possible, while having to adjust to changing needs and demands from consumers in the area.
In 1981, Rob and Lee’s parents opened Mike’s Hardware – now Mike’s Hardware and Supply – in a two-story building in the Gentilly area of New Orleans. For eight years, the LaFleur family lived upstairs in a small apartment above the store. In 2012, the brothers bought the business from their parents, officially taking over the operations and the charitable mission of the store.
Little did the LaFleurs know, the small two-story building had been strategically located. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Mike’s Hardware and Supply was one of the few buildings to survive the storm with minimal damage and almost no flooding. “We didn’t really know it, but we happened to be on one of the higher ridges that run through the city,” Lee says. “Of course all of our houses flooded, but the store didn’t flood and we were on what looked at the time like an island of high ground.”
Although there was minimal damage to the store, the building – like most of the area – did not regain electricity for six weeks after the storm. As soon as the electricity came back on though, the LaFleurs were ready to open. “We were the first business in our part of town to reopen following Katrina,” Lee says. “We were only open for about four hours at a time, and it took about a year to get completely back into the swing of things, but we did what we could.”
In an area as devastated as post-Katrina New Orleans, an open business meant hope for the community. “We saw a surge in business as soon as we opened,” Lee says. “We would get ready to open the doors and there would be at least five people gathered, waiting to get in.” At the time, people needed anything from demolition tools and rebuilding supplies to a cold soda and a working bathroom to use. “We were busy, but it wasn’t the kind of busy that you want to be,” Lee says.
As rescue missions got underway throughout the city, Mike’s Hardware’s sliver of high ground served as a hub of operations for first responders and survivors. “Rob is a former Marine, so he told his friends who were still in the Corps that we had dry land for a helicopter out back of our store,” Lee says. “We went out there with spray paint and painted a big X so that helicopters could land there during rescue missions.” At one point, a group of about 60 people used the store’s parking lot as a home base, he says.
Since Katrina, the focus has been on rebuilding. The LaFleurs have seen their family’s business diversify, serving fewer homeowners and more commercial contractors and construction projects as the community has worked to repair the damage. Most of the rebuilding is finally coming to an end, Lee says, but there are still playgrounds and parks that need attention.
Mike’s Hardware and Supply also serves the community in a variety of other ways, especially now that the area has stabilized since the storm. “I have a son with Down syndrome, so we’re very involved in the Down Syndrome Association of Greater New Orleans,” Lee says. “We also support the Henry Aucoin Foundation, which helps families of children with pediatric heart defects.” Lee sits on the board of the Foundation.
“It’s stuff we enjoy doing with the money we set aside for charitable donations,” he says. “Rather than writing a check and sending it to some organization out of state, we like to see our money go somewhere in the community.”
The healing process continues in New Orleans, but thanks to Mike’s Hardware and Supply, the community has hope and a helpful place to go.
For more information about the LaFleur family and their business, visit www.mhsnola.com.