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Katrina: A Look Back

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about an article I was working on that was a follow-up piece on clubs affected by Hurricane Katrina two years ago. As I quickly learned during the interviewing and writing process, things have changed a lot and continue to do so at a rapid pace.

One of my main sources for the article, Dion Grossnickle, is the general manager at Cross Gates Athletic Clubs in Slidell, LA, a northeast suburb of New Orleans. Dion was actually one of the first people I could get a hold of right after the storm hit, so naturally I wanted to follow up with him.

The first time we talked, just a week or so after Hurricane Katrina hit, was very memorable for me. I wouldn‘t call myself a “hard-hitting” journalist by any means, so this isn‘t really a surprise, but that first conversation was very heart-wrenching for me. My parents were evacuees from Katrina and lived in Slidell. In fact, my mom was a faithful member of Cross Gates, and she‘s part of the reason I started with them. (You can never be truly objective in journalism sometimes.) Dion, like my parents and thousands of others in that area, had gone through quite a disaster. One of Cross Gates‘ facilities was filled with mud, the other sustained wind damage, and countless employees had their homes destroyed. To say the least, it was a difficult time. During that first call, I felt bad prying into his professional and personal life (when you have a disaster of that magnitude, it‘s hard to separate the two) but knew I had to tell the story.

I was amazed at the health club industry‘s response. We set up a blog for affected clubs to post updates and for unaffected fitness facilities to post job openings for evacuees. The response was amazing. So many clubs raised money and offered housing and jobs.

Last August, I did a one-year follow-up story on the how the area was doing. Unfortunately, almost every facility I talked to was still having problems getting insurance money and making a full comeback. They all said the area wasn‘t recovered and that it had greatly changed.

Two years after Katrina, there‘s no question that the area has changed permanently. The people have changed, and the climate and market have changed. Late last week (after my article went to press), Dion e-mailed me to tell me that Cross Gates‘ liability insurance went from about $18,000 a year prior to the storm to $60,000 a year starting in September. That, no doubt, has an effect on business and the bottom line. Thankfully, Cross Gates has the means to support the increase (for them, business is booming due to Slidell‘s growing population), but many businesses do not. Also, Dion says that insurance premiums for homeowners are in some cases going from $1,500 a year to $8,000 a year. Not many people can afford increases that large.

Despite all of the financial hardship, everyone I spoke to seemed amazingly resilient and determined to make their businesses successful. In fact, many took Katrina as an opportunity to review business practices and try new programs. For Dion, the storm has brought him and his staff and members closer together, making the club stronger than before. It‘s also strengthened his resolve that fitness and working out is one fantastic stress reliever.

I wish all clubs in the affected areas the best of luck in their continued recovery efforts. -Jennipher

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