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Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Orleans phone book half as thick

August 24, 2006

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— On a recent hot day, the new phone book landed with a thud on the stoop of a house that one year ago lay under water, a notable sign of normalcy.

The phone book's arrival is a mark of progress here, but it's also a window into how much has changed. With nearly half the city's population gone, two swollen books have shrunk to one, following a decision by the phone book's editors to fold the white pages into the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the yellow pages now include far larger ads for contractors, electricians, roofers and others crucial to the city's rebuilding.

Lay the old and new editions side by side and the resulting contrast is a microcosm of a transformed metropolis.

It's one in which people need help repairing their homes, but don't have time to fuss with their hair - the "Contractors - General" section jumped from six to 14 pages and "Roof Contractors" from 15 to 32, while listings under "Beauty Salons" declined 42 percent from 541 individual businesses to 316.

"Every single thing that people need to rebuild their lives is literally in that book," said BellSouth Corp. district sales manager Gayla Meilleur, who worked on the phone book.

Which is exactly the point: In a city in tatters, where a majority of homes still don't have electricity, the focus is on making whole what was destroyed. It's businesses that help people do that which are seeing a spike in sales and are now represented with larger, splashier ads. People need to buy mattresses and couches to replace their soggy ones, but they can't afford to do so with antiques: The "Furniture" heading leaped from three to more than four full pages, while "Antique Dealers" is thinner, having shed 26 out of 145 businesses.

Frederick Chambers hands a Yellow Pages phone book to Delmer Archer Aug. 1 at a phone book distribution center in Chalmette, La. With nearly half the city's population gone, two books have shrunk to one.

Frederick Chambers hands a Yellow Pages phone book to Delmer Archer Aug. 1 at a phone book distribution center in Chalmette, La. With nearly half the city's population gone, two books have shrunk to one.

"Everything is housing right now. Nothing else matters," said window installer Sam Criscione, owner of Classic Vue Exteriors Inc., who's installing three times as many windows as he did before the storm. His lean, rectangular ad didn't change size, but instead he added a splash of aquamarine blue to the lettering - a way to call attention to his 44 years in business and to differentiate himself from out-of-town "storm chasers," he said.

The call volumes tracked by BellSouth offer a portrait of frantic rebuilding: Businesses under the "Roofing Contractor" heading saw, on average, an 833 percent increase in calls. Those under the "Contractors-General" were up 333 percent. "Gutters & Downspouts" leaped 483 percent.

Analysts had predicted the construction industry would thrive in the wake of the destructive storm. But they had also forecast that nearly all other sections of the economy would shrivel.

Thousands of businesses provided goods and services that are not rebuilding-oriented, yet are still essential to the day-to-day life of the city. Because many of them flooded, those that managed to reopen are now reaping the bounty their competitors left behind.

Those that don't provide essential services changed their business model to cater to the new economy, like high-end landscapers, who pulled out the chain saws and joined the ranks of tree cutters. Calls to businesses under "Tree Service" ballooned 488 percent.

The part of the economy that's limping are shops like the one in the French Quarter that sells "chapeaux" dressed in vintage brocades and South African feathers.

"Some of our ladies will come in, try on the hat and make plans to buy it after the house is finished. We're struggling to stay open," said Katherine Madere, the head saleswoman at Fleur de Paris, a New Orleans institution. Sales have plunged 50 percent. To stay afloat, the boutique has slashed costs by letting go all but one of its 14 employees.

Unlike cashing a check or getting a pair of new glasses, a hat is a frill. So are attempts to pamper oneself - "Massage Therapists" has 21 percent fewer businesses listed than last year. And between tearing out wallboard and battling insurance adjusters, many have fallen off the diet bandwagon - "Weight Loss" has 39 percent fewer listings in this edition than in last year's.

Yet one can deduce from the new phone book that large swaths of the economy are doing better than expected. It has 44,579 individual businesses listed - just 1,046, or 2 percent, less than last year. It's not cheap to advertise in the phone book - a quarter-page, full color ad costs more than $960 a month, according to BellSouth - so it stands to reason that businesses making that kind of investment are up and running.

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