Flooded with customers

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Vidalia residents Jo Jefferson, left, and Pauline Taylor move personal items into a storage bin at S.O.S Storage in Natchez Friday afternoon.

NATCHEZ — As residents in Concordia Parish keep their eyes on the river level, Natchez businesses are preparing to welcome the influx of their neighbors, just in case.

While Natchez businesses will benefit economically if parish residents do cross the bridge, they are also feeling their pain.

“This is going to work both ways,” Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton said. “We will have influx of people into town which will produce purchases above and beyond normal for things like gas, food and accommodations. But, we are also hit with fact that revenue will be lost from the (Isle of Capri Casino) being closed, the restaurant and the Under-the-Hill Saloon.”

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Middleton said Natchez businesses will accommodate its neighbors however possible.

The mayor suggested that business owners begin communicating with suppliers now in anticipation of extra customers.

Some businesses have looked at their inventory and feel they can potentially handle the extra customers, while some businesses have already sold out of their products.

Shoney’s restaurant in Natchez receives two food shipments a week.

“If the river does get close (to Vidalia), I really feel like people will come here,” Stephanie Price said. Price is a manager at Shoney’s.

“By then, if they do evacuate, it will positively impact our business, but at the same time it is a sad situation. I hate that it’s happening.”

Price said their inventory is strong enough to serve extra folks. Management will watch the situation closely, she said.

“Right now we have enough food to serve extra people,” Price said. “We shouldn’t run out of anything.”

Price said Shoney’s is more than happy to take on extra customers if the need arises.

“Of course we will accept anyone that comes in and accommodate them in any way we can,” she said.

Jefferson unlocks a storage bin.

Janelle Williams, general manager at the Hampton Inn and Suites on Canal Street, knows that people escaping a possible flood will mean a full house, but she will suffer personally.

“I live in Vidalia and so does one of our maintenance men,” Williams said. “But I won’t really start to worry until water bubbles over those concrete barriers.”

Williams said she is getting calls from people inquiring about vacancies, and she said Hampton Inn still has rooms available.

“We are getting extended-stay reservations for up to two weeks from government agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Emergency Management Association,” Williams said. “Otherwise we’re getting calls from people who are checking rates, but we’re not making many reservations yet.”

Williams said strong business after a good Spring Pilgrimage is welcome, but she cringes to say that, considering the situation.

“People might be put out of homes,” Williams said. “And we hate that. I’m worried about my house and my employees, but you have a hotel to run. You really have to look at both sides.”

While reservations for rooms trickle in at Hampton, Pam Woody, secretary at Storage On Site, said they were slammed Tuesday.

“We sold out of storage probably within an hour Tuesday; it was packed,” Woody said. “We had people here from Lake St. John, Lake Concordia and a few from Monterey.”

Like Williams, Woody also lives in Vidalia, and hurts for her neighbors while feeling good about business.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do,” she said.

Woody said people filled storage rooms with furniture, heavier equipment such as four-wheelers, personal items and important papers.

Lionel Stepter, store manager at Walmart in Natchez, said Walmart has initiated its emergency operations that gets them ahead on supplies.

Taylor moves personal items into a storage bin as they store items in case their Vidalia house were to flood.

“The emergency operation center basically supplies us with quick-needs (merchandise) in large quantities,” Stepter said. “Right now we are just making sure we are in stock on canned goods and water. Our immediate focus is also storage totes, trashcans, trash bags and life vests. Also, some people are buying gas cans to store gas so they can have it available.”

Stepter said the secondary needs are perishable-type food items for folks who may end up at friends’ homes and hotels.

Stepter has already begun working with suppliers on needs following a potential flood.

“We have to focus on needs once the water rises and recedes,” Stepter said. “We are getting ready for cleaning supplies, mop buckets, mops and herbicides. That’s how we try to be prepared.”

Stepter said the Natchez Walmart location is not swamped because Natchez is not within immediate threat of floodwaters.

“As (the water) gets closer, I imagine an influx of customers from Vidalia,” Stepter said. “But right now, we aren’t crowded. The Vidalia store is doing awesome.”

Stepter acknowledged the catch-22 of the flood situation.

“We as company are in business to make money,” Stepter said. “But it boils down to how it impacts people’s lives. That is the difficult part. They might be out of homes and not have the same things they did before the possible flood.”

Stepter said many associates at his store live in Vidalia.

“We are prepared to assist our associates as well,” he said. “In this economy, it’s not like people have money set aside for this kind of thing. People are breaking into their piggy banks to do what they need to do. After tge water recedes, we will do what we can help them get back on track.”