Houston’s businesses inching back to work as waters recede

In this Sept. 2, 2017 photo, Bobby Jucker, owner of Three Brothers Bakery, cleans up storm damage at his bakery in Houston. In 2008, Hurricane Ike tore the roof off his business. Now he estimates he's facing $1 million in damage and lost revenue from Hurricane Harvey, the fifth time a storm has put his bakery out commission. (AP Photo/Brian Melley)

HOUSTON — Bobby Jucker has had it with hurricanes.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike tore the roof off his business, Three Brothers Bakery. Now, he estimates, he’s facing $1 million in damage and lost revenue from Harvey — the fifth time a storm has put his bakery out of commission.

He’s always recovered before. But this time, he wears the weary countenance of a man nearly broken.

“This is the last time for me,” he says. “It’s emotionally draining. I just can’t do it anymore.”

More than a week after Harvey poured more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of rain on Houston, killing at least 65 people, destroying thousands of cars and leaving hundreds of thousands of families with flood-damaged homes, America’s fourth-biggest city is striving to reopen for business.

Houston’s airports and shipping lanes reopened to limited traffic last week. Some workers returned to their offices Thursday or Friday. More followed on Tuesday after a long Labor Day weekend of cleanup and regrouping.

With waters receded, some parts of the sprawling metropolitan area look virtually untouched. Yet in other places — the leafy bedroom community of Kingwood or the Meyerland neighborhood — piles of debris sit above curbs, industrial-size dumpsters dot shopping-center parking lots and the air is thick with the odor of mold and decay.

“I’m encouraging people to get up and let’s get going,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said over the weekend. “Most of the city is dry. And I’m saying to people, if you can open, let’s open up and let’s get started.”

Many big businesses will likely recover relatively quickly. But small companies will struggle to replace moldy carpets and damaged equipment, to reconnect with suppliers, to meet payroll and to draw back customers, many of whom are nursing financial injuries of their own — swamped cars, flooded basements, leaky roofs.

Some companies are still too overwhelmed to resume business, which means their employees remain idle and unpaid.

“The big boxes and big chains can absorb hits like this; small businesses can’t,” says Craig Fugate, who served as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Obama administration. “Some will make the decision not to reopen. Others won’t be able to.”

FEMA estimates that nearly 40 percent of small businesses never reopen after a disaster.

On Wednesday, Jucker hopes to reopen the bakery, which his father and two uncles founded 68 years ago.

Over the weekend, the place was a wreck. Jucker tossed a ruined loaf of bread into a dumpster and pointed to a jug of blue food dye that will have to go, too. Also ruined is an icemaker, upended by flood waters. Bees swarmed garbage bags full of rotting confectionery and baking ingredients. Cream puffs and Danishes wilted on racks in the parking lot.

The bakery lost the live yeast used for sourdough bread; Jucker will have to grow more. It had been roasting its own coffee but lost $15,000 worth of beans. A remodeled cafe at the front of the bakery was mostly destroyed. One of the bakery’s four industrial ovens has to be replaced at a cost of more than $50,000. A second one needs at least a new motor, if not a full replacement.

PAYROLL PRESSURE

Across town, Michael Kaufman is counting his own losses. Flood waters drenched his 29-year-old business, Wholesale Cleaners, ruining the carpet, warping the counters and wrecking the computer inside his $40,000 Unipress machine. The damage comes to about $10,000.

From his son’s home, where he had taken refuge, he watched the nightmare unfold on the shop’s digital cameras. First, the yellow lines in the parking lot disappeared in the rain. Then the water seeped inside.

The cleaners, situated in the Jewish community of Meyerland, had always enjoyed good fortune. In the past when storms hit Houston, they flooded the opposite bank of Brays Bayou. This time, water went everywhere.

“It was a lake here,” Kaufman says.

Next, Kaufman faced an odd problem: Flood victims started dropping off mounds of wet shirts and slacks, some so sodden they needed to be cleaned twice. One longtime customer brought four racks of clothes.

But what sounds like a windfall isn’t. Kaufman knows it may be weeks before those customers — many of them distracted and financially squeezed by home repairs — will return to pick up their clothes and pay for the cleaning. Some might never return.