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Can this Katrina-stricken career be saved? A personal tale

By Bill Zeeble, KERA reporter

Can this Katrina-stricken career be saved? A personal tale

Dallas, TX –

Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: For the past 22 years, my wife Nicole has been head milliner at Fleur de Paris, located right behind St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. As soon as Katrina hit, she and the store - like most others in New Orleans - were out of business. Last week, we decided it was time to go back.

Nicole LeBlanc, head milliner, Fleur de Paris: We're on the way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. We're going into New Orleans to check on my workplace. I know there's no hurricane damage, and as far as anyone knows, it hasn't been looted.

Zeeble: There aren't that many milliners in the world, but Nicole's built a career creating one-of-a-kind hats that have been seen in movies, museums, Easter Parades, and at Kentucky Derbies. A Sunday New York Times Style piece published right after Katrina, listed 22 reasons why America needs New Orleans, and those hats were second on the list. Today, after years of flying from Dallas to the store a few days a month, Nicole's whole livelihood now seems at risk. This return trip, she hopes, will help establish some sense of normalcy. As we approach the Crescent City by car, we see, first-hand, some of Katrina's destruction.

Nicole: I see a lot of houses with blue tarps on houses. Operation blue tarp. You can call FEMA to put a blue tarp on your roof 'til you can get it fixed. I see heaps and mountains of trash in front of people's houses in the street, so this area must've flooded.

Zeeble: Nicole agrees with a New Orleans friend, who'd been here, and warned the whole city looks like Mount Trashmore. We ramp down off I-10 into the French Quarter, passing one of several Red Cross stations, and dozens of taped-up, ruined refrigerators

Nicole: It is really eerie, it's the middle of the day. Oh my God, it's a UPS driver! Yay! UPS is back in the business in the Quarter! Maybe we can get all those hats shipped out that have been sitting in the store for 5 weeks!!!

Zeeble: We head for the shop and a meeting with the owner, Joe Parrino, who's also just getting back home to the French Quarter from out of state.

Joe Parrino, owner, Fleur de Paris: So far the outside looks pretty good. Our windows are pulled away from the frames from the pressure but luckily they didn't break, that would have been a disaster. They have to be cut and shipped from Pittsburgh. The roof seems in pretty good shape, but no water damage from the missing shingles.

Nicole: The store looks pretty much like I left it!

Zeeble: The store's small interior is crowded with color. Hundreds of fine felt hats sit on metal tree stands; fanciful dresses of silk, fine cotton, linen and other materials line the walls.

Nicole: I have thousands of unbelievable, beautiful ribbons, hundreds of vintage veils, thousands upon thousands of new and vintage flowers and feathers, almost 75% of them vintage.

Zeeble: And now, to keep using all her treasured trims, Nicole needs more felt hat bases. For the fall and winter, she ordered more than 600. After Katrina, she cut it by at least two-thirds. Her income will also drop by roughly that much, because she's paid by the piece. Joe Parrino tells her to cut the order even more, after a phone conversation with the supplier.

Parrino: He's very tight with his felts. Cut the felt order back to the bone. He wants to be paid immediately. He was point blank about that. He's strapped, he's in debt with his felt companies. His season's not going that good himself. He won't let us get a big shipment in at one time.

Nicole: How much can you do, a week?

Parrino: I can't answer that.

Zeeble: That's because, like every tourist-dependent business in town, no one's really sure when the visitors, and their dollars, will return. So Joe Parrino doesn't know how much to buy, even though cutting to the bone could hurt a store specialty, custom orders. But the store doesn't have deep pockets. Parrino says after 35 years in retail, this is the toughest position he's ever been in.

Parrino: One of the biggest things I'm hoping for is that people will treat new Orleans like New York City was treated after 911. I discourage myself because I don't know what's going on. Usually I can meet my challenges, I know my paths to accomplish them. I do it. Now, it's a vague picture I get in my mind as to how to reach the ends I need to do.

Zeeble: Committed employees, like store manager Joann McIntyre, agree with Joe that the store will survive, based on its longevity, service, clients and merchandise. She just doesn't know if the store can hire back all 11 employees who worked here. Survival comes first. McIntyre was also flooded out of her 9th ward home and still isn't allowed back in to check it.

Joann McIntyre: Some of us may have to get a second job. Some may do jobs we've never done before. There'll be a lot of job gaps in the city.

Zeeble: One store job that may finally get done in Katrina's aftermath, says Parrino, is a website. Employees have long urged him to create one, but he still finds it hard to grasp.

Parrino: I'm better off and my store and my sales force has been trained to deal in a one to one looking in someone's eyes. Standing them in front of a mirror, transforming them into something they've never seen before, and making them feel so good about themselves. It's a whole different thing trying to do it on the phone or a computer.

Zeeble: Now, in addition to shipping some finished hats that had been stuck in New Orleans, Nicole may try learning about websites. Meanwhile, outside the shop the next morning, Nicole approaches a UPS truck stopped down the street, and, after talking to the driver, comes away less optimistic than she'd been the day before.

Nicole: They don't know when they'll have regular pick up service in New Orleans, they don't have trucks. And likely don't have drivers either. So we'll have to call for pick up, or take packages, or look into another shipper.

Zeeble: Six hours later, 275 miles from New Orleans, in the small town of Natchitoches, Louisiana comes some good news. Nicole had applied for disaster unemployment benefits and was denied, even though all of her income's derived from a disaster area business. We pull into the small Labor office to appeal the denial.

Debra Lorenz, Louisiana Labor office worker: You are eligible and you will have a debit card. It's being processed.

Zeeble: The whole exchange took about 5 minutes

Nicole: I'm so relieved. I was ready to go in there and bite somebody's head off, 'cause I know I'm eligible for federal unemployment benefits. I knew I was qualified and I was ready to take on the bureaucracy to prove it, and I didn't have to!

Zeeble: Back home, Nicole is less certain about what comes next. She doesn't know if she'll have to pursue another job, but does know such talk upsets Parrino. Everyone hopes that some business will return after the New Year, and certainly by Mardi Gras.

Nicole: I don't feel any better now than before I went down there. There's a hundred thousand people or more that don't have a job 'cause of the hurricane. I'm just one of those people. I hate to have a pity party for myself just because I'm not making money now, because I have so much more than a lot of other people, but at least I have a roof over my head.

Zeeble: for KERA 90.1 I'm Bill Zeeble

Visit KERA's hurricane news and resources site for more information.