By and and and  on September 3, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Narrowly escaping the potential ravages of Hurricane Gustav, this city remained locked down Tuesday as Mayor C. Ray Nagin issued orders prohibiting all but essential personnel from returning for at least the next few days.

Communications remained difficult with retailers scattered as far away as Florida and Missouri and calls to cell phones within the 504 area code forwarded to “all circuits are busy” advisories. Stores outside the hardest-hit areas slowly began to resume operations, as utilities would allow.

Meanwhile, residents of the Southeast U.S. anxiously watched as Tropical Storm Hanna advanced and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency.

Gustav caused little or no flooding in New Orleans, although more than 1 million households in Louisiana remained without electricity and many roads were made impassable by debris. News reports indicated that Thursday would be the earliest that an estimated 300,000 evacuated residents would be allowed to reenter the city.

Bradenton, Fla.-based Beall’s Outlet Stores, with 450 stores in 14 Southern states, was recovering on Tuesday and preparing for Hanna, as well as Ike and other possible storms that are gathering steam.

Beall’s president Conrad Szymanski said three of 22 stores in Louisiana would reopen today, but was unsure of the status of others. All but two units in western Mississippi reopened Tuesday, although “Gulf Cost stores are doing diminished business,” he said.

Wal-Mart opened about 20 of the 109 stores it had closed in advance of the storm, mostly outside areas hit hardest by the storm.

J.C. Penney said it still had 20 stores closed in the Gulf region and that it was evaluating the storm’s fallout. “We’re not anticipating a material impact on sales,” company spokesman Quinton Crenshaw said.

Mall Properties Inc., which owns The Mall at Cortana and Fringe and the Siegen Lane Marketplace, both in Baton Rouge, La., saidGustav wrecked a skylight at its Cortana location and a number of trees at both.

“We’re relieved it wasn’t worse,” said Gregory Glass, chief operating officer.

Glass added that he hoped the properties could be operating later this week.

The shopping centers are home to Macy’s, Dillard’s, Penney’s, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, among other retailers.

Essential recovery, or first-tier workers, including first responders and hospital and utility personnel were cleared for reentry to New Orleans on Tuesday morning.

Tier two, which includes employees of building and merchandise supply companies, will be allowed back in the city this morning. Grocery and other retailers and gas station operators, considered tier three, will be readmitted by this afternoon.

Suburban shopping centers such as Clearview Mall held up well with electricity intact, said Joy Patin, marketing director of the 750,000-square-foot center in Jefferson Parish. Patin said management plans to reopen the mall on Thursday morning — although she wasn’t certain which tenants would actually be doing business. Anchors include Sears, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Unlike the post-Katrina environment, “things were very controlled” after Gustav, said Mimi Bowen, owner of the Mimi high-end boutique, who evacuated to Florida. She hoped to reopen this week.

“People will be ready to shop,” she predicted. “After Katrina…they couldn’t wait to shop because everything else around was so depressing.”

Although Hanna was downgraded to tropical storm from a hurricane on Tuesday, forecasters are keeping a close watch, fearing that it could regain hurricane strength.

Also on the horizon is Ike, a tropical storm with winds currently at 50 miles per hour. Officials said it could hit the west and south coasts of Florida by Saturday or Sunday.

Florida retailers are readying for the worst.

A spokeswoman for Dillard’s, which has 45 stores in the Sunshine State, said “lessons learned in 2005 have us much better prepared… we have created early response teams to assess damage and coordinate cleanup efforts. We have also redesigned certain store features.”

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