By and  on September 1, 2005

NEW YORK — Retail operations in the path of Hurricane Katrina could remain down for weeks or even months, though major chains made some headway Wednesday in reopening units where there was less devastation.

Stores also began taking steps to help displaced employees and aid relief efforts. Estimates of the damage from Katrina range up to $26 billion, which would make it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Gap Inc. said its 1,000 employees at downed stores were all accounted for; 50 units remained closed Wednesday, though there were 70 down the day before, and that employees would get financial help for housing. Gap is encouraging employees to donate to Red Cross relief efforts. For whatever they donate, the corporation triples the amount, so, for example, a $50 donation becomes $150.

Similarly, Limited Brands is providing financial support for housing and donated $300,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Limited's chairman and chief executive Leslie H. Wexner asked his associates to contribute.

Macy's two stores in New Orleans remained closed. Federated Department Stores Inc. spokesman Jim Slewzuski said there's been "virtually no communications" with the stores. "This is going to be a long haul. We are working hard to reach our associates."

"Nobody knows when the city is going to reopen," said Andrew Jennings, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, which has a downed store in New Orleans. He said the company has reached some of the store's 240 associates, but not all. "The most important thing is the welfare and well-being of our staff. The goods can always be replaced. People can't."

At the Colonial Mall Bell-Air in Mobile, Ala., only the food court was open on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. People lined up 50 deep at one point to get hot meals, said Tim Nolan, Colonial's general manager. He said there was no looting at the mall, which on Wednesday was 100 percent open.

After food, phone and phone accessories were major sellers, but people were reportedly frustrated that they were unable to recharge cell phones.

Thomas H. Lowder, chairman and ceo of Colonial Properties, a regional developer, said, "We are fortunate that all of our employees are safe and that our properties withstood the hurricane's force with structural integrity. This was a devastating storm and our thoughts are with all who experienced loss."Big Lots, which had 45 stores closed at the height of the storm, said 29 stores remained shut on Wednesday. "We're not in contact with the people," said a spokeswoman. "We set up an emergency contact number for all our employees. The district managers are going around to all the locations and trying to assess things. How soon we'll be able to get back into the stores will vary. We might know next week a little more."

The spokeswoman said a Big Lots grand opening was scheduled for Clinton, Miss., today. The store was able to open but closed shortly thereafter due to a power outage. The store reopened with partial power for part of the day. "Other stores on the street were closed," said the spokeswoman. "It was just hit-or-miss." Batteries, candles, paper products, insect repellent, cleaning supplies, canned food, pillows, water, diapers, flashlights and lanterns are big sellers.

Wal-Mart made headway reopening stores. On Monday, 125 stores were closed, but by Wednesday 46 remained shut. "As utility power or generator power is able to be established, we are opening," said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman. "We're assessing damage. Communication is a problem. We do have teams assessing locations. We are expecting some damage there. We looked at some TV footage and saw the top of a Wal-Mart store. Part of the store was underwater. We're focusing on our associates right now and have established a number for them to call in. We're waiting to hear back. Many have been displaced. We're talking about several thousand people."

Some workers who evacuated are working at different locations, Weber said, adding, "We've actually put some of them to work in other stores. We're giving away a lot of water to different emergency management programs."

Wal-Mart has seen some isolated instances of looting. "No one is immune," Weber said.

Sears Holdings Corp. spokesman Chris Brathwaite said 14 Kmarts and seven Sears stores remained closed Wednesday. "We continue to try to do damage assessments," where conditions allow. He also said the company is evaluating potential donation efforts. The seven Sears stores, which are all in the New Orleans areas, have 900 hourly employees, who will continue to be paid for at least two weeks. The company will reevaluate the pay situation at that time. There are also 55 salaried employees at those stores. The Kmart division is evaluating how to compensate employees.Sears credit card holders in FEMA-identified zip codes won't be charged any interest or fees for the next 90 days, Brathwaite noted.

Only four of Coach's 275 North American stores are located in the primary area of destruction, along the Gulf Coast, and one already reopened, said Coach spokeswoman Andrea Shaw Resnik. In all cases they are small stores, said Resnik. She said Katrina's impact on the Coach business was minimal, particularly compared with last year when four hurricanes hit Florida, where Coach has many more stores.

One company that's seen a sales increase attributable to Katrina is O&S Holdings LLC of Los Angeles, which operates The Louisiana Boardwalk shopping center in Shreveport in northwest Louisiana. "The storm hit southeastern Louisiana," said Gary Safady, co-founder of O&S. "We were fortunate. The residual effect has been the displacement of all those people from the south coming up north. Shreveport hotels are sold out. All those people migrating up north has increased traffic at our centers....Fashion sales were up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and those are usually slow days."

However, "South Louisiana may not get power for three to four months and the New Orleans economy is shut down for at least eight months. It's a tragedy. We're doing fund-raising events at the Boardwalk next week."

The organizers of the MAGIC trade show decided Wednesday that they would collect monetary donations at the show, which ends today and when they return to their offices in Southern California, they will organize a clothing drive to help victims of the hurricane.

"So many of us have extra samples [and] merchandise that is on sale," said Deborah Kirkland, president of Johnny Was, a contemporary sportswear firm.

At MAGIC was Fred Levine, owner of the M. Fredric chain in California, who said he is considering placing boxes in his 19 stores where customers can donate clothes, or asking shoppers to contribute money for victims. Levine said his company sent 50 boxes of merchandise to Thailand for the victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami.

President Bush announced Wednesday he would tap into the emergency oil stockpile of 700 million barrels of oil to give refineries in the Gulf Coast a temporary supply of crude oil until tankers and oil platforms can resume deliveries. Crude oil prices have soared to record highs of more than $70 a barrel, but prices have settled at $68.94 as the hurricane was downgraded, according to the New York Mercantile Exchange.
— With contributions from Kristi Ellis, Washington, and Khanh T.L. Tran, Las Vegas

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