Maurice LeBlanc, Jr. and his wife, Me-Me, probably have as much experience as any campground owners could possibly have with hurricanes, having sustained various amounts of damage and storm related business losses with Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, Lee and Isaac at their Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Robert, La.
In fact, between 2004 and 2016, the LeBlancs lost five of 12 Labor Day weekends due to hurricanes or floods with a 2016 flood being the worst they had ever experienced.
“We had water in 84 of 85 cabins,” Maurice LeBlanc said.
But while the 2 1/2- to three-foot deep floodwaters were only in their park for 12 hours, it was long enough for the water to permeate the cabins’ walls and soak their insulation, creating the potential for mold. The flood also damaged six swimming pools and pool decks.
Lacking flood insurance or sufficient cash reserves to rebuild the insides of their cabins, the LeBlancs had to rely on loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Restore Louisiana, a state disaster assistance fund, which took months to obtain.
The LeBlancs’ SBA loan wasn’t approved until just before their normal 2017 summer season started, so they were not able to rebuild the insides of all of their cabins and repair their swimming pools fast enough to capture all of their revenue potential.
LeBlanc is a second-generation campground owner. His father, Maurice LeBlanc Sr., established the park in 1975 and had enough foresight to dig a seven-acre, seven-foot deep pond as an amenity, while using the dirt to elevate the ground level throughout his park in an effort to provide a modicum of flood protection for his RV sites, tent sites and cabins.
Maurice and his two brothers and five sisters all worked at the park at various times. Maurice Jr. and Me-Me have owned and operated the business for the past 26 years and have continued to grow the park to 374 sites.
Having been hit by so many storms in recent years, Woodall’s Campground Management talked with LeBlanc about all the work he has put into rebuilding his park, storm preparedness and related insurance topics. Following are highlights of our conversation:
WCM: You’ve been through several major hurricanes and even floods here. Why not move your campground 100 miles to the north to get out of the storms’ path? What keeps you here?
LeBlanc: This is where my campers are. My campers live in south Louisiana, south of Interstate 10. We used to mail out activity calendars to everyone who owned an RV in the state of Louisiana. Twenty years ago, the state would sell you a list of every registered camper. We bought a list. The list was Louisiana and Mississippi, south of Jackson. There was a total of 65,000 names. But there’s only 5,000 campers north of Interstate 10.
WCM: I see. So, if you move north, it’s like moving into a desert. There’s nobody there.
LeBlanc: You’re asking campers to drive another 100 miles. A lot of these people are fishermen and oil field workers.
WCM: What attracts those southern Louisiana campers to your park, aside from your organized activities and park amenities?
LeBlanc: We offer a great camping area and we’re 30 feet above sea level. Most of southern Louisiana (south of Interstate 10) also has more mosquitoes. It’s also harder to build a campground in southern Louisiana. To build a campground south of Interstate 10 is more difficult because you’re on wetlands and you get into more government regulations on where and how to build a campground.
WCM: Tell us about some of your experiences with insurance. Have you ever had to use fire or wind insurance?
LeBlanc: In the past 28 years, I’ve only made one claim and that was for wind damage from Hurricane Katrina. They paid $120,000, which was more than I expected because the company I was with at that time paid for things that I did not expect them to pay. They surprised me. The problem is with business interruption insurance.
We learned that you can’t collect business interruption insurance unless your park is closed, but I can make more money by being open. This was especially the case after Katrina, because after Katrina, within two days, I had the park close to half full. People wanted to go home to New Orleans, but there was a flood in New Orleans after Katrina, so they couldn’t go home. Within a week after that, a number of insurance adjusters came in and within three or four weeks we were full. Every cabin, every campsite was full.
WCM: What are the key insurance lessons that you’ve learned over the years in dealing with hurricanes and floods?
LeBlanc: The lesson I’ve learned is that when they give you a proposal for insurance, and they issue the policy, sit there and draw lines, one to one, two to two, three to three, (from the proposal to the policy). I had a fire in a building five years ago. And it was on the proposal, but it didn’t make it to the policy. So, I did not get paid. The building was not completely destroyed. It had about $20,000 in damage.
WCM: So, make sure that the insurance proposal provided to you by your insurance broker and the actual insurance policy issued to you are in synch?
LeBlanc: Yes. If you get your insurance, there are some companies that write a blanket policy and you list the whole property. But if you miss something, it’s still cover
ed. The policy I had with this insurer did not have that. And when I put the claim in for the small fire they said that’s not covered. I said, why not? They said the building wasn’t listed.
WCM: What advice would you give other park operators about preparing for hurricanes and floods?
LeBlanc: You have to assess what your likely outcome is going to be. After Katrina, I was nine days without electricity. That is the only storm related extended period of time I have had without electricity. After the flood in August of 2016, I had electricity. So, I was able to get back into business right away.
WCM: What do you do before a hurricane?
LeBlanc: Before a hurricane, we turn over all of our picnic tables, because they have a low center of gravity. If you turn a picnic table upside down it’s more likely to stay in the same place. Now, a flood will move it, but a hurricane won’t blow it away. The biggest problem you have with a hurricane is flying debris, so you want to get everything low to the ground: Picnic tables turned over. Pool furniture picked up.
WCM: What do you do with pool furniture?
LeBlanc: You put it inside a building. Years ago, they used to tell you to throw it in the pool. But the pool chemicals mess up your furniture. It’s also a pain to remove the furniture from the pool. So, we stack it all inside a building.
WCM: Is there anything else park operators should do?
LeBlanc: If you’re worried about flooding, you get your computers up. Any low inventory move up to higher shelves. After the flood in August of 2016, all of my computers were good. All of them were up on countertops three feet up. I moved some of the inventory up, but it turned out the flood was worse than I thought and I did lose some inventory. I moved everything off the bottom shelves. It turned out, I should have moved everything off the bottom two shelves.
WCM: What about your sewage pond, was that effected by the flood?
LeBlanc: The sewage pond has a levy around it, so no. You do have to check for any debris that might have blown in because that has to come out. Otherwise, it will mess up how your sewer pond works.
WCM: Is there anything else you recommend?
LeBlanc: My father used to say, ‘You move all of your financial records to the bottom floor so if they get flooded you tell the IRS, I’m sorry, but I don’t have those records anymore.’ But I never saw him do that in all the years I was in business with him. (He laughs)
WCM: What about generators?
LeBlanc: After Katrina, we got generators. I would like to get a large generator — and that’s one of those projects down the road. If I put one generator by my first bathhouse, I could run a line from there to my sewer pump and I could keep one bathhouse going with lighting, water and hot water, and deal with the sewer.
With Katrina, the problem was I had to get a generator to pump water out of the ground so everybody could take a shower. Then I had to move the generator over to my lift stations to pump water into my sewer pond. It would be nice if I had one large generator that could handle all of that. That’s about $50,000.
WCM: What about in terms of evacuations? Have you dealt with that before here?
LeBlanc: For a hurricane, I recommend that everyone leave. Hurricanes you know days in advance. Floods not always. Anyone who wants to stay, I get them out of their campers and into a cabin. I’d rather have them in a stick-built cabin than a camper.
WCM: What about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)? What will FEMA do?
LeBlanc: Whenever there is a catastrophe, the Red Cross steps in. Everything the Red Cross spends is reimbursed by FEMA. So whatever donations they get are theirs. The Red Cross does not have a good reputation.
The Red Cross came in after Katrina. FEMA was willing to pay for cabins and hotel rooms. If you did not have a place to live they were willing to buy a stripped-down RV and pay for the site the RV sat on. But in 2005, they were not willing to pay for the site if you brought your own RV. That didn’t make any sense.
WCM: Is it true that when a park operator has storm damage, you can’t automatically apply to the Small Business Association for a loan? You have to apply to FEMA first?
LeBlanc: Yes. You have to appy to FEMA and get denied first. Then apply to SBA. You go to FEMA and FEMA refers you to SBA. That’s the process.
Any time you go to SBA, the amount of documentation you end up with is this much (He gestures to reference a tall pile of papers). It’s just incredible the amount of stuff they need.
WCM: How long should park operators expect to wait to get an SBA loan? What’s the turnaround time?
LeBlanc: All I know is every SBA loan I’ve ever been involved in takes about about eight months. A non-emergency SBA loan took about a year. An emergency SBA loan took about eight months. The problem is in my experience, they would not give me a list saying this is all (the documentation) we need. You give them something and they come back and say, ‘I need this too.’ It takes time.
WCM: Many park operators tell us they don’t have flood insurance because it’s prohibitively expensive. Do you have flood insurance now?
LeBlanc: Yes. Because it’s required for my SBA flood relief loan. If I had a choice, I would not have flood insurance. We’ve been here 43 years. That is the first time I’ve had water in the buildings. I don’t see the value. These policies come to $43,000 a year for my campground.
WCM: $43,000 for flood insurance? And that’s an expense you didn’t have before?
LeBlanc: That is correct.
WCM: Did you have to raise your cabin rates to cover your flood insurance costs?
LeBlanc: I can’t raise rates. It’s a function of supply and demand.
WCM: Could you go through conventional financing with another lender?
LeBlanc: Ultimately, that’s what I have to do. The problem we have with a conventional loan is they want to see that you have money coming in. But since my park was flooded (and my cabins were damaged), I couldn’t show a significant amount of money coming in.
WCM: So, the fact that you lost the ability to rent your cabins after the flood forced you to seek an SBA loan?
LeBlanc: Right. Last year, comparing my sales from 2015, which was the last full year I had because 2016 was affected by the flood and so was 2017, I was down 35% compared to 2015. My swimming pools weren’t up until just before the Fourth of July. My cabins, I was limping along to bring more cabins online, but I missed a lot of my season.
WCM: Are you planning to make any other improvements right now?
LeBlanc: We’re going to put a shaded area by the pool with lounge chairs and misting fans. We expect to complete that project by June.
WCM: Is your business outlook better for this year?
LeBlanc: As of the end of April, we are about 15% off of where we were in 2016 before the flood, so we are heading in the right direction.