The Fixer-Upper Fixes Up

Ralph Kastner had both planning and luck on his side. When he started Tuff Equipment Rentals in 1999, he drew up a hurricane plan. He had flood insurance as well as coverage for the replacement value of his equipment. Now Kastner's particular service -- renting small equipment -- has become one very hot niche.

Kastner wasn't feeling so lucky when, four days after Katrina, he returned to his 5,000-square-foot office and showroom in Slidell, La., near Lake Pontchartrain. Although he had moved much of his inventory to higher ground, more than half of his equipment, from backhoes to rental cars, was underwater. Thick sludge covered the floor. Kastner had $2.5 million in equipment and vehicle damage and $200,000 in building damage."The main thing I was thinking was: 'How hard is it going to be to come back from this?' " says Kastner.

Kastner began a cleanup that would last eight weeks. But his customers wouldn't wait. He set up his 24-person, $3 million company in a 12-by-60-foot trailer and started filling out orders by hand because the computers weren't working. Kastner ordered replacement equipment and placed new orders for gear people would need to repair and rebuild their houses: power washers and boon lifts to raise people up so they can fix buildings or cut trees. To stay open, he took $200,000 from his company's cash flow and borrowed $175,000 from a home-equity line of credit. He spent $75,000 on computers and telephones -- things he was surprised to find his insurance didn't cover.

By late October, Kastner and the 15 employees who had returned to the city were back in their renovated office. He has received almost all the money he claimed from his insurers. With so much rebuilding in New Orleans, Tuff's sales are on track to be, ironically, the best ever.

By Eve Tahmincioglu

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