Street vendors a common sight in the wake of disaster
September 8, 2005
GULFPORT, Miss. – Paul Clark makes money off misery. Setting his course by the Weather Channel, Clark travels from tornado to hurricane, his rapid-fire, good-old-boy sales pitch at the ready. He comes in first with a trailer load of generators. When sales start to flag, Clark knows stricken residents have moved past survival mode into recovery. So he heads back to his hometown of Brooksville, Fla., and returns with dozens of used RVs to sell or rent. After all, folks need a place to stay as they rebuild. Clark says he rides the disaster circuit “to help people through their time of need.” And, he adds, “to give them a good deal.”Hurricane Katrina has left plenty of need. And vendors are swooping in, eager to deal. The day after the storm, Clark and two of his employees set up an open-air showroom off Highway 49, the main commercial strip through Gulfport. His folding table is littered with wrappings from the meal rations they’ve cadged from the National Guard; by now they know to ask for Cajun rice with sausage, their favorite. Each morning, when the city curfew lifts, Clark sets his generators neatly on the grass around his semitrailer. He pats them lovingly as he describes their assets to frazzled and sweaty customers. He has already sold more than 1,000, he said – the cheapest for $450, the most expensive for $1,950. “Doin’ really well,” Clark said. “This is the big season for us.”It’s the big season for all the entrepreneurs who make a living at what some call “curbing”: camping out curbside to sell basic necessities to people who have lost everything. They are everywhere, their trailers parked in front of heaps of debris, spray-painted signs serving as billboards. They offer generators, batteries, bug spray, sleeping bags, propane stoves and, in one case, a used walker so banged up it looked as if it had been pulled from the rubble that still chokes this city. A few vendors are first-time opportunists who came to gawk at the wreckage and figured they’d peddle a few flashlights at the same time. But many are professional storm chasers. They may run other businesses, but they count on Mother Nature’s seasonal wrath for a healthy portion of income. Most take only cash, but Clark, who has a car dealership back home, accepts Visa and MasterCard as well – when his cell phone is working. When the service sputters out and he can’t call to verify the account, “we all just sit down in the shade,” he said, “and have ourselves a little break.”When a customer comes up, Clark straightens his button-down shirt and walks over, a swagger in his step, a down-home twang in his voice. “How’re ya doing?” he asks. “Good, good, good! … Tryin’ to power up the home?”Then he starts in on his pitch, revving up several generators with considerable effort before showing off a deluxe model that’s activated by remote control – on sale for $1,750. Clark guarantees it will power up a fridge, lights and even an air-conditioning unit. If you’re not happy, he says, just bring it back. Asked where he’ll be in a few days, though, Clark answers with a vague wave. “It’ll be somewhere along this strip,” he says. Leery of scams, many locals shun the vendors. “There’s no way you can trust them,” said Lawrence Hill, who was waiting in line outside Home Depot for nearly an hour to buy a generator. Behind him, Lynn Young, a retired school librarian, nodded. “It was so tempting, especially in the early days, because … you could see the generators and all you needed was cash,” she said. “But I can’t afford to chance that I’ll get it home and something will go wrong and I will have wasted that much money.” Others, however, acknowledge that the vendors fill a vital – if unsavory – role. The economy here is just beginning to sputter back to life. Every day, a few more stores reopen. The local radio stations broadcast shopping tips: There’s toilet paper at the CVS Pharmacy in Pascagoula! The Home Depot in Gulfport has chain saws! But some stores’ hours can be erratic, and shelves are not always fully stocked. Lines often stretch out the door; residents may wait hours in the sun, only to walk away empty-handed. So it can be a relief to come across a stranger who has what you need in the back of his pickup and can sell it on the spot. “Look,” a weary woman told Cary Atherden, who was selling generators in front of a damaged Wal-Mart in Waveland, about 30 miles west of Gulfport. “Three hundred dollars is all the bank will give me right now. I know you’re selling them for $400, but can you give me a break?” She pulled out a badge identifying herself as Lt. Ida Sonnier of the New Orleans Police Department. Atherden looked at the badge and smiled. “We’re always happy to give a police discount,” he said. Pocketing a receipt scribbled on a scrap of paper, Sonnier drove off to the bank to plead for more cash. “We desperately need power,” she said. “If I see someone on the side of the road, at least I know that the equipment is there and I don’t have to wait in line.”Dressed for the heat in a T-shirt and baggy shorts, Atherden sat back to await the next customer willing to weave around three toppled trees to reach his truck. Although he’s already cut his prices twice – “They’re on sale!” he tells prospective customers – Atherden said he expected to make at least $100 on every generator. So far he’s sold 84. Some towns are trying to keep tabs on roadside vendors by requiring them to buy business licenses. Clark has one. But the vendors move around so freely – here one day and gone the next – that it is hard for the city to control them or even to estimate how many there are. They do know that a growing number of residents are falling victim to scams or to old-fashioned price gouging. Along one heavily damaged street, a man knocked on doors last week offering to sell a five-gallon container of gas for $40. “I’d rather sit in this house and not eat before I pay $8 a gallon,” said Willie Sparkman, turning the man away. In other neighborhoods, con artists posing as tree trimmers have demanded cash up front, only to disappear before doing any work. George Carbo, director of urban development, said he had seen some people trying to sell the ice and bottled water distributed free at shelters. “That’s the level people will stoop to,” he said. Police have the authority to arrest such profiteers, Carbo said, but so far they’ve been too busy. When dead bodies still lie under rubble, roadside vendors are a low priority. For their part, the sellers say they’re not gouging – they’re just trying to help. In fact, their prices are often in line with, or even cheaper than, retail stores, although they tend to stock imported brands not widely sold in the United States. The least expensive generators at Home Depot in Gulfport cost $599 – and a big sign warned “No Returns.” Two blocks away, Clark had more powerful models for $450. His premium generators were slightly more expensive than Home Depot’s but in line with other retail outlets. Vendors trying to take too much advantage found out quickly that residents were too savvy to bite. Driving to Florida from his home near Enid, Okla., skydiving photographer Shawn Lehman thought he’d pick up a half-dozen inexpensive generators at Wal-Mart and sell them in Mississippi at a $200 markup. He hung a big silver sign over his Lincoln Continental. But he wasn’t having much luck. Looking scruffy – he’d been sleeping in the car – Lehman sat glumly with his rat terrier Jack. Lehman had been surviving on bologna and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and it didn’t look like he’d have money for much more, even though he was offering a gift receipt with every generator so the customer could return it to Wal-Mart if it broke. “I might have to cut my price a little bit,” he said. “You have to keep some morals,” said Penny Musbek, a veteran disaster chaser from Woodbridge, Conn., who was selling high-end generators for $1,800. “How can you live with yourself if you’re gouging people who have lost so much already?”About a mile south, off Highway 49, Jeff Yerrick’s morals were getting in the way of his profit. Gaunt and missing a good many teeth, Yerrick said he was ill with cancer and had wanted to see the force of a hurricane up close before he died. So he and a friend had rummaged through their storage sheds for items that survivors might find handy and hauled them 546 miles from Satsuma, Fla., to the Mississippi coast. The merchandise Yerrick set out on scraps of blue and gray tarp looked like a thrift shop’s rejects. There was a pile of batteries, a portable stool with a badly cracked seat, two used generators, 10 chain saws, six propane stoves, rope and a beat-up walker. Yerrick set his prices on the spot, knocking half off for anyone who looked particularly pathetic. The lengths of blue and yellow rope he simply gave away, “cause how can you really charge for rope?” he asked. “I don’t feel good about the idea of making too much money in this situation,” Yerrick said. “I mean, look around you. Everything’s gone.” Although he didn’t end up much richer for his trip, Yerrick did learn a lesson in the every-man-for-himself economics of disaster zones. “I sold a flashlight to one guy, and he came back and told me he sold it for twice the price to his neighbor,” he said.