Thousands of electric signs bit the dust along with everything else Katrina and Rita destroyed, and months later, some sign builders and erectors are struggling under a backlog of orders ' not just to replace damaged signs but also because of post-storm construction booms in Lafayette and Baton Rouge.

Brent Comeaux, operations manager with AAA Sign Co. in Lafayette, says the firm has worked through most of the orders to replace signs torn up by the hurricanes, though that's increased the backlog on his regular business. The wait time for a new sign has gone from four to six weeks before the storms to more like 10-12 weeks now.

The amount of time AAA's three crews spend getting to jobs and back has increased, too. Most of the company's work had traditionally been within a 50-mile radius of Lafayette, but now crews travel twice a week to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, and southeast Texas or Lake Charles.

And it's not just replacing storm damaged signs; these days the company has its hands full erecting and/or building signs for new businesses, including national accounts like Popeye's and Cingular. Unfortunately, some of the firm's smaller customers get stuck in the back of the line when AAA gets orders to replace a light bulb for one customer or put up a $50,000 sign for another.

"What would you do? People are impatient, but for us it's what's warranted," Comeaux says.

To avoid alienating smaller accounts, AAA keeps someone in Lafayette one day a week to chip away at the local backlog and call customers to assure them they haven't been forgotten. They can hardly spare the extra man, since some days they're forced to put together a pickup crew of shop veterans to do a far-flung job. The last time AAA had to do that was after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. "It's business," Comeaux says. "You're short-handed and strung out. It's a good problem to have. Slowly it's all getting done."

It's a change of fortunes for Louisiana's sign companies, which saw flagging business since 9/11. In times of uncertainty, corporations are quick to axe advertising, which impacts sign-makers and erectors directly, Comeaux says.

He has some advice for anyone putting up new construction that's going to need a new sign: Don't wait until two weeks before opening to put in your order, or you're going to be waiting a long time.

Buck Jones, owner of Jones Sign Co. in Baton Rouge, says catching up with the backlog is more difficult because he's lost crews to FEMA, which promises high salaries that sign company owners can't match.

"They romanced employees from all the sign companies and from all the trades to go down [to New Orleans], and they're going to stay there for a long time," Jones says.

He's still got several crews working, though instead of cutting through the backlog Jones gets farther behind every day. His sales department hasn't made a cold call in months; there's no need for it.

The company's market is mainly Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans. Despite the extensive damage from Katrina's high winds, most of Jones' orders are for new businesses. Jones says he doesn't turn down customers but warns his sales staff not to make promises on delivery there's no realistic hope of meeting.

Ten weeks is the absolute minimum. It'll probably take longer. Jones refuses to agree to drop-dead delivery dates because too many things can happen, despite his best intentions. In the meantime it's going to be crew shortages and antsy customers for the foreseeable future.

"You have to be kind of fatalistic about it," Jones says. "It is what it is."

Billboards took a hit as well. Superior Outdoor Advertising has a dozen jumbo billboards ' 20 feet by 40 feet and 60 feet high ' on the U.S. Hwy. 90 corridor between Lafayette and New Iberia. Managing Partner Art Suberbielle says four of them were damaged substantially.

"We had a significant amount of damage from Hurricane Rita, but we probably had it all repaired within 90 days of the storm," Suberbielle says.

Hurricane force winds tend to rip a billboard's vinyl-wrapped galvanized panels away from the frame. To prevent that from happening next time, God forbid, the company installed hurricane "clips" that bolt the panels to the frame rather than just snapping them in place, the preferred method.

"Hopefully they won't be so quick to give way in the event of another high wind," notes Suberbielle, who wouldn't specify how much the damage cost the company ' only that it was "in the thousands."

Jay Graham, owner of Thompson Electric Sign Co. in Baton Rouge, fears the backlog may be permanent. He's also experiencing manpower woes ' namely FEMA hiring away his crane truck drivers. Graham says only a handful of people have responded to his newspaper help wanted ad since February.

"One of them worked almost 90 hours the first week and decided that was a little bit more than he wanted to work," Graham says. "We just can't hire enough folks. That's been the biggest issue. FEMA's killing the little man, because we can't compete with the federal government."

Orders have increased by at least 50 percent. Graham says all he can do is try to juggle things so customers who absolutely don't have time to wait get served a little quicker than others on the list whose situation is less dire. "It's not a matter of if you're going to make somebody mad, it's how mad you're going to make somebody," he says.

Further impeding the glacial pace was the fact that Graham's crews, replacing storm-damaged signs in New Orleans in the months immediately following Katrina, weren't able to get motel rooms. The slow, 26,000-pound crane truck had to make the round trip between Baton Rouge and New Orleans every day. Graham has resigned himself to the prospect of more demand than he can satisfy for the foreseeable future.

"It's a good problem to have, but it's still a problem," he says. "Do you drive a crane?"

Portions of this story originally appeared in Baton Rouge's Business Report.

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