Grady Hazel has been director of the Society of Louisiana Certified Public Accountants since 1995. The 6,500-member organization is located in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. A native of Baton Rouge, the 58-year-old CPA took time to share with AccountingWeb what many area firms are facing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
AccountingWeb (AWEB): How would you describe what has transpired in the past few months in New Orleans?
Hazel: Devastating. We have CPAs with no offices who don't know where their clients are. Or their records have been destroyed and they have no office to go to. Some of the industry CPAs are up and running, and some businesses are up and running again.
We have visited around the state, but some parishes you cannot get to. We have visited some firms in the New Orleans area and we have talked to them. We have talked to some who have no homes or offices that have relocated to other cities.
AWEB: How long will it be until the business community, including accounting firms, is fully functional?
Hazel: For everybody to be fully functional, it will be years. Some firms may be functional within the next six months. But those with clients in the hotel industry, it's going to be at least a year-and-a-half to two years before they are fully functional. And they may never get back. One size does not fit all.
AccountingWeb: What are some of your members' worst-case scenarios?
Hazel: We have a board member whose house and office were completely destroyed. She is a sole proprietor. She's having real trouble finding her clients. She is located 90 miles from where she lived. And I'm sure she is not the only person in that situation, but that is typical of the worst. In the event-planning business, they're out of business because there is nothing to do.
The best-case scenario is a fairly large firm that had to leave [its] office for 30 days, but now [it has] more work than [it] can handle.
AWEB: The society's Kenner office was closed for more than six weeks. How much was it affected and how did it operate in the weeks following the hurricane?
Hazel: The last day we were in our office was Aug. 25, and we didn't get back into it until Oct.15. We were not in operation until Sept. 14 or 15. Our Web site was down and we had no phones. We found a temporary office, but trying to get the utilities, phone and Internet access took about a week and a half. Nobody could get to us except for my cell phone, and if they knew a staff member's cell phone number.
We are in a five-story building, and some windows blew out. We had a ceiling that fell in and the carpet was ruined. That's what kept us out.
AWEB: Is the society conducting programs, or is business at a standstill?
Hazel: If we had programs scheduled for other cities, we continued to hold them. But we had our first program here [Nov. 3] in our main office. We have 19 staff members, and they are not all back to work. Two of them don't have a home, and we know one is not coming back. The other one doesn't have a place to live and has some family illness problems, so she is on leave.
AWEB: How has the society and the state's accounting community helped the firms that need it most?
Hazel: We have posted job openings on our Web site. We've let them know about contract opportunities. The CPA community has responded terrifically to that.
AWEB: What type of needs do you have in which readers could assist?
Hazel: I think what most people want is to be able to put their homes back together as quickly as possible. If they're not in their offices they would like to be back in their offices, and I'm not sure that is something any individual can help with. It's just a very frustrating time, and there are barriers to getting things done.
One CPA is ready to go back to work but none of his employees have homes, so he set up where all of his employees sort of migrated. It will be difficult for him to go back to his original office until they have homes.
AWEB: How do you spend your days?
Hazel: Lately, my president and I are trying to visit different locations around the state and telling them what's going on with us and our state board of accountancy. You just take one day at a time. We canceled 101 CPA courses. We are trying to reschedule as many of those courses as we can, and that's very hard. It just wears you out and it wears the staff out. We are three or four people short, so we have to re-divide that work, and that is typical of some firms. They have more work than they do staff.
AWEB How has the catastrophe changed you?
Hazel: I'm probably a lot more tense than I used to be. It is emotionally draining. While you may be well-rested, you may be emotionally drained. I've talked to so many CPAs who say they are so tired emotionally.
AWEB: With Thanksgiving here, for what do you still have to be thankful for?
Hazel: I have a house and I have a job. I asked someone at a large firm that, and he said he is thankful for his family and all of the families of the firm. They were thankful no one died in any of the families related to the firm. Then he said he was thankful for the clients who reached out to him and asked is there any way we they could help. We are all thankful we're part of a profession that cared so much that it immediately offered help.
If you asked most CPAs who were affected, I don't think their answers would be much different than that.
Written by Scott Olson