Singer/songwriter Randy Newman’s haunting Louisiana 1927 has been on my mind the past couple of days. If you don’t know the song, it tells the story of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which inundated 17 million acres in Louisiana and Mississippi, killing an estimated 250 people. Later, the song became associated with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Louisiana, Louisiana

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

They’re tryin’ to wash us away

Today, Newman’s beautiful lament is playing in my head because a huge swath of central Louisiana is going through a disaster that resembles both of those  — and the door and window industry will be struggling to keep up with the aftermath for months, maybe years.

Rains that dumped as much as two feet of water in 48 hours have deluged about 20 parishes around Baton Rouge. At least a dozen people are dead, though that toll is expected to rise. And many areas are seeing unprecedented property destruction.

“There are certain parishes down here where almost 70 percent of the houses are flooded,” Jacob Roland of Window World Baton Rouge told DWM on Tuesday. “It’s a pretty big mess.”

The flooding left one window installer struggling to describe the devastation he’s witnessed.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Brandon Hollie, owner of Relief Windows in Baton Rouge, told DWM on Tuesday. “I was down here after Katrina, but the magnitude of this is devastating. It’s kind of hard to even put into words.”

My colleague with USGlass, Nick St. Denis, documented more devastation in Louisiana on Wednesday. He focused on glass businesses — including one, ClearEdge Wholesale Glass, that has three feet of water inside its plant. The owner was forced to lay off half his staff.

That’s obviously a terrible blow to that company, and I wish them all the best.

However, the disaster raises a question that feels profane to even consider right now: will the ongoing destruction have the unintended effect of actually boosting the door and window industry in Louisiana? (The mass-destruction-as-economic-stimulus argument has been advanced in various forms by people such as Paul Krugman, the famous economist who writes op-eds for the New York Times.) It seems like it could. Of course there will be a huge demand for these products — and the services of installers — in the short term, and relief money from the government and private insurance firms is certainly on the way.

But when catastrophes like this strike, it’s important to remember 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat’s parable of the broken window.

In Bastiat’s story, a boy in a small town breaks a pane of glass with a rock. Because his father must pay the glazier to replace it, the people of the town think the lad has helped stimulate the local economy, because the glazier will use the money to buy a new suit from the tailor. The tailor, in turn, will take the cash and buy things he wants, and so on, until prosperity spreads to all corners of the community. But as Bastiat points out, the money spent on replacing windows is money that’s not being spent on other things.

Obviously, that’s relevant for homeowners in the disaster-stricken areas of Louisiana. But for window companies there, it could mean something similar. Money (and time) spent rush-ordering supplies and speed-installing hundreds or thousands of windows could mean a short-term windfall. But that’s also money (and time) that’s not being invested in new equipment, or a new office, or a dozen other things needed to maintain a business during the vast number of days when there isn’t six feet of water in the streets.

It’s also work that I’m sure these companies wish they didn’t have to do in their own communities. I can’t imagine the emotional toll of laboring among vast destruction that’s affected people you’ve known your whole life.

But even a short-term windfall isn’t guaranteed in disasters such as this. As DWM reported in our June-July 2015 issue marking the tenth anniversary of Katrina, there was a months-long lull after the hurricane passed before any kind of recovery work began along the Gulf Coast.

“People were just taking stock,” said Steve Dawson, vice president and general manager of CGI Windows and Doors. “There was a lot of debate in the low-lying areas about [whether or not to rebuild]. The whole area was in a waiting period as people figured it out.”

Additionally, opportunistic window businesses tried to take advantage of Katrina’s devastation and failed — another example of money spent on broken windows that could have gone elsewhere.

“Window places sprung up as a result of Katrina,” said Jim Roland of Window World Baton Rouge. “Every window company in the nation tried to do what we were doing, and they’re all gone now.”

However it plays out, here’s hoping Louisiana recovers — once again.

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