COASTAL SOUTH — Fitness facilities in the coastal South continue recovering after three recent hurricanes — Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Dion Grossnickle, general manager at Cross Gates Athletic Club in Slidell, LA, never realized how much his club meant to members until at least 50 members drove up to see the devastation for themselves, many of them crying, he said. While one of the club's two locations had minor damage and was open after the storm, the other club had 6 to 7 inches of mud and debris from hurricane Katrina's storm surge.

“It was then that I started to realize that this was not just my business and my job that I was cleaning but a second home to many. Here are our members who also lost most or all of their physical possessions, and they teared up when they saw their club's devastation.”

Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans is also trying to get back to normal. Although the Ochsner Clinic Foundation (OCF), which owns Elmwood, was the only major hospital in the New Orleans area that did not close its doors after the storm, Elmwood received damage to its Kidsports building, pools and rock wall. Due to flooding the Kidsport building may not reopen until January, but the rest of the facility opened Sept. 21, and since then 468 people have joined the facility.

“Through all of this we are continuing to reach out to the community,” said Michael Heim, manager of the children's fitness program at Elmwood. “We are a month-to-month club offering special rates to relief workers and to the general public with no initiation fee or cancellation fee.”

The club is also continuing with previously planned events, such as its first ever Rock & Ride, a group spin class. Participants pay $30 per class and receive a T-shirt, grab bag, food and beverages. Proceeds go into a scholarship fund for those who cannot afford the Elmwood weight management class and will help the 5,000 OCF employees displaced by Katrina, Heim said.

Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi was also hit hard by Katrina. The three fitness facilities on the base sustained varying degrees of damage from just roof leakage to a buckled basketball court that an Air Force spokesperson described as “looking like a roller coaster track,” to extensive roof damage that caused most of its fitness equipment to rust. The base's sports facility sustained mostly wind damage to the dugouts and fences and water erosion of the playing fields' soil. However, by the end of August, the locker room at two of the fitness centers were open for cleanup crews and contractors to shower. And, just five days after Katrina hit the area, the Blake Fitness Center was open for full service 24 hours a day. Prior to Katrina, 1,550 visited the fitness centers on an average day. A month after Katrina, that number dropped to 222, but representatives from Keesler said customer counts were increasing each day.

Davis Murphy, spa director at the Avenue Plaza Resort and Spa on St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans, reported that the facility had minimal damage except some usage from the National Guard who took post in the resort's parking garage. Some of them used the resort's fitness facility, but without a means to wash towels or flush toilets, the locker rooms needed cleanup upon their departure.

Murphy and his wife also own a personal training and weight management practice and a counseling/psychotherapy practice that are unusable because they are filled with salvageable items from nearby offices.

It will be quite some time before things get back to a sustainable financial environment, Murphy said. He and his wife lost about half their client base due to relocation and the other half is unable to afford training and counseling because of job loss. He expected it would take them at least a year to rebuild their client base to pre-Katrina status.

Hurricane Rita affected clubs on the Louisiana-Texas border, and although many could not be reached, clubs contacted in Houston and Galveston had minimal damage.

24 Hour Fitness evacuated and closed 27 of its clubs in the Houston metropolitan area due to Rita. The large chain set up a phone line for employees and after restoring power, opened all 27 clubs on Sept. 27.

It was a similar story for Galveston Health and Racquet Club, which reopened that same day. The facility only had minor damage with fences and a palm tree down.

“Our biggest problem was getting our staff back to work,” said Gerry Del Prete, general manager of Galveston Health and Racquet Club. “With the mandatory evacuation, we had staff scattered all around the state of Texas.”

After running the clubs with a skeleton crew for a few days, the club is now back to normal.

[Editor's note: As of press time, Hurricane Wilma was hitting Florida. Look for coverage of that storm in December's issue.]