One-Way Dilemma
New Orleans evacuees are facing another hurdle to returning home: the cost of renting a moving van or truck has gone through the roof, writes Katy Reckdahl in this January 7, 2007, Times-Picayune article.
Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

When the U-Haul clerk quoted him a price for a one-way truck rental from Dallas to New Orleans, all Ajay Mallery could do was gulp.

Starting in the fall, with a vow from the contractor that their flooded home would be ready by New Year's, he and his wife, Neljuana Mallery, had planned every step of the move back home.

In December, as the moving date approached, they enrolled their two children in New Orleans schools, and Ajay, a drummer, started picking up brass-band gigs.

But then came the shocker from U-Haul. To rent a moving truck for the drive to New Orleans would cost these Katrina evacuees an estimated $1,439 one way.

After pondering the quote for a few minutes, an astounded Ajay Mallery picked up the phone and called U-Haul back. How much would it cost to drive the same truck from Dallas to Phoenix, he asked. "They told me $640," he said, less than half the price, despite the trip to Phoenix being twice as long as the drive to New Orleans.

He tried other cities-among them Detroit and Chicago, which are about 500 miles apart, the same distance as Dallas and New Orleans. The cost for a U-Haul rental? About $250. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous,' " Mallery said.

What made the price soar was the Mallerys' destination-New Orleans. Anyone driving a moving truck this way can expect to pay sky-high prices. That's because, over the past several months, thousands of evacuees have begun coming home. The result: truck- and trailer-rental parking lots overflowing, with rolling stock from places like Atlanta, Dallas and-more than anywhere else-Houston.

Truck-rental prices from many cities have doubled and tripled in the past few months. Some Houston evacuees have been flatly denied rental trucks if they plan to return them to New Orleans. U-Haul International spokeswoman Joanne Fried said that happens when "a stop" is put on trucks headed to certain destinations glutted with gear. "When that happened, it was because there was nowhere to park the trucks in New Orleans," she said.

A sign of return

Just as purple, green and gold signals the advent of another Carnival season, the orange cabs of U-Haul trucks in parking lots all over New Orleans are a sure sign that evacuees are returning. They even shed light on just who is returning-generally lower-income New Orleanians for whom hiring professional movers is out of the question. The trucks are also pawns in an unresolved fight between Louisiana state officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over possible federal financing for the moves back to the city where the federal levees failed so catastrophically.

"They're coming home. People didn't think they would, but they are. Slowly but surely," said Sidney Doyle, who lives on Banks Street in Mid City, a few blocks behind U-Haul's Tulane Avenue lot. His friend, Brandon Matthews, said the U-Haul lot on Tulane always seemed to be struggling before the storm. Would-be customers were routinely sent on to another location, he said, because the Tulane lot had so few trucks.

These days trucks are parked bumper to bumper, side to side, in the parking lot and spill out onto side streets, where there's orange as far as the eye can see. "Looks like business is booming," Matthews said.

Doyle bets that most of the trucks are coming from Houston because the people he knows can't get jobs there and because New Orleans residents are harassed, like his cousin who got a jaywalking ticket even though the Houston resident he was walking with didn't get one. Matthews said that he's also heard that Houston charities are picking up the tab for rental trucks that carry evacuees back to New Orleans.

Agencies are helping

It's true. While organizations in other cities like Dallas and Atlanta are financing a handful of families, Houston's program, primarily paid for by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has its own U-Haul corporate account and is footing the bill for a steady stream of moving trucks headed to New Orleans.

Katrina case managers in Dallas, where the Mallerys lived, only pay for moving trucks on a limited, case-by-case basis, mostly for families that still qualify for FEMA aid. The Mallerys were on their own, and a $1,469 fee was beyond their budget, they decided.

So Ajay Mallery pulled out the Yellow Pages and started dialing. When he got to the Rs, a Ryder manager told him that the company had ceased one-way rentals altogether after a parked Ryder rental truck was used in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. But, he said, Mallery could rent a Ryder truck with unlimited miles for $300. The catch? He had to drive the truck back to Dallas to return it.

No big deal, said Mallery, who got to New Orleans, unloaded the truck and then turned around and drove back. "If it saves me $1,000, I'd do that drive anytime," he said.

Truck-rental prices from many cities have doubled and tripled in the past few months. Some Houston evacuees have been flatly denied rental trucks if they plan to return them to New Orleans.

Of the major moving companies, U-Haul seems to have the most trucks in New Orleans, roughly 2,300, according to spokeswoman Fried.

The largest local U-Haul lot, on Chef Menteur Highway in eastern New Orleans, used to hold about 50 trucks; now it holds 10 times that number.

Most traffic from Houston

The logjam began in June, said Kimberly Cox, general manager of the Chef Menteur site. "It pretty much started after school let out," she said. She saw another surge in October, which she attributes to onset of the Saints winning streak. After that, there was another long push that continued into Christmas week—people determined to return home for the holidays, she said.

Conversations with employees at the U-Haul lots on St. Claude and Tulane avenues leave no doubt about where the trucks are coming from: a few from Atlanta, a goodly number from Dallas and other Texas cities, but most from Houston, said Darryl Williams, who works at the Tulane location. "Houston is the first one," he said. "It's overwhelming."

His observations are confirmed by U-Haul's official "migration reports," tracking moves, and inventory buildup.

Since May, according to the reports, Houston has been the top starting-point for trucks arriving in New Orleans. The precise number of trucks making those moves was unavailable, however, as it U-Haul corporate considers it proprietary information, Fried said.

Williams has a personal insight into the situation, having just driven to Houston to pick up his daughter, who was living there. "They weren't going to renew her lease," he said. "I'm hearing that more and more from people, as they come back."

While flocks of moving trucks are an indicator, they also raise questions. Who is coming back? Some evacuee case managers said that, more and more, those trying to return are the city's poor.

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