After storms, he chases the money

Where there is ruin, there is opportunity for a man in the RV business, who can roll in and sell those and other supplies.

Published September 18, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - Paul Clark is back home. Or was.

By now, and for the fourth time since Katrina, he's in Gulfport, Miss., doing what he does in disaster zones, which recently got his name into the Los Angeles Times, which then went to the wire, which eventually put him in papers all over the world, including this one, which made his mother call, all of which made him smile Tuesday evening at a Brooksville Wal-Mart.

He is 52 years old.

He has light blue eyes and a red-haired beard and Irish skin that freckles in the sun.

He talks with a drawl that somehow is not at all slow.

On Tuesday night, behind the supercenter's Tire & Lube Express, he had on brown sandals, blue-jean shorts, a yellow golf shirt and an off-white, big-brimmed cowboy hat. He was standing next to his black Ford Super Duty F-250 pickup truck with Winston Ultra Lights on the console and dealer plates on the back and stuck-on signs with bold red letters that give his cell phone number. Paul Clark Enterprises: "RV'S NOW."

"Oh, yeah; oh, yeah," he was saying into the phone.

"There's eight units on their way up there right now."

The units being the recreational vehicles, the RVs being the second phase of Clark's post-Katrina boon, the post-Katrina boon being part of what he does.

Clark has had an auto lot on State Road 50 west of Brooksville for 28 years. He sells trucks, cars and RVs. But when a bad storm hits, he said Tuesday, well . . .

"Then it's time for Paul to go."

First, he hawks generators. In Gulfport, he set up shop in the parking lot of a dark, blown-out Hooters. When power started to return, though, it was time to shift to the RVs.

At any point, he's got two guys, eight guys, 10 guys - his guys - working for him: driving back and forth, taking the RVs, selling them, coming back for more.

Business is good.

Paul Clark started doing this when Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992. Ever since, he has been a money-making sort of stormchaser. After one blows through, he goes to scout it out: The bigger the storm, the better the buck.

Clark's far from the only one.

Where there is devastation, there is opportunity, of course.

And money will be made off the destruction from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., lots and lots of money, and will continue to be made for a long, long time.

But folks like Clark show up right from the get-go. They sell everything from batteries, bug spray and sleeping bags to chain saws, rope and propane stoves. Some call it "curbing."

In Mississippi, by the end of the first week of the Katrina aftermath, signs started to pop up in yards and on corners of cleared-out roads: roofers, plumbers, painters, land clearers, tree trimmers.

"The tree guys are banging it," Clark said Tuesday.

"Banging it.

"I mean big-time."

Price-gouging becomes a problem: $700 generators going for $3,000 out of the bed of a pickup, $300 for a night in a hole of a hotel room. Some 10,000 people logged complaints in the wake of Florida's four hurricanes last year.

But Clark?

He just sells stuff.

Always has.

He grew up in Poplar Bluff, Mo., where Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas come together in the middle of nowhere, and his dad owned a trucking company and sold cars, and his granddad sold cars, and his great-granddad sold out of a general store whatever the heck anybody wanted or needed.

Clark has the car and RV lot, but he has sold boats, trucks, sheds and the occasional horse.

He says he can offer better prices on his generators because of a wholesaler he works with in Orlando.

Says he likes helping people.

Also says it's not a charity.

He can't - or won't - say how much he makes on hurricanes.

"But it's definitely worthwhile to do it," he said.

Charley hit Charlotte County last summer, and Clark's still got some stuff down there: RVs, travel trailers, some sheds in which folks are storing their stuff as their houses get fixed.

Katrina, he said, will go longer.

The storm raked the Gulf Coast on a Monday morning. Clark left Hernando County late that Thursday night. He arrived early Friday with 250 generators.

Out of the back of a 30-foot truck - POWER TO THE PEOPLE, the huge sign said - some went for as low as $450 and others for as high as $1,950.

"We were definitely the heroes coming into town," Clark said.

And that was just the beginning.

Now he's got a plot of land on U.S. 49 north of Interstate 10 between a Whataburger and a bar called Slippery Nick's. There's room for 40 or more trailers for the people whose homes have been wrecked and the people who are starting to come in to rebuild.

During that first week, though, the Los Angeles Times reporter stopped in at the truck full of generators and ended up describing in a front-page story Clark and his "rapid-fire, good-old-boy sales pitch."

"Paul Clark makes money off misery."

That's the way story started.

Clark seemed to dig it.

Then, when it hit the wire, it ran in the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Charlotte Observer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Newsday on Long Island, even The Age in Melbourne, Australia, and in the St. Petersburg Times, too.

That's how Mildred Clark, who lives in Homosassa Springs, ended up seeing it.

She called one afternoon last week.

"She's proud of her son," Clark said.

On Tuesday, at the Wal-Mart behind the Sonic on the south side of Brooksville, Clark was looking to pick up more tires when Mike Mitrisin pulled up in a black pickup. Mitrisin has an RV place out by Interstate 75 and said he had some folks just a bit earlier stop in to buy some RVs to take up to the Gulf Coast. But he's not like Clark - he stays put to make his sales.

Clark said some of his guys at the auto lot were getting a bit peeved.

"Because I keep going away," he said.

"Well, stands to reason," Mitrisin said out the window of the cab of his Ford. "You go fishing in the water, you know?"

Clark nodded and said bye-bye, got in his truck and drove off.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.