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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. - There's a pretty astonishing sight as you head east out of town on Highway 10. Smack between a completely gutted CVS pharmacy and a boarded-up Quizno's are the bright neon lights of Bay Discount Wine and Liquor. It's open for business, a startling beacon of commerce in an otherwise deserted and ghostly strip shopping center.

It seems, says Michael Haggard, the proprietor, that "a liquor store floats."

When the floods of Hurricane Katrina poured into the store more than two months ago, more than half of his stock was untouched, perched on shelves up to 6 feet high. Everything below the water line, roughly 2 1/2 feet, simply rose to the top.

The floor and the bottom shelves were coated with thick mud, and it took Haggard a month to get back to town from Oklahoma City and start cleaning things up. On Nov. 5, he opened his doors to any customers who might wander by while he and his family take inventory. Most everything survived the flooding; the inventory is to figure out what disappeared thanks to looters who were able to crawl in during the month he was away.

It's truly a family-run enterprise. The staff comprises Haggard, his wife of four years, Mary Ann Becker, their children from previous relationships -- there are eight in all, the youngest 22 years old -- and assorted significant others. A 6-month-old black Labrador retriever recently adopted from a shelter (she's named Storm, of course) gallumphs through the aisles but otherwise contributes little to the counting, which continues, slowly but surely.

Once upon a time, an 'awesome business'

It looks cheery enough from the outside. It's a mirage.

Haggard and Becker had another store in Long Beach, down the road a bit; it was destroyed. So were both their houses. They're living for now in a FEMA trailer in front of their damaged Bay St. Louis house.

Getting Bay Liquor back in business is a tough enough fight, but Haggard is wrestling with other foes: There are no customers, and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board is on his case.

"We had an awesome business," says Lauren Stager, a de facto manager of the store. (She's dating one of Becker's sons and has worked there since it opened in 2001.)

But Haggard estimates that three-quarters of his customer base has left town. Many of them will probably never come back, because "there's just no way to make a living here," he says.

On top of that, the tourists drawn by the arts district in Bay St. Louis have no reason to visit anymore. "There's no art galleries anymore," he says. "There's no 'historic Old Town Bay St. Louis.'"

The store also lost most of its wholesale business, because those customers -- bars, restaurants and the like -- were just as shattered. By his count, Haggard says, there were 53 bars, taverns, clubs and other liquor-retailing restaurants in Waveland and Bay St. Louis before the hurricane. Now, he says, there are two.

For the long term, of course, "the worst thing about this is losing the customers," Haggard says. But right now, he grinds his teeth over an edict by the ABC board that he must destroy any bottles of wine and hard liquor that came into contact with the flood water. The caps, corks and seals are intact on the bottles, so they're perfectly safe to drink, he maintains, but the state said they couldn't be resold, even as discount salvage.

That's $40,000 of inventory, right there, and it's $40,000 straight out of his pocket, because he purchases his wares outright from distributors.

"I own every bottle in here free and clear," Haggard says. He'd already paid the 7 percent state sales tax on all of them, up front.

Looking into the darkness

The sign on the door says Bay Liquor doesn't close till 10, but as the sun sets, Haggard and the crew , which at the moment consists of Mary Ann; Stager; Mary Ann's son, Stephen, and his girlfriend, Alissa Stechmann; and Storm, are getting ready to shut things down for the night. They're all alone in the shopping center, save a temporary CVS trailer several hundred yards away, and none of the street lights is working. The store stands out in the dark, an inviting target for robbers.

"Everybody knows about convenience stores and liquor stores," Stager says.

As the last scarce customer heads out, Haggard is quietly seething. He and his family have lost their homes. They've pretty much lost their customers. They've lost one of their stores. And now the revenuers are ordering him to discard almost half of the other one.

Those bottles are his personal possession, he reminds you. No one should be able to tell him what to do with them.

"There might be a law against me selling it," he concedes. But "there's no law against me owning it."

He shakes his head when he's asked to ponder the future.

"It's pretty bad. I can't find a silver lining."

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86 COMMENTS

Hi Mr. Haggard,

You may not know me but I was one of your customers. You had a good wine selection. The ABC isn't being very nice to you right now. If you own the bottles, can you possibly sell them on ebay or any other internet venture? Seems like Katrina souveniers made of liquor would fetch a good price!

Wishing you the best!

Bay Liquor was always my favorite liquor store. Mike
and Mary Ann and the rest are great. I'm glad they're
open again.

Have a big BBQ Party for the entire city, & tell everyone to bring the food & you'll suppy the drinks.
Everyone will have a good time, & maybe you'll attract some new customers & national attention.

Been there once, quite a while ago. Hang in there.
I loved that area, hope it can come back. I'd like to help somehow.
RF, Missouri

if these bottles are sealed the abc is wrong as if these people havent been through enough already

The issue is not the contents of the bottles, but the bottles themselves. The water in which these bottles were floating was highly contaminated. You should inquire as to how you can safely sterilize the bottles so that they can be sold.
Good Luck!!!!

I would love to buy a souvenir Katrina bottle of liquor, even though it can't be consumed. Ready to start shipping?

Hire a Lawyer

You ever hear, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you?"

Another store in town had the same problem. In realty it makes sense and they are protecting the public just in case water did drip in and we have no way of knowing that now do we?
I think the town is improving - slowly. AND...some of the other liquor stores are doing a booming business!

I somewhat agree with Mike R. above. I would try an event of some kind to sell what you have left and find new customers. Partner with a local restaurant or hall that is having similiar problems.

Doesn't alcohol kill germs?

How about giving them away, but encouraging people to make a "donation" on their way out?

I would love to buy some from you... Katrina survival wine ETC.... Good on you and yours for trying... When you ready to ship????

Why don't you offer some to the gov't officials that come in...loosen them up a bit!

I am a small business owner myself. So I know how painful the loss of stock is. Bleach should kill most anything, but then there are the bottles with corks. Maybe you could encase them in Lucite. Engrave them with the date and maybe some history of the local area or something. Would make a neat novelty gift, some hurricane survivors might want them as trophies.

Although my experience pales in comparison, I went through a remarkably similar experience with a sewage flood in a liquor store I owned. We lost 20% of our inventory in the first 6 weeks we were open and it took a lot for us not to lose heart. I wish you the best of luck in your salvage and rebuilding process - my thoughts and prayers are with you.

I would buy a bottle for a keepsake-are you ready to ship?

If the cork dried out a little, then was exposed to floodwater, it is not safe. Toxins can creep in around the sides of a cork, just the same as a "corked" bottle of wine. The alcohol wouldn't kill toxins in the water, only germs, and even then only if its over 100 proof, which wine clearly isn't.

Catastrophe or no, nobody should have the right to sell contaminated liquor.

It should be part of his insurance claim, because anyone smart enough to want to sell contaminated liquor is also smart enough to carry flood insurance, right?

No law against donating a few bottles of wine to the Red Cross on me. Send me a bill and I'll send you a check to cover for it. Ron Cotterill, 400 North Tampa St. #2625 Tampa, Florida. P.S. I agree with the person that said hire an attorney. If I were licensed there, I would do your case for free.

My heart and prayers go out to you and your family and the community! I truly hope you find an innovative way to salvage your stock and begin putting the pieces of your lives back together!

A small business owner myself, my heart goes out to you. I would love to buy some bottles of the hard liquor to display as a survivors of Katrina. You could create simple "Not for consumption, due to Katrina, 2005" lables to place over the openings of each bottle thus 'sealing' them against consumption. And I bet you could sell them easily. Only question I can see is when can you start shipping?

I would like to buy a keepsake bottle please let me know if you are ready to ship. Thanks and good luck

Let me know when you sell souvenier bottles which just happend to have single malt scotch labels on them. I collect the labels...guess I'd have to empty the contents, but that's my business and none of the government's.

If you sell the possible contaminated liquor and some one gets sick, you open yourself up for a big law suite.

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