Clement's Hardware always ended the Christmas season with a few unsold tree stands. But that was before Hurricane Katrina.

"Stands are the big thing this year, and we're flat out," said Darren Clement, whose family has run the store for 26 years.

It's yet another delayed impact of Katrina, store owners say. "When people gutted their houses, tree stands went with them," Clement said.

The rush on tree stands is a positive sign, said Emily Chamlee-Wright, a senior scholar with George Mason University's five-year Katrina research project that tracks the social, political and economic linchpins that help rebuild communities after disaster.

Chamlee-Wright said buying a tree stand means people are "spending money on an item that signals that they're back home. Because you don't buy a tree stand for a place where you're not going to stay for a while."

The university project tracks other signals, such as the return of grocery stores, cafes, schools, community theaters and churches.

"People will read this as a positive sign that other people are returning. And the more signs like this that people see, the more willing they are to dive in too — to restore their own house or return to the city themselves," Chamlee-Wright said.

That's no solace to tree stand seekers. Clerks at Harry's Ace Hardware shake their heads at the mere mention of them.

"We had them; other stores had them too," floor manager Darryl Cushenberry said. "But we all sold our stock weeks ago."

The clerks at Harry's say they've watched customers drive up with freshly cut trees on their cars looking for a stand. They've talked with people nearly in tears who've searched all over the city looking for a stand.