Katrina, Rita Leave Indelible Imprint

Sept. 28, 2010

When Cajun Constructors of Baton Rouge, La., went into New Orleans and the surrounding area to ramp up for an industrial project and a couple of public works jobs, equipment division manager Mike Bates, CEM, didn't know his priorities were about to change and change quickly. He was headed toward a crisis of destruction and devastation beyond his imagination.

Meanwhile, in Houston, the city's assistant director of public works and engineering, Carl Bowker, didn't realize that his own priorities would also be dramatically turned upside down.

Both AEMP members were soon to feel the impact of two hurricanes that arrived only weeks apart — Katrina and Rita.

At the time Cajun was preparing to start its New Orleans area projects, Hurricane Katrina was just a storm blowing across the September gulf. As it gained intensity, forecasters thought she would turn east and make landfall along the coast line between Pensacola, Fla., or Mobile, Ala.

"We had several days notice," Bates says. "We knew it was coming. All of us thought the hurricane would turn east. We didn't anticipate it going straight into New Orleans like it did."

Because the jobs were just starting up, Cajun had only six or eight pieces of construction equipment in place, along with 200 to 300 people. As it became apparent that Katrina had turned and was headed straight for New Orleans, Cajun moved equipment to higher ground, closed up the jobs, and "got our people out of there," Bates says. "We went home to wait for the hurricane."

Katrina slammed into New Orleans as a Category 4 storm, but Bates, fortunately, had no injuries to his crew and, other than one pickup and two or three other units that were flooded, no loss of equipment.

The next morning, "we came back to work and found we didn't have any electricity," he says. "But we started the process of getting our operations back up and running — answering the phone, trying to locate our people, trying to assess damage to our jobsites."

Since Baton Rouge is only 80 miles north of New Orleans, Bates says his company suffered extensive power outages and interruption in routine business. The banks were closed, state offices were closed, and schools were closed. "But our buildings were still standing," he says. "Most of our damage was caused by tree limbs and wind. We were able to start moving around and getting back to work the day after the hurricane."

That's when news started coming in about flooding in New Orleans and the necessity of evacuating thousands and thousands of people. Within 24 hours, Bates says, he received a call from one of the biggest contractors in the area, Boh Brothers, who asked if Cajun would help them haul concrete barricades to try and stop the leaks in the levees.

"We had a caravan of trucks consisting of the 10 trucks we sent, plus vehicles from just about every contractor in the area," Bates says. "Boh Brothers was the primary contractor, and they called everybody they knew who had trucks and would be willing to help."

As the situation in New Orleans grew worse, Carl Bowker watched and waited in Houston, as were others throughout the country.

While Bates' trucks were beginning to roll, more phone calls came in to Cajun asking for assistance in an "unwatering operation" that would help pump flood water out of New Orleans. "We were pumping water within 48 hours of the call," Bates says. "We moved in 60 to 80 pumps and set them up at strategic locations. Our job was to pump water out while repairs were being made on the levees. We called all over the country and had pumps shipped to our Baton Rouge office. From there, we dispatched the pumps to areas where they were needed."

By Day Two, Cajun had set up a 24-hour operation. As they learned more about what was going on in New Orleans and realized the importance of the role Cajun would play in Katrina's aftermath, the sense of urgency mounted. The tone of the entire undertaking, says Bates, was driven home when Cajun president Ken Jacob called in the managers "to make sure we understood what we were about to do. He reminded us that this was a crisis and this was our top priority. We were to look out for our people and the people involved in the crisis. His exact words," says Bates, "were that our task was to help save the city."

Cajun went into crisis-management mode, bringing in extra personnel to operate around the clock. Bates bought a camper and parked it at the company for his truck drivers. He built bunk beds in the back of the shop to sleep more people. Extra generators were brought in; an additional 50 pickups were purchased during the first two weeks; office personnel was increased; additional heavy haul trucks; lowboys and flat beds were rented; and mechanics from other vendors were brought in to stay at Cajun.

"Some of the drivers and mechanics were from towns like Morgan City and other places. They couldn't go home because there were no lights or food. So they stayed here," Bates says.

It didn't take long for the full impact of the destruction to start coming to light. Anything north of Interstate 10 was all right. Everything south of I-10 no longer existed.

"Most of our guys are from south Louisiana, so this is their home," Bates says. "The destruction was unbelievable. We're talking about fishing villages, the shrimping industry, huge ice plants, processing plants and mile after mile of marinas that supported the fishing industry, chemical plants that had operated for 25 or 30 years — it's all gone. There's nothing but a road with water on both sides."

One crew, delivering equipment to New Orleans, came up on a barge sitting in the middle of I-10. "A barge," Bates says, "Can you imagine?" They had to drive around it on the shoulder of the road. Another crew went down the panhandle to the Delta and came upon a house that had washed up on the road.

But there were brighter sides, Bates recalls, incidents that, in retrospect, illustrate the sense of urgency everyone was working under. As the crews made their way out into the community of Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard and Orleans Parish, to make point repairs to bring the sewer and water systems back up and online, communications became even more of a problem.

"We're out there in the middle of the night — and keep in mind that we've been doing business with these vendors for years, so they know us very well. We could see all kinds of rental equipment inside the gate, but we can't get them on the phone. We literally took the gate off the fence, went in there, took a few machines, loaded them up and left them a note. That really happened," Bates says.

Hauling the barricades and pumps and operating 24-hour shifts gradually accomplished the task. "We were in the process of demobilizing when Rita came," says Bates. "We speeded up the demobilization process and almost went back to a 24-hour cycle so we could get out of there. We were concerned that Rita was coming and it was going to happen again."

Rita's rampage

Rita did come and hit the Texas coast with the same stunning blow as Katrina. "Rita ripped through here," says Carl Bowker. "And 'ripped' is a pretty accurate description." Rita hit on September 24; the City of Houston started making preparations on September 21. "There is a 1,000-mile line that is drawn through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. When the storm crossed the 1,000-mile mark, the city's emergency operating plan really kicked in. We started prepping everything on the 21st."

The Gulf Coast regional plans were brought online and a series of steps were initiated to prepare, he says. All underground fuel tanks, for instance, were topped off. Vehicle fuel tanks were also topped off as were emergency generators. "When the hurricane crossed the 1,000-mile line at 10 miles per hour, we had roughly 100 hours, or about four days, to do something," Bowker says.

This happened three weeks after Katrina and many Katrina evacuees had fled to Houston for safety. "After Katrina, everybody here started looking at their emergency plans," Bowker says. "We were actively monitoring our plans when this happened."

Everything was supposed to be ready by Friday, but Rita increased speed. "We were expecting to get fuel deliveries through Thursday, but they shut down the pipeline early," Bowker says. "We had a lot of fuel because the fleet basically stood down and was not consuming very much."

Bowker also dispersed the fleet. Vehicles were moved north of I-10 because computer projections said anything south would flood, says Bowker. "We moved the fleet out of the flood-impact areas. It doesn't do any good, we thought, to be like New Orleans and leave your stuff there to wind up under water."

Another thing Houston learned from the New Orleans disaster was to allow employees to leave and take care of their families. On Wednesday and Thursday, employees were allowed to move their families to safety and then report for duty by 6 p.m. "You can't concentrate on your job if you're worried about your family," Bowker says.

Since the storm could have hit any time from the morning of September 21 to the morning of September 24, everybody did what they had to do and returned, Bowker says. "There were a couple of cases, however, where they couldn't get back."

After witnessing the devastation of Katrina, everyone left when Houston's evacuation orders went out. Unfortunately, everybody left at once. "In a period of 48 hours, from Galveston to northern Houston, it looked like a 1950s horror movie," Bowker says. "When I went up to my house to take care of my family, I-610 was empty. I saw paper blowing across it. All I could think about was that I was waiting for a giant spider or a giant ant to come out. I made it up the freeway for about 20 miles. Then I hit the massive traffic jam."

Fortunately, Bowker was only 100 feet from his exit, so he made it home. About 1:30 a.m., he went out and found that nobody was on the road. He took his family to a train station and to safety.

"We made the trip in one hour that took other people 36 hours," he says. "The only things we saw were abandoned 18-wheelers and cars that had run out of fuel."

As traffic continued to jam up and more vehicles ran out of fuel, the mayor of Houston declared a state of emergency. "People were panicked," Bowker says. "They were doing crazy things like pulling guns on each other. Fist fights broke out over fuel. It was like the end of the world and it didn't matter what they did."

To clear up the mammoth grid lock, Bowker sent out five 55,000-gallon mobile tankers routing them along I-45 toward Dallas, I-290 toward Austin, I-110 west toward San Antonio, and I-59 toward Cleveland.

"You can't give away government property, and fuel is government property," Bowker says. "We were able to get around that legality when the mayor declared a state of emergency."

The system of fuel supply is not designed for everybody to run out of fuel at one time, Bowker says. "There was no gas from Galveston to Dallas or from Louisiana to San Antonio, and because the refineries were shut down, there was no fuel available. We had the only fuel in the region in bulk. Our guys were out there 24 hours a day until the roads were cleared," he says.

Because of the threat of violence and the panic among drivers, Bowker's tankers traveled under tight police escort. To maneuver around the jam ups and reach stranded motorists, tankers traveled along the shoulders, took back roads, and went down into ditches and back up again.

"The rule of thumb was to have a trooper look into the car at the gas gauge," Bowker says. "If you had less than a half of tank, you got five gallons. If you had less than a quarter of a tank, you got 10 gallons." He says 99 percent of the people were grateful, but sometimes a driver would try to sneak back in line. "But they were yanked out," says Bowker. "The Texas Rangers and troopers took care of us. My people were never in danger."

When Rita did come in, Houston only caught part of the storm. The northeast quadrant of Houston, outside the 610 loop and outside Tollway 8, were the places where storm damages were the most obvious.

Then came the clean up.

"After they got I-59 open, we went up there and found that about every 50 feet a tree was lying across a power line," Bowker says. "I passed convoys of electric utility crews out of Chicago and Kansas City — hundreds of crews — massive convoys in their trucks coming into the region to help."

Bowker dispatched 10 debris-removal teams, each made up of five vehicles, including graders, dump trucks and crew trucks with men armed with chain saws.

An issue in New Orleans, says Bowker, was that many of the clean-up vehicles suffered cut and punctured tires. To avoid that problem, all the Houston fleet tires were pumped full of tire sealant.

When the numbers were tallied at the end of the operation, Bowker's department had refueled 191 stranded motorist on Houston freeways with 1,650 gallons of gas; refueled city emergency generators with 3,858 gallons of diesel fuel; refueled 334 stranded motorists in Livingston, Texas, with 3,341 gallons of gas, not including fuel provided for Salvation Army food canteens in Galveston, Port Arthur and Beaumont, among other towns; refueled Red Cross generators at the Livingston Junior High shelter; and provided fuel for emergency workers stranded at the hospital in Livingston.

Nearly a month after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left the region, Mike Bates at Cajun Constructors says New Orleans is still recovering. "It has a pulse," he says. "There is still water standing in south New Orleans, but we're out of the crisis mode and into the repair mode. Electricity is starting to come back on and the utilities we were involved with are back on line."

Emphasizing that Cajun was only one of many contractors that helped New Orleans, Bates summed it up this way: "Now we're working on rebuilding and restoring the levees. But we have to hurry. There's another hurricane season coming."

Efforts to help recover after Katrina
Two pumping crews from Cajun Constructors set up units to pump floodwater out of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Two pumping crews from Cajun Constructors set up units to pump floodwater out of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. When running, the pumps burned 25,000 gallons of fuel each day.
Huge pipes spew out streams of floodwater from Hurricane Katrina.
Pumps, like this one, were set up at strategic locations in New Orleans to rid the city of floodwater left when the levees failed.
Florentino Herrera (top photo) and Keith McCollum take time to pose before going out to deliver gas to stranded motorists trying to escape Hurricane Rita as she headed toward Houston.
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