Overcoming Adversity in the Service of Our Customers
Everyone has a Katrina story these days so here is ours. This story starts on Friday August 26, 2005. The opinion by most weather folk was that Katrina was heading toward Florida. Most of us in the office were of the opinion Katrina was not heading our way and that people were making a big deal out of nothing. You know how weathermen and the media seem to cause uproar when a hurricane is in the Gulf of Mexico. Sure we hypothetically asked what we would do if a hurricane would come up the Mississippi River and flood New Orleans. It was just talk because we could not really imagine or understand what we would do in that situation. Unknown to us, our employees, families and the rest of the region of south Louisiana and Mississippi we were about to find out. That night was a Saints pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens. Before the game we headed to the New Orleans Centre, a gathering spot before games, to grab a bite to eat. The thing I remember more than anything was that everyone was talking about this hurricane. Right there in the New Orleans Centre I called my wife and asked her to make reservations in Lake Charles in case we needed to evacuate. That night was the last time the New Orleans centre would be open. It was also the last game the Saints would play in the Superdome for the 2005 and 2006 season.
We awoke on Saturday morning August 27, 2005 around 7:00 am. The first thing I did was check the weather reports. The report was not good. This beast was heading right for New Orleans. At that point, I knew we would be evacuating so we had to start the process of deciding what to take and what to leave when you evacuate. My wife and I had decided we would take both of our vehicles so we had more room to bring our stuff with us. For most hurricanes, you evacuate one or two days come home and get back to normal living. I remember Mayor Ray Nagin urging his citizens to get out of town.
I knew I needed to get back to the office to get a few things just in case the worst would happen. I called Lisa St. Blanc and asked her to meet me at the office to gather a few things. Since we did not think the hurricane was coming our way, we had done nothing to prepare when we left the office on Friday August 26th. So Lisa and I moved all of our file drawers on top of everyone’s desk. We had everything 3 to 4 feet off the ground thinking we had it high enough. It was not, as we received six feet of water. We did not have time to do more because both Lisa and I had plans to leave town early so we would not be stuck in traffic for hours. We took with us all of our open sales orders and purchase orders. I printed an aged receivables, aged payables and a general ledger. I also took with me the back up tape to our business system, insurance papers, and 3 years worth of tax returns and financial statements. Why I did not take the server is a question I ask myself all the time. The server was four feet off the ground so I guess I figured it would be safe even if we did flood.
Sunday August 28th was a day the last minute people got out of town. There was gridlock on all roads heading west and north. A normal one hour trip was taking people 6 and 7 hours. For those who left on Saturday, we basically sat around enjoying the day in different surroundings. Another thing we did a lot of was watching Fox news, CNN and the weather channel. We did not know what was about to hit us. It was a very anxious time.
By the time I awoke the next morning, Katrina had already landed and expended most of itself against the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. The morning was typical only in the sense that the children woke us up in a two-bed hotel room that was a given. The storm was so big strong winds were felt 60 miles away in Baton Rouge. We had two people who lived in St. Bernard Parish so it was difficult not knowing what happened to their homes. We were glued to the news channels and it appeared New Orleans was spared. Sure there was some wind damage to the superdome, Hyatt Regency and other buildings in town. Early afternoon we thought we had a dodged a serious bullet. At least that’s what the media was telling us. It seems like we heard that phrase a thousand times that day. At this time, we were nervous about what had happened to Billy’s and Dooney’s home in St. Bernard since they took more of a direct hit. St. Bernard parish is east of the city of New Orleans. Since the media were only located in the tourist spots in New Orleans, no one really knew what had happened. This storm headed north and caused a huge amount of wind damage as far north as Jackson, MS. Our own Scott Dees had numerous trees down in his yard. That is 200 miles away from the Gulf Coast. It was quite amazing how many trees this storm took down. Since New Orleans did not take a direct hit, we were starving for information about the places that took the direct hit. What had happened to them? We did not have those answers yet. We went to bed Monday night thinking New Orleans had a dodged a bullet.
Tuesday August 30th was supposed to be the day we were going to hear about getting back to normal again and when we could go back home. That is not what happened. New Orleans was filling up with water. The worst had happened. The levees had failed and the water was pouring in. The worst part was the not knowing what was going on. We were all scattered so we did not know what was exactly happening to our office building or to our homes. The news reports were so erratic that you did not know what to believe. All you knew for sure was that New Orleans was filling up with toxic water. Today, even more so than on Monday, we grasped at every shred of information, watching every video image over and over, first on one channel, then on another, then a third, hoping each time that the story would turn out better, and it was always, always the same thing, this is bad, far worse than we thought, this is no dodged bullet, I wonder how many people are trapped in those flooded houses. Even though we did not have definitive information, we knew our office was flooded and that we had lost everything. That was a terrible feeling knowing you had lost everything in your office. How much inventory could we salvage? How high did the water get? Would we be able to salvage anything in the office? We would not know the answers to these questions for two weeks. The idea of starting your business over is the most overwhelming feeling I had ever felt in my life. This is your livelihood that has literally gone down the drain. As bad as that was it was doubly worse for Billy Martinez and Dooney Weaver since their homes were flooded. Again, they did not know to what extent. All we knew was that there was no power, no food, and no water anywhere in metropolitan area of New Orleans. We knew we were not coming home for a while. We went to bed that night with a feeling of desperation.
Wednesday August 31st was the day you had to start making plans on what the next step would be. You could not just sit there in your hotel room and watch CNN all day about what was happening in New Orleans. It was to depressing watching all the looting and those poor people stuck at the Superdome. It is mind boggling to think of the power of water and how destructive it can be. It was astonishing that this was happening in the United States of America and worse where I live and work. What was the next move? was the question of the day. I was on the phone with Scott Dees for good part of the day planning for a meeting on Thursday in Shreveport, LA. I was unable to talk with Billy Martinez because my cell phone and his cell phone were in the “504” area code; however, we were able to text message each other. With all the technology and satellites of today, no one could get the phones working. Besides planning for the future of our company, I started planning what the next move would be for my family. Thankfully, Charles Hoffman, a past president of the company who resided in Shreveport opened his doors to my family. With all the commotion going on the last few days, I realized I needed to prepare the payroll. Thank God we were on direct deposit so all I needed was to find a computer that had Internet. Since my family had evacuated near McNeese State University in Lake Charles I went to their Library and found some computers with Internet capability. What I realized this day was the rest of the world and the other cities in Louisiana were open and it was business as usual relatively speaking. I was extremely proud that I was able to get our employees their paycheck in the midst of what we were going through. We did not miss one payroll due to Hurricane Katrina. We have good employees and we felt we could not allow even this tragedy to delay the payment to our employees. Speaking of employees, Lisa St.Blanc was the first employee who contacted me and she wanted to know where we were going to set up an office and start working. Unfortunately, I did not have the answer to that question yet. I informed her that Scott Dees, Billy Martinez, Connell McCole and I would be meeting in Shreveport to begin planning for the future our company. I could hear the despair in her voice because what she really wanted to know was if we were going to have a company to go back to. I have to admit I allowed myself to think that way sometimes during the first few days of Katrina. The best way I knew how I assured Lisa we would have a plan on Thursday and I would let her know where to report for work. We packed our bags for Shreveport and prepared for the next day.
Thursday September 1st was the first day back for Hydronic Technology, Inc. Scott Dees arrived in Shreveport on Wednesday. Billy Martinez and myself showed up in Shreveport Thursday afternoon. We got right to business brainstorming what would be the best course of action. It was difficult not to slip into negative thoughts as reality slapped us in the face over and over. Where to start was the question of the day, because we were starting a 50 year old company from scratch. We had lost 80% of our inventory and everything in our office. Also lost in this storm was about 60% of income producing territory. The first decision was to have the sales function of our business located in Jackson, MS and to have the administrative side of the business operate out of our Shreveport office. This would mean Lisa St.Blanc, Joel Welker and myself would be relocated to Shreveport for an unspecified amount of time. Billy Martinez, Dooney Weaver, and Glenn Reinhardt would be relocated to Jackson, MS for unspecified amount of time. Billy Martinez’s and Glenn Reinhardt ‘s territory was in South Louisiana so they also spent some time in Baton Rouge working out of the homes of their relatives where they had evacuated to. We pegged the first day for all to report was Tuesday September 6th, the day after Labor Day. We had not heard from Joel Welker or Dooney Weaver as of this Thursday meeting. We did not know whether they had evacuated or not. Hopefully they were not still in the New Orleans area. Our main representation is Bell and Gossett mainly Bell and Gossett Pumps. Mark Handzel from Bell and Gossett sent an email to Scott Dees asking what they can do to help our company get through this ordeal. It was very uncomfortable asking for anything. We finally relented and realized we could use the some help. We asked for Bell and Gossett’s assistance in a variety of ways. The next thing we did during that meeting was we looked at the insurance papers to figure out what we were covered for. It is amazing how quickly you can learn what is in an insurance policy when you actually need the insurance. The sad fact was that we were under insured for the loss we had. We still had not seen our property so we did not know how bad it was. I would say the optimism of Billy helped with pessimism of Scott. Billy saw this tragedy as an opportunity and Scott looked at it as a huge uphill climb. Frankly, it ended up being both. I am thankful to have partners where we could all work together and bring Hydronic Technology out of the flood waters. After an agonizing meeting, we had dinner and went to bed with a successful first day back in business under our belts.
On Friday September 2nd we spent the time trying to contact our employees to let them where to report on Tuesday. We got in touch with Glenn and Lisa, but we could not get in touch with Dooney and Joel. Cell phones were still a problem on Friday. Lisa had evacuated to Monroe, LA which was three hours away from Shreveport. She made the trek to Shreveport and found herself an apartment that would rent to her on a month to month basis. Glenn, Billy and Dooney would end up spending time at Scott’s home in Jackson. We also prepared and sent a letter to Bell and Gossett asking for help. We were so grateful for the help they provided us. They found us office space in Bell and Gossett’s branch office in Baton Rouge. This space consisted of two offices and a conference room. Five of us would eventually operate out of this office. Later this Friday afternoon, we finally heard from Dooney. He had called Scott’s cell phone while Scott and I were in the parking lot of Home Depot. Dooney wanted to know if we still had a company and if he still had a job. What a bizarre conversation that was and what a relief it was to Dooney to know we were moving forward with our company.
We spent the Labor Day weekend with our families and got our minds geared up for the up coming challenging months and years to follow. This was especially a sad time for me personally because my family would be going home on this Labor Day while I stayed in Shreveport. My kid’s schools would be opening up a few days after Labor Day. The surrounding parishes that were not flooded were trying to get back to normal.
Bell and Gossett has thirty three reps in the United States. We call ourselves the FHRA (Fluid Handling Rep Association) www.fluidhandlingreps.com and the other 32 reps raised $31,000 for our employees who were displaced by the storm. We were so appreciative and grateful by the outpouring of support finically and emotionally.
Tuesday September 6th we reported to our respective offices. The first order of business was to try to get Bell South to roll over our main New Orleans number to the Jackson office. This was no small feat as Bell South was bombarded with calls from hundreds of thousands of people. The next thing we had to do was to let our customers know where we were located. We had our warehouse guy stand at the fax machine for days just sending out faxes to our customers and vendors informing them where we were. We also changed our mailing address to the Shreveport office so we could start receiving invoices from our vendors and checks from our customers. We also had to get a new server ordered. This was difficult because the IT Company we deal with was displaced as well. We did not get a server up and running for three weeks. So basically, we did everything by hand and had to enter the information into our business system when it was up and running. One of the strangest things I had to do was go to the bank and ask for temporary checks so we could start to pay some bills. This was just one of the many little things that helped reality set in that we lost everything. The lady at the bank in Shreveport was a little surprised to have a commercial customer asking for temporary checks. We had not received any money for a week now so it was very challenging trying to manage our cash flow. Most of our vendor’s were very understanding and showed extreme patience during the first couple of weeks and months following this tragedy. We even had one vendor, WGTC; send us $5,000.00 worth of product.
This first week back was very busy for us. The phones were ringing off the hook in Jackson from customers looking for product. Besides buying product from Bell and Gossett directly, we were getting product from the other Bell and Gossett reps in the country. It was great to have the reps (FHRA) as a resource to buy from. The idea of having all our sales people in one place seemed to be working. We still have not seen our office and the devastation this flood caused us. Thankfully, the National Guard was giving passes to homeowners and business owners to visit their property. On Saturday September 17th, 2005, Randall Tassin, Billy Martinez, Scott Dees, Glenn Reinhardt, and Dooney Weaver entered Orleans Parish with a U-Haul truck and made our way to our office. The city streets were all covered with dirt and the destruction was more than I can describe. It was much worse too see this in person. The destruction went on for miles and miles. Everything in sight was destroyed. My initial reaction was that it would take years and years to rebuild this city. It was overwhelming. We finally arrived at our office and I guess the most memorable part was the smell. It was the most horrible and vile smell imaginable. It was astonishing the amount of destruction in our office. Nothing and I mean nothing would be saved out of our office. We made our way into the warehouse and the place was trashed beyond belief. There were tanks all over the place. There was more paper and cardboard boxes all over the ground. The only inventory we saved was product on the shelf six feet off the ground. There was no electricity or running water so we brought a generator and ice chest full of water and yes beer for when we finished working. We loaded the truck and brought this inventory to our Jackson, MS office. We finished the month of September working in Shreveport and Jackson respectively.
We moved to the Bell and Gossett branch in Baton Rouge on September 30th, 2005. This would be the second move of our operation since the flood. The logistics of getting phone lines and getting phones numbers transferred were a nightmare to say the least. Since we were moving to new office space that was not ours, we had to supply this office with all the office supplies you need to run an office. We needed everything from a printer, fax machine to pens and paper clips. Our first day of work in this Baton Rouge office was October 3rd, 2005. We would work in this office until the end of December 2005. The people working in this office were Billy Martinez, Lisa St.Blanc, Joel Welker, Glenn Reinhardt and Randall Tassin. Billy was living in a suburb of Baton Rouge so his commute was only about 30 minutes. However, the commute of Lisa, Joel, Glenn and Randall was an 1 hour and 20 minutes each way. At first it was not too bad because we were happy to be living back in our homes. As time went on this became one of the most stressful periods because of all the traveling back and forth each day. The determination to keep this company operating and the dedication of the people involved helped us get through this tough period. I was very proud of these people because it would have been very easy to quit. We had cleaned our warehouse and gutted our office in October so we could start using our warehouse again. The first stock order was sent to Bell and Gossett on October 27, 2005 and we received the product on November 29, 2005. What a great milestone for our company. That purchase order is in a frame hanging on our wall today. It only took us two months to get our warehouse cleaned and ready to accept inventory. We were determined to get inventory back in New Orleans. We needed it to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
During the month of November 2005 we rented a trailer and parked it at our facility in New Orleans. We could not use the trailer because the phones lines were not working in the part of city we were located. Basically we were paying rent for a trailer we could not use. This was not a FEMA trailer!! We were on the move again for the third time at the end of December 2005. This time we moved to office space in downtown New Orleans. We were glad to be back in New Orleans, but it was bittersweet because it was not at our facility. Once again we had to go through all the logistics of moving for a third time. We were getting closer to our facility all the time. On April 20, 2006 we found out Bell South had the phone lines working in our area. You would have thought we won the lottery. We did not waste any time moving into our trailer. Yes we had to go through the logistics of moving for the fourth time, but this time we were back at our facility. We moved to the trailer on April 26, 2006. Sure we had to use the restroom in the dark with no a/c or heat, but it was ok because we were home. By this time, we had our warehouse fully stocked and it felt like were back to normal. This enthusiasm slowly faded as the realization that we could not work in a 12X60 trailer for too long of a period of time. Through the months of moving from office to office, I had to deal with multiple adjusters before we received any insurance money. After eight months of dealing with insurance companies, we finally receive our final payments in April 2006.
Since we wanted to reinvest in New Orleans and keep our headquarters here in New Orleans, we had to come up with a plan for a permanent office in New Orleans. The Associated General Contractors had an office right next door to our warehouse. They were planning on not coming back to their office so we entered into negotiations and bought their building on August 28, 2006. We were proud to reinvest in New Orleans. This office had not been touched since August 29, 2005. The mold was on the walls from top to bottom. The smell was just as bad as our office was. We began the process of working with a contractor to gut and rebuild this building from the inside out. They were trials and tribulations during this process, but it was going to be worth all the effort. We were going to have a brand new office. After eight months of construction, and after 20 months from Hurricane Katrina, we moved out of our trailer into a beautiful new office. This was our fifth and final move. By this time we were professionals at moving. We were so happy and proud to be in our new office. With everything we had been through, it almost seemed to be worth all the stress and heartache of this terrible flood. I say almost because I wish we did not have to live the nightmare of hurricane Katrina. We have rebuilt our company into a strong profitable company. We accomplished this with no help from the federal government or FEMA. I would like to acknowledge that we received a grant of $10,000 from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. We greatly appreciate their contribution into our rebuilding efforts. We would not be in business today if it were not for the people who work for Hydronic Technology, Inc. Through their hard work, dedication and perseverance we are as strong a company as we have ever been since 1951.
It brings immense satisfaction to all who have helped our company out the flood waters that sad day in August 2005. We are proud to be from Louisiana and Mississippi and whoever says we are last on the all those lists are dead wrong. We have persevered and worked extremely hard to overcome this major obstacle. We have reinvested in New Orleans by buying and remodeling an office and by refurbishing our warehouse. We are taking part through our sales and service in the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. We are a proud people who will not give up or give in. As of this writing, we are the only HVAC equipment supplier still located in New Orleans.
We would like to list the employees who have stuck by Hydronic Technology, Inc. through these toughest of times and survive the great flood of 2005. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.
Lisa St. Blanc
Written by Randall Tassin