Oct 1, 2015 News Archive
This summer marked 10 years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast and I want to take this opportunity to remember a few things about those days, especially from the perspective of an employee of company directly affected by these two natural disasters.
The pictures below are some of the most iconic pictures from Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in the Gulf Coast August 29, 2005.
The first time I heard about Katrina was at Hobby Airport, waiting for my return flight after visiting one of our clients in Houston. At the time, I was Technical Director for New Orleans-based Bennett & Associates. On that day, Katrina was still a tropical storm making its way through southern Florida with the possibility of hitting the state twice, once on the east coast and once more on either the west coast or the pan handle. Four days later and about 3 days before making landfall, the most likely path showed it hitting the Florida panhandle. As recounted in “Hurricane Katrina: The Day the Forecast Shifted” by Jon Erdman of weather.com, all this changed mid-afternoon of August 26, 2005 when the weather channel’s senior meteorologist simply stated “New Orleans is now in the cone.”
The figures below show snapshots of the changing path predictions from August 23 to August 28.
The morning of Friday August 26th, with the cone including New Orleans but still predicting landfall near the Alabama/Mississippi state line and our boss/owner in Singapore, we decided to board the office windows and send everyone home early to prepare for the storm. My family and I left New Orleans around 4am Saturday morning and were lucky enough to avoid traffic congestion heading to Alabama (due to our having family there as opposed to being the best evacuation direction).
In Alabama, we waited and waited… Then, as we watched the news Monday morning right after Katrina made landfall, things seemed to be “manageable.” As the eye of the storm continued to move north-northeast, we decided to leave Alabama and drive to Atlanta (visiting more family). Upon making it to Atlanta, we caught up with the news and spent the afternoon at the museum with minimal worries, thinking that the worst of the storm was over and that it may be a day or two before we’d be “back to normal” in New Orleans. But, of course, we were totally wrong! Shortly after that, we started hearing about the levee breaches.
Most of us know about what followed, including thousands of people trapped, killed and left with no place to return to. I will not focus on that in this article. Instead, I will focus on the response by the company I worked for at the time, the impact it made on me and the way we run 3DENT partly because of that response. In the writing/publishing of this story, it is my intent to show my gratitude and appreciation to the Bennett’s and to KeppelFELS, whose response in those uncertain times went above and beyond what anyone could expect.
As it happened, at the time of the hurricane, Bennett had 3 or 4 of its employees working or on their way to Korea, and the Bennett’s themselves were in Singapore visiting one of the company’s main client’s – Keppel FELS. By the time we realized the 17th Street canal was breached, flooding a good portion of New Orleans and Metairie, it became clear that we would not be returning to New Orleans anytime soon. Shortly after that, instructions came from Singapore that we’d be setting temporary offices in Houston in one of the recently vacated and still furnished suites of an office building owned by Keppel. Plans were made for key employees to meet there the morning of Labor Day to start preparing the office for all personnel that could make it to Houston. Along with that plan, the Bennett’s eased employee’s minds by immediately confirming the company would keep its doors open and that everyone still had a job. Not only that, but a few days later, upon ensuring all employees and their immediate families were safe, the Bennett’s announced that all employees affected by the storm would be receiving financial assistance from the company to help with the expenses of the temporary relocation to Houston.
Thanks to Jake Alford’s efforts, who rode out the storm in New Orleans, servers and many of the workstations from the New Orleans office were brought to Houston by the time we officially re-opened the day after Labor Day (8 days after the eye of the hurricane made landfall). Slowly, the rest of the employees started to make it and get settled in Houston. My wife and daughter decided to stay in Alabama and I shared a two-bedroom apartment with another “temporarily single” Bennett employee. Within a week or so, we were getting settled.
Of the 20 or so employees Bennett had in 2005, six or seven had significant flooding in their houses, especially those who lived in Metairie and Slidell. Those of us who lived in the West Bank, Garden District and Uptown areas were mostly spared. In our case, the only loss we had were a couple of shingles and two refrigerators. Since neither my wife nor I have any family in New Orleans, I felt that once the office re-opened in Houston things were improving… Sadly, it took me a while to recognize that many of the Bennett employees (and especially the Bennett’s) experienced significant losses that extended beyond their immediate families and required their time and energy for weeks to come dealing with FEMA, insurance claims, medical issues and construction crews. To this effect, the Bennett’s allowed employees Friday’s off for weekend visits to New Orleans once the city re-opened a few weeks later.
One part that is often forgotten in the Katrina-related stories pertaining to New Orleans is the fact that the Mississippi Gulf Coast suffered major damage. In fact, several Bennett employees experienced major losses to family property in various Mississippi beaches. The losses were not just financial, but even more significant from the perspective of family vacation memories past and “never to be had in the future.”
Less than two weeks after re-opening the office in Houston, as we were getting settled, Tropical Depression 18 became Tropical Storm Rita, with initial projected landfall in southern Texas or northern Mexico. As the week progressed, the predicted path gradually shifted northeast so that by the morning of September 21, Houston was “in the cone,” starting one of the largest mass evacuations in US history.
Because of the recent events in New Orleans due to hurricane Katrina, the possibility of Rita hitting Houston caused a lot of anxiety, which lead to major gridlock and even loss of life during the evacuation process.
Gene Begnaud, Jake Alford and I planned to evacuate Houston by heading east the morning of September 22. Early that morning, I got a note from Ken Ullrich (one of my former students at TAMUG’s MASE Department and coworker) indicating that his brother-in-law had an available seat on a private plane he was flying from Houston to Dallas. While riding with Gene and Jake on our way out of Houston, I made the decision to go to Dallas instead, and they dropped me off at the airport. After some waiting, the private plane took off and we could see the miles and miles of traffic on I-45 North. Jake and Gene continued east on I-10 but after being stuck in traffic near Beaumont and hearing that Rita’s predicted landfall location had shifted to the east of Houston, they decided to drive back. Thankfully, Houston was spared the worst of the storm but Rita did cause devastating damage from Beaumont to New Orleans.
AFTER THE STORMS
Eventually, the New Orleans office re-opened in January 2006, but the Bennett’s stayed in Houston, which became the company headquarters. All employees were given a choice to go back to New Orleans or stay in Houston. I went back to New Orleans temporarily but moved to Houston permanently in the summer of 2006. Throughout all this, the support by the Bennett’s and KeppelFELS was incredible, and I thank them for their generosity.
The move to Houston eventually brought about some opportunities that may not have been available had we stayed in New Orleans, including MinDOC Mirage (shown below from the cover and article on Oilfield Technology Magazine – available HERE).
SIDE NOTE: Looking at the picture in the Oilfield Technology Magazine article showing the just-upended MinDOC hull which took place November 2009, I remember that on that very day we found out that one of our Bennett colleagues, Mike Dunn, lost his battle with cancer. Mike – we remember you fondly!
There are a number of lessons I learned from the Katrina/Rita experience. Some of them are firmly embedded in my brain, and others I need to remind myself of from time to time. Some of these lessons directly affect the way we treat our employees at 3DENT and others are more general in their application. Among the lessons learned, these are some of the most relevant:
- Be generous
- Make Alliances
- Know your people
- Communicate clearly and often
- Realize that others’ situations are different than your own
- There is usually something good that comes after a storm
REMEMBERING ANOTHER ANNIVERSARY
In addition to the above, another anniversary I am remembering this summer is my having graduated from the University of Houston for the 3rd and final time. Though I had been teaching for a year by then, my official Ph.D. diploma has a date of August 1995. As many of you know, I spent 4 years teaching at Texas A&M – Galveston and then moved to New Orleans, where I joined Bennett & Associates as its Technical Director in 1999.
I am hereby expressing my deepest thanks to Dr. Williams (my graduate advisor and whose Ocean Engineering Class my senior year in 1989 ended up being the catalyst that got me into this industry), Dr. Chang (my department head at TAMUG from 1995 to 1998) and the Bennett’s (Mr. Bennett, Mrs. Bennett and Beau) as well as Gary Hogg for giving me the opportunity to transition from academia to industry. I also want to thank Richard Michel, Jake Alford and Gene Begnaud for allowing me to learn from their experience and treating me as an equal when I was starting to get my feet wet in the industry.