After the Flood

Nov. 1, 2005
On the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit, long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged the potential gravity of the storm that

On the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit, long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged the potential gravity of the storm that was heading straight for New Orleans, NationsRent regional vice president Francis Hassis and his team sprung into action.

NationsRent workers, led by Hassis and Dallas district manager Robert Cycon, fanned out all over the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, buying every bottle of water they could get their hands on, until they filled four tractor-trailers floor to ceiling with it. They bought food, flashlights, tarps, first-aid kits. They ordered travel trailers and rented RVs so displaced employees and trucked-in relief workers would have beds to sleep on.

Hassis, who organized extensive hurricane relief efforts during his previous management stint with Ryder Truck Rental, mobilized 40 NationsRent employees from Texas to prepare for the effort. They assembled a team of 15 people ready to work 18- to 20-hour days in support of their Louisiana co-workers. They put together maps and spreadsheets with the homes of every employee who worked at branches in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houma, La. They loaded up 12 tractor-trailers with the items they bought, plus fuel, generators, chain saws, pumps and tools. By mid-morning Tuesday — the day after the storm hit the Gulf Coast, the day the levee walls broke and the streets of The Big Easy filled with floodwater — they were ready to roll on the highway east to Louisiana.

“Our primary focus was the employees,” Hassis recalls. “We knew that a lot of employees had evacuated. We didn't always know where because they didn't necessarily know where when they left. We sent 15 guys with chain saws and generators, onboard fuel, food — everything we needed to survive a month without any intervention from anyone else.”

NationsRent also came prepared to do business with a mobile store. “We had computers, paperwork, laptops,” says Cycon, who headed up the relief operation and set up a command headquarters in Baton Rouge. “If the stores had been completely wiped out, we could come into a yard, set up and be open for business.” NationsRent operated its Baton Rouge facility for two weeks using laptop computers with cellular air cards.

Communications were a major challenge, despite the presence of satellite phones, which turned out to be the least effective of their various means of communication equipment. And the need for ongoing communication was critical as workers went to employees' homes, tried to find lost equipment, made deliveries and service calls and dealt with constantly changing logistics issues, complicated by road closures, floods, detours, massive traffic jams and other obstacles.

“Just coincidentally, we all have different cell phone providers,” says Hassis. “I have Cingular, Robert has Sprint, somebody else had Nextel. There were four or five different cell phone providers among the relief groups. One day Cingular would work but Sprint didn't. The next day Cingular and Sprint didn't but Nextel did. We had a great deal of difficulty communicating. It would literally take 10 attempts to get through and then you'd have to talk quickly because two sentences in, the call usually died.”

The goal, even before getting the stores up and running, was to make sure every employee was heard from. For those employees not yet contacted, in addition to repeatedly calling every number the company had on file for them — an almost fruitless task since phone communication was almost nonexistent in those first days — the goal would be, with the aid of maps and global positioning systems, to go to their homes and see if they were there. In some cases employees couldn't leave their homes since the roads were impassable because of flooding. In others, the relief staff might spend whole days cutting trees and branches just to get to their homes and be able to clear a pathway in and out.

“One employee's dad was diabetic, so we were bringing ice in every day to keep his medicine cold,” Cycon says. “In another area they had no food, so we brought them milk and bread and other items. There was a different need for every individual.”

The relief staff tried fervently to find each employee, to make sure they and their family were safe, and to offer help to them in securing their immediate safety and security, whether it involved helping them find shelter, putting up employees in travel trailers, providing money, transportation or whatever was required.

“Many had just taken off driving to wherever they had a relative,” says Hassis. “Or they just rolled the dice and went to a hotel somewhere. With 50 percent we knew where they were, 50 percent we weren't sure where they ended up.”

Not only did the relief staff visit the homes of those not heard from, it also went to the residence of every employee who had evacuated. Within a week, NationsRent's staff had communicated with every employee.

“I'd get a phone call from Katy, Texas, asking, ‘What should I do?’” Hassis says. “‘Should I come back to work?’ ‘Well what's your situation?’ We'd tell them, ‘Let us check on your house before you roll into town with your family.’

Were their homes habitable? Might they be habitable in two weeks or three weeks after they dry? In some cases, their homes were filled with rotting water, what the media labeled “toxic soup.” Just like thousands of other New Orleaners, the question of whether or not their homes are salvageable and what kind of insurance or FEMA payments they can expect still remains to be seen.

“Part of the relief effort was getting people back to work,” says Cycon. “Whatever that meant: helping them with money to get back into town, even cashing their paychecks for them because they couldn't get to the bank. We had to facilitate employees getting funds for whatever they needed to get back on their feet so they could get back to work.” The relief team was able to draw from some funds NationsRent, as a company, set up a couple of years ago in response to a previous round of hurricanes in Florida. And for those who had evacuated, they'd send them bus tickets or plane tickets or whatever was necessary to help them return.

Open for business

NationsRent's New Orleans post-hurricane rental relief began on Tuesday when the branch manager in Marrero — just across the bridge from downtown New Orleans, south of the Mississippi River in what's called the West Bank, though it's directly south of downtown — made it to the facility to check its condition. No sooner did branch manager Chuck Waller open the gates and fire up a generator to provide some power, when suddenly New Orleans NationsRent was, whether ready for it or not, back in business.

“When the police saw that someone was there, they basically came in begging for whatever they could get: generators, chain saws, pumps,” says Hassis. “They needed pumps to pump fuel out of the ground in the gas stations into their cruisers because they didn't have any fuel. So a visual inspection turned into ‘We got to stay here now because these guys are relying on us for everything they are doing.’ And very quickly, about a half day after that, the employees started finding their way there and many began to live there.”

From then on it was business, 24 hours per day. The NationsRent store may have been the first business operating in Jefferson Parish, putting up a crude, spray-painted sign saying “Generators for sale” at the side of the busy thoroughfare where the branch lies.

Initially the primary customers were FEMA, the military, the police and other agencies involved in relief efforts, none of which were as well prepared as NationsRent. A few days after the storm, The Weather Channel reported that the Red Cross had only been able to bring in one tractor-trailer full of water, whereas NationsRent had already trucked in four and had more on the way.

The military was coming for fuel and basic supply items such as coffee, Styrofoam cups, trash bags and food. The police used NationsRent's fuel to fill up their vehicles because they had none. They needed generators, pumps, light towers and chain saws and they also used the NationsRent facility as a place to stop and take needed breaks and re-charge their emotional and physical batteries.

“In the early days after the storm, we were delivering generators, light towers and supplies to parish officials, to police departments, FEMA, utilities, and all the logistics teams that were coming in to set up,” says Chris Scott, Louisiana's district manager. “We were also trying to get to our equipment to see what it looked like, to identify some of our equipment that we knew was in an area to see if it had been flooded or if we could pick it up.”

NationsRent was fortunate not to have suffered major damage to its buildings. With some fence damage in Houma and Baton Rouge, and roof damage in New Orleans as well as damage to the roll-up doors of its wash bay, the damage to its facilities was hardly worth mentioning compared to the devastation Katrina and Rita inflicted all along the Gulf Coast. Structurally the buildings were fine and the NationsRent staff was able to crank up operations quickly.

Soon more employees began finding their way to the rental center. Some who had evacuated returned and came to work, staying in travel trailers — more spacious and practical than the original RVs. Others who lived in and around New Orleans were not able to come to work for a few days because the roads were impassable and roadblocks wouldn't let them pass. NationsRent relief staff picked up some employees and brought them to work, where they could stay in travel trailers until transportation to and from home became a regular possibility. And others, whose homes were no longer habitable, took up more long-term residence in the trailers — dubbed Camp NationsRent in Baton Rouge and Club NationsRent in Marrero — that are still being utilized.

A week later contractors began to stream in regularly. While there have been some customers the NationsRent staff haven't heard from since the hurricane, many new relationships with contractors of all sizes have developed. New customers include many the company had not had the opportunity to do business with before.

Supply lines

After a few days, supply lines were established. Equipment was shipped in from Dallas/Ft. Worth, but the distance was too great for ongoing shipments of other supplies, so basic food items were picked up in Port Arthur, Texas — until Hurricane Rita hit, necessitating another major relief effort. Located about three-and-a-half hours from New Orleans, Port Arthur was a reasonable distance. And while the city of Baton Rouge was up and running a few days after the storm, there was almost no food available.

“Essential services were up and running in Baton Rouge about three days after the hurricane,” says Hassis. “The employees were coming in to work, ambulances, hospitals, water and power were all running. But the city had tripled or quadrupled in population and it took all day to go anywhere. You'd go to McDonald's and there was no food. We'd go to lunch at Taco Bell or Wendy's and the line would be 60 people long and sometimes they'd run out before you got to the counter. It would take us all day to do a delivery.”

In Baton Rouge, at the command center, trucks were arriving with supplies around the clock. “Some nights we got to bed at 11 o'clock or one in the morning, and a truck would arrive at 2 o'clock in the morning,” says Cycon. “But we needed the supplies so they had standing instructions to get us up no matter what time of night it was.”

“There were still employee efforts going on, but our focus shifted very quickly to military and municipal assistance,” says Hassis. “The same supply line that Robert built to get stuff moving and get it into town became part of public assistance because we were the only ones that had it.”

The NationsRent relief workers who came from Texas worked double-shift-length days often in 100-degree, high-humidity weather, which gets even hotter when loading or unloading tractor-trailers. Other than those who went to service equipment in the field, bring found equipment back or make deliveries, or those who were part of the crew visiting employees' homes, most never left the rental center. They slept in cramped trailers without amenities, with occasional hot water and dinners barbecued on the rental yard being the only luxury. Eventually Camp and Club NationsRent obtained televisions so employees could cram into one trailer late at night for a bit of relaxation.

“Those people just wanted to help,” says Hassis. “They'd come for two weeks and never even asked to see the Superdome or see the flood damage. They just wanted to do what was needed.”

Cycon marvels at how well these workers, many who came from different stores and hardly knew one another, got along.

“Take 15 people, shove them into motor homes, and two weeks into it there wasn't one bicker, there were no fights, there wasn't anybody who didn't want to talk to each other,” he says. “And I thought going into it that we would need to anticipate conflicts because it's human nature. But it hasn't happened on any of the teams.”

While the vast majority of Nations-Rent's Louisiana employees have returned to work, some evacuated and aren't sure if or when they'll return to New Orleans. A few transferred to Baton Rouge because they had evacuated there with their families. Another went to Florida where he found employment with a NationsRent branch there. A couple of others who said they would never return to the area changed their minds once they got out of shelters and had a chance to come to grips with the trauma they'd experienced. Some have deep roots in southern Louisiana and want to be part of the rebuilding process, however long it takes, however arduous it may be.

NationsRent's support of the hurricane-affected areas continues. Until the end of October, 15-man crews from Dallas/Fort Worth rotated into south Louisiana, staying for two weeks at a time before a new team replaced them. Now the company has put together a group to stay for a three-month period, with additional workers from beyond Texas. The Fort Worth regional headquarters continues to provide travel trailers, and an ongoing supply of water and groceries to employees in Lake Charles, La., and Port Arthur.

Many questions still surround the eventual rebuilding of New Orleans as well as other parts of southern Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida, hard hit by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Complex legal and insurance issues remain to be sorted out.

Nearly 80 years ago, a similar percentage of New Orleans' population was displaced by flooding, as other parts of the Gulf Coast have been. Rebuilding is part of the cycle of life. Especially in hurricane country.

Equipment: Dead or Alive

On any given day, a large rental company in a given metropolitan area would have dozens of pieces of equipment out on rent. While certain pieces might, at a particular moment, be difficult to locate, for the most part a rental company has a pretty good record of who is renting what machine, where the machine is located and when they might expect it back. If the company doesn't know all those details — for example, when a customer might return a machine or where it might move the piece on a particular jobsite — usually between mobile phones and wireless communication devices, answers can be obtained in most cases.

Hardly the case after a hurricane.

Equipment was out on all kinds of jobsites when the hurricane and ensuing floods hit. Some equipment is buried in rubble, on streets or inside buildings that completely collapsed. Other pieces were in refineries where no public access has been permitted since Katrina hit. A number of pieces have been found floating in water or submerged in toxic mud.

“We have a good running spreadsheet of where each piece was, whether or not we recovered it, the shape it's in, and who we've been able to contact and who we still have not,” says NationsRent regional vice president Francis Hassis. “It's still a daily update. We look at what was out on rent, what was on an open order report the day before the hurricane, and we chip away at it every day.”

Some almost-brand-new pieces that have been completely submerged in water have been rendered useless, such as a skid-steer loader with 16 hours on it. Most equipment that was submerged in water — often a mixture of saltwater along with toxic chemicals — is likely to never be used again, having been severely rusted, with irreparable damage to its electronic systems.

Dredging a piece out of the water or mud might take all day and loading it onto a delivery vehicle in its rusted condition might take another day.

“Theoretically, five years ago, if an excavator was flooded, you drained the fluids, put new fluids in, put a battery in, you crank it up and it's ready to go,” says Hassis. “You take it to the shop and deal with it. Today, an excavator has significant electronic and computer equipment. Once it has been under water, you aren't going to drive it onto your haul truck and drive away with it.”

Not only NationsRent, but other rental companies in the region have seen equipment disappear since the storm. “Who knows who took these pieces or where they are going to turn up,” says Dallas/Fort Worth district manager Robert Cycon. “Did some relief agency take it for a temporary need and eventually it will turn up somewhere? Did somebody steal it and they're running their house off it?”

Gradually these questions are being answered, although some may never be answered, part of the many mysteries surrounding the cataclysmic events of the hurricane season of 2005.