ONE YEAR AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA STRUCK, the landscape of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast may be permanently altered. The damage caused by severe flooding and catastrophic winds has made the rebuilding process very difficult.
“Mississippi was wiped clean by the winds,” said one New Orleans contractor. So clean, in fact, that a clear objective emerged—residents would have to rebuild from scratch. Hindering that effort is mountains of debris of which to dispose, and much work is still to be done.
In New Orleans, electrical contractors face an unusual set of challenges. Twelve months after the storm, many buildings—although structurally sound—are without power, their wires and boxes soaked and rendered useless, structural stability questionable and mold working its way up wall after wall.
Meanwhile, many business and homeowners are waiting to learn whether they can return to buildings that may or may not be in a flood plain.
New Orleans has a tough road ahead, and it may be a larger challenge than people outside of the area can grasp. Television images cannot display how far those destroyed neighborhoods extend.
On a smaller scale, it can seem just as dramatic. Across the street and down the road from Pflueger Electric, Metairie, La., one house is leaning against another. Neither has been cleared out or dealt with in any way. Even the refrigerators, most likely with their year-old contents included, remain in homes that no one has the incentive or resources to demolish.
On the other hand, in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where many homes and businesses were simply blown or washed away, the cleanup of debris is being followed by limited reconstructions and even some new constructions. In the midst of this, electrical contractors in both areas have spent a year of cleaning up and restoring power for businesses and residents around them, even as their own offices and homes are in disarray.
Light at the end of the tunnel
There is reason for hope.
“You can tell it’s been a year,” said Tracey Landers, National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Gulf Coast chapter manager. “The local union is pretty excited about the amount of work we’re looking at. And the next two years will be just as busy if not busier,” as Mississippi Gulf Coast homeowners begin to see insurance payments they need before they can get the work done.
In the meantime, thousands of traveling electricians have made the Gulf Coast their semi-permanent home in trailers, campers and rented apartments. Already, at least one wave of electricians has come to the area, worked seven days a week for a period of time and left with a case of burnout, while new contractors have replaced them.
Make every hour count
The greatest demand today, Landers said, is electrical workers with the right attitude. The local NECA chapter has been trying to echo the Hour Power message of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) president Ed Hill that urges workers to put in eight hours of work during an eight-hour pay period.
“We really appreciate that message and want to be sure the people who come down are sincere about giving their eight hours of work,” Landers said. “It’s important that they make every hour count and really understand that satisfying the customer is important.
“You’ve always got people who will abuse a situation, what you might call the ‘ambulance chasers’ who come in at first. It’s been getting better,” he said.
The large influx of work and workers, Landers said, “puts tremendous stress on our management abilities.”
When one contractor hired up to 10 times his usual work force, management quickly became stretched thin.
About 50 percent of the electrical work in hurricane-damaged areas is being done by workers who came from other parts of the United States.
Commercial reconstruction work is moving full steam ahead while most residential has yet to be done. Jackson County, Miss., where Katrina’s effects were less damaging, is beginning to see a slowdown in reconstruction while the Gulf Coast and New Orleans are far from finished. When it comes to homeowners, many are still waiting for their insurance to determine how much of their damage was due to wind and what was due to flooding, for which many are uninsured. Flooding can also be the result of a driving wind, which would also be covered in many cases, while plain high waters often would not be.
Four casinos are already back in business and drawing large crowds. Businesses that suffered lesser damage are open, while others amount to nothing more than concrete slabs. Real estate brokers are quickly buying beachfront property and making plans for high-rise apartment buildings with parking on the lower two floors where flooding can do less damage.
J.H. Haynes is based in Gulfport, Miss., which was especially hard hit. The firm is operating with about 500 electricians today, up from the average of 150. Owner Jim Haynes estimates the work will remain heavy in reconstruction for the next three to five years. He predicted another six months of basic cleanup.
“Here in Gulfport, there are still homes waiting to come down,” he said.
In other cases, owners of structures that were leveled are waiting for local ordinances and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to determine how much higher they need to build. FEMA is preparing a flood line plan that would require businesses and homes be built at a certain elevation to receive FEMA coverage in the future. That elevation varies depending on the community and how high the floodwater came in during Katrina. Some cities have appealed FEMA’s numbers as too restrictive for those rebuilding.
J.H. Haynes helped reconstruct several casinos, including Boomtown, Isle of Capri and, soon, Harrahs. It has reconstructed the Mississippi Power Co. building, the John C. Stennis Space Center, Rolls Royce Engine Testing Facility and Hancock Bank. In the case of Hancock, the roof on the penthouse of the 15-story building blew off in the storm, allowing rain and saltwater to flood the building to a depth of 18 inches. Hancock Bank reopened Aug. 28.
Jim Haynes considers himself lucky. He spent a year in an apartment but got his own home back in August of this year. Others are feeling the same kind of relief. Developers are starting to construct large-scale gated communities north of the coastline where homeowners can buy a structure that is far enough inland to have some protection from future hurricanes. “It’s been trying,” said Haynes. “I’ve lived in this area all my life. I’ve come through Camille and the ’47 hurricane, so I’ve learned that part of the time, it feels like nothing’s happening and nothing’s ever going to return to the way it was. Then you see a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. People here are resilient. I’m really proud of them.”
Slow progress in New Orleans
David Stoehr of Pflueger Electric said his company is now operating with several dozen men, up from his pre-Katrina work force of 12. Of the original work force, only three are still with him, the rest having moved on, mostly for reasons related to the storm damage.
“The pace of progress is very slow,” he said. “A lot of people are not coming back; they’re holding back to see what the city, state and federal government will be able to do.”
Other electricians left the area when their homes were flooded and have taken up work in other geographic areas. Most of Pflueger’s work is in rewiring the basements of commercial and some residential buildings. When the work is done, it needs to be secure, since looters have been tearing wiring out of houses for the copper, which is priced at about $2.50 per pound. Supply houses are suffering from labor shortages and are closing their doors on Saturdays, putting pressure on contractors who work on Saturdays to keep up with demand.
The city has only a handful of electrical inspectors, which causes delays for everyone involved.
“We’re still doing repairs and that will probably last another three or four years,” Stoehr said.
One of the greatest concerns is that another major storm could hit, which would be a devastating blow for the area.
“One day, you get tired of it all,” he said. “You look at what’s going on and wonder why you’re even doing this. On other days, you see signs the city is coming back. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.” EC
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at email@example.com.
KATRINA: A Personal Account
By George Flach
AFTER HAVING DINNER AT SMILEY’S, a local Old Jefferson eatery, on the evening of Aug. 27, 2005, I decided—along with my son Bryan and daughter-in-law Dawnelle—to leave New Orleans and drive to Dawnelle’s mother’s home in Baton Rouge, La. This was the first time I had ever evacuated the city for an impending hurricane, and in hindsight, I am glad I did.
Each of us packed three days of clothes and prescription medicines. The decision to leave was made when Bryan said that Hurricane Katrina was too big and too strong to make a sharp change in direction, and it reminded him of an NFL lineman—too big and too strong to abruptly alter his course.
Contra-flow on Interstate 10 heading west to Baton Rouge worked very well because we left at about 8 p.m. that Saturday. It took us a little over two hours to make the 68-mile trip. We spent Sunday watching news reports on the ever-growing storm and the last-minute rush of people trying to leave the city.
We felt Katrina at 5 a.m. on Monday in Baton Rouge as the storm roared through and power went out. We immediately turned on battery-powered televisions and radios. New Orleans seemed to have withstood the worst of the storm with only wind damage. Then the reports of the levee breaks started coming in. By Tuesday morning, we all realized that we would not be returning home in three days.
The Baton Rouge population doubled in size with all of us evacuees. Having left my son’s car in Venetian Isles (my home) and my car at my son’s home in Old Jefferson, we were all down to one vehicle. Through the assistance of our host, I was able to get a physician’s appointment in order to obtain all of the prescriptions I needed. We shopped for additional clothes.
The devastation reported on all channels did no justice to what we witnessed in real life. My son and his wife were allowed to return to their home to “look and see” and then were ordered out of the area. Downed trees in the front yard of their home were quickly removed as well as two refrigerators and freezers filled with rotted food. A fallen 65-foot pecan tree and destroyed fence in the backyard would stay that way for seven months before repairs could be made. The good news: no flooding damage, no structural damage to their home.
Bryan finally reached my home on Sept. 13, 2005, by arriving before daylight and bypassing the National Guard check points. There he found complete devastation, including the total loss of his vehicle. The digital pictures he took still did not make apparent how bad the situation actually was. The drive to my home revealed broken utility poles, downed distribution wires, vehicles and boats scattered along the highway. Debris blocked whole sections of highway. Until I walked through the foot-deep mud in knee boots bought just for the occasion, I did not realize the home I had built no longer existed. It took about three-and-a-half months to meet with the insurance adjustor. While inspecting the roof, he provided me pictures of dead fish stranded on the roof, some 30 feet above street level.
We were allowed back into Jefferson Parish about a month after the storm. I reside there now with Bryan and Dawnelle.
I hired a contractor to remove everything and gut my house. Because the Army Corp of Engineers, mayor and governor were not sure about levee reconstruction, which areas of the city would be rebuilt and which areas would be converted to green space, I sold my house at a post-Katrina price.
Almost a year after the storm, it is still very depressing to see the lack of progress being made in my city. There are still too many neighborhoods without necessary utilities and services. There are still abandoned cars. There are still temporary stop signs instead of working traffic lights at many major intersections. There is still no solid plan in place to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods. And the levees and pumping stations are not ready to withstand any major storm, should one head for us this season. EC
FLACH, a regular contributing Code editor, is a former chief electrical inspector for New Orleans. He can be reached at 504.734.1720.