In July, MEAT+POULTRY’s Lawrence Aylward spent two days in New Orleans interviewing several processors about the impact Hurricane Katrina had on their businesses and why Aug. 29, 2005, will always be a date that none of them will forget. In the first of a two-part series MEAT+POULTRY’s cover story in September focuses on the challenges processors endured to keep their businesses going after the storm nearly wiped them out. To be published in the October issue, part two of the series will report on the processors’ businesses today and how they have rebounded in the last 10 years.
NEW ORLEANS – Saturday, Aug. 29 marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the most deadly natural disasters in US history, which hammered the Gulf Coast. The hurricane and subsequent floods in the days to follow resulted in more than 1,800 deaths, including nearly 1,600 in Louisiana. Katrina caused more than $100 billion in property damage throughout the Southeast.
New Orleans and its surrounding areas were devastated by floods after more than 50 levees and flood walls were breached, allowing tens of billions of gallons of water to spill in from damaged canals. More than 100,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. At one point, 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in water, more than 20 feet in some areas.
New Orleans’ world-famous food industry, including a number of meat and poultry establishments from small markets to large and small processors, was not spared. Some suffered irreparable damage and closed. Others endured extensive damage, including tens of thousands of pounds of spoiled products, and had to remodel or relocate and reinvent the way they do business.
While a decade may seem like a long time to those who did not endure Hurricane Katrina, the storm is still fresh in the minds of the processors who lived through it. They will never forget the frightening sights, smells and sounds wrought by the hurricane, which will be forever etched in their memories.
Jay Manuel, who at the time was director of operations for the Eagle Packing Co. located in St. Bernard Parish, one of the city’s metropolitan areas hardest hit by flooding, distinctly remembers returning to the business for the first time a few weeks after the storm. The linoleum walkway inside the building’s front door was covered with dead flies so thick that it was like walking on black carpeting.
“It was horrible,” a grimacing Manuel recalls.
Eagle Packing, a family business well known in New Orleans for its pickled meats, is located about 30 feet from the levee holding back the Mississippi River. But it wasn’t flooding from the mighty Mississippi that destroyed St. Bernard Parish; it was from a breached levy of the Industrial Canal located about two miles away.
Amazingly, Eagle Packing wasn’t flooded. Being so close to the levy, the company is on higher ground. The water did rise to the building’s entry steps, which are 3 feet off the ground. The building was constructed on top of its plumbing.
Manuel and his family evacuated to Houston before the hurricane hit and stayed in a hotel. Manuel was devastated upon learning that 60,000 homes and businesses in St. Bernard Parish were destroyed, including his own house.
While in Houston, Manuel searched the Web to find more information about the storm and the flooding. He came across a few photographs of an Eagle Packing refrigerated delivery truck carrying the company’s products. The driver of the truck was a St. Bernard Parish deputy sheriff, who was delivering meat to relief workers. Manuel assumed that local law enforcement agents had broken into Eagle Packing to secure the meat to feed relief workers, which he had no problem with, knowing the meat would soon spoil.
When Manuel returned to St. Bernard Parish, he felt like he was on a different planet — one that was predominantly gray with no color. Manuel eventually grew numb to the sights, like the twisted wreckage of an 18-wheel semitrailer piled on top of a crumbled Burger King.
“It became normal to drive by the wreckage,” he says.
After returning, Manuel also learned that the company’s refrigerated trucks were used to transport casualties in body bags to a makeshift morgue, of which he also did not disapprove.
“There were empty body bags still in the truck after it was returned,” he says.
At Chisesi Brothers Meat Packing Co., a New Orleans family business in its 97th year at the time of Katrina, Nicholas Chisesi believed the company’s leaders had a good plan in place to prepare for the storm. They made sure the company’s refrigerated trucks were filled with gas to transport product from the company’s facility to a cold storage facility in Baton Rouge if power was lost for an extended period.
“But when the levees broke, that plan was out the window,” says Chisesi, who represents the company’s fifth generation of family owners.
The storm’s winds ripped off the backside of the building, allowing parts of it to flood. While there wasn’t extensive flooding in the building, there was enough to cause substantial damage.
Chisesi Brothers lost an astounding 2.5 million lbs. of product, from deli meats to sausage to its specialty hams.
“Our business changed overnight,” says Cody Chisesi, Nicholas’ brother.