Editor’s note: 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 this two-part series, Aylward reports 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.
It was 3 a.m. when Jerry Hanford arrived at Crescent City Meat Co., only hours after the storm of the century, Hurricane Katrina, had passed over New Orleans. Hanford, weary and distraught, had driven from his home an hour away and was anxious to see if the building that housed Crescent City Meat, the company he founded 20 years before, had survived the hurricane’s fierce 130 mph winds, torrential rain and unprecedented storm surge.
With power outages throughout the city and tens of thousands of people evacuated, New Orleans was as dark and quiet as Hanford had ever seen it. He parked his pickup truck outside the building, grabbed his flashlight and made his way to the entrance door. But when Hanford unlocked the door to go inside, it would not budge.
Hanford yanked and tugged on the door until it finally opened. But when it did, it flew open abruptly, unleashing a wave of water that was waist high, knocking Hanford back and soaking him. While Hanford was startled, he was also perplexed – for the area had not been flooded, leaving Hanford wondering where the water in the building had come from.
When the water finished pouring out of the three-story building, Hanford walked inside. When he looked up and saw the moon and stars, he felt his heart sink. Only then did Hanford realize how the 14,000-sq.-ft. building had flooded – its entire roof had been ripped off and ravaged by the hurricane, allowing heavy rain to fill up the building as if it were a massive cup of water.
“That was the beginning of the frightening experience I would go through,” Hanford recalled recently.
It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, the costliest and one of the most deadly natural disasters in US history, hammered the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. 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 New Orleans 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.
|||Read more: The shock of it|||
The shock of it
Not only was the roof at Crescent City Meat gone, but most of the equipment on the processing floor was ruined, including mixers, grinders and packaging machines. And Hanford knew it was only a matter of time before the product stored in the building’s refrigerators and freezers would spoil.
It was Hanford’s dream to own his own meat company. While he always wanted to be in the food business, he didn’t want to own a restaurant and have to work weekends, which he knew would take time away from his wife and four children. So Hanford began Crescent City Meat in 1985. The business processes several varieties of sausage, pickled meats and seasoned ham, which are sold mainly to foodservice establishments, such as Acme Oyster House, a renowned New Orleans establishment.
But as Hanford surveyed the damage to his building and plant, he wondered if that dream had been permanently shattered.
“I thought I was going to be out of business,” he says.
That thought also crossed the mind of 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. Manuel 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.
Creole Country Sausage, a smaller processor of Cajun specialty sausages located in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, was turned into a small lake. When Vaughn Schmitt and Deanie Bowen, co-owners of the business, returned to the building after evacuating for 11 days, they discovered it was submerged in 3 feet of water.
“It was horrible,” Bowen says.
All of the equipment was ruined, except for the smokers. But Bowen and Schmitt realized the damage could have been worse, considering other businesses located only a mile away were below 8 feet of water.
“Our whole focus was just to get the business going again,” Schmitt states.
|||Read more: Spurred into action|||
Spurred into action
While Hanford wondered if his business would survive, he did everything in his power to save it. His first task was to figure out a way to cover his building. Hanford knew he had few options, considering the city was shut down and so many people required assistance.
“By the grace of God I found a guy who had an old circus tent,” Hanford says.
Hanford purchased the tent from the man, who delivered it to the business. But it was up to Hanford to get it on the roof.
“The tent weighed about 4,000 lbs., and we had no equipment to get it up on the roof,” he notes.
Somehow, Hanford and three friends – “by hook or by crook,” he says – were able to hoist the tent on the roof to cover the building.
“We got some winches and ropes, and just started pulling it up an inch at a time,” Hanford explains. “Somehow, we got it secured. It was a miracle that we did it.”
At one point while they were raising the tent, Hanford fell backward off the roof and landed 16 feet below, breaking his tailbone. Knowing more people were desperate for medical help than he was, he did not go to the hospital.
After the “roof” was secured, Hanford turned his efforts to the spoiling 40,000 lbs. of product. Earlier, he had delivered about 25,000 lbs. of product to a recovery center so workers there, including local police and firefighters, had something to eat.
“The sooner we got the product out of the building, the better chance we had of the business surviving,” Hanford says.
Hanford knew that once the product began to rot, bacteria from it would become airborne and mold would eventually settle in behind the building’s walls. If that happened, the building would be ruined. Hanford stayed at the plant for three days and nights, carrying the rapidly deteriorating product outside to the street. He recruited three friends to help him.
After they got it all out to the street and Hanford was ready to go home and rest after three long days, a policeman stopped by the building and informed Hanford that he was under arrest for littering.
“I said, ‘Officer, you have to be joking,’” Hanford remembers saying.
He was not joking. The policeman told Hanford that he could not leave the product in a public street. But as the policeman scanned the rotting meat in the pile, he noticed the label on the packages.
“We’ve been eating this sausage at the recovery center,” the policeman said. “Are you the person that brought it over?”
“Yes I am,” Hanford replied.
“Everybody has been eating this sausage for three days now...it is all we’ve had to eat,” the policeman said.
Then the policeman told Hanford to “hold on” while he made a phone call. The next thing Hanford knew, a front loader and a dump truck arrived. The front loader scooped up the rotting meat and dumped it in the bed of the truck. Then the dump truck drove off.
“That was a little miracle as well,” Hanford says.
Manuel credits his late father, Gerald, who was president of Eagle Packing at the time, with getting the business back up and running, despite not having power for three months.
“He had an attitude where he didn’t let anything get him down,” Manuel says of his father, who died two years ago. “Whatever it was, he dealt with it and moved on.”
While waiting for the power to return, Manuel and other employees disposed of 250,000 lbs. of spoiled meat and cleaned the plant, hauling in hundreds of gallons of water to do so. With the equipment intact, they wanted to be ready to open when the power was turned on.
Manuel and his wife and two children moved in with his wife’s aunt. Manuel, realizing the magnitude of homeless people left by Katrina, felt fortunate, even though he lost his home, car and possessions in the storm.
For Philip Chisesi, president of Chisesi Brothers, the hurricane’s arrival marked the beginning of some painful misfortune. Not only was his business flooded, but so was his home. And three days after the storm, Philip lost his brother and business partner, Joseph, to cancer.
“The cavalry isn’t coming to save us,” Philip told his three sons Cody, Nicholas and Philip, who he knew would one day succeed him as owner. “What do you want to do?”
The brothers’ answer was firm: The business will keep on keeping on, they told their dad.
“It has been a challenge, but the meat business is always a challenge,” Nicholas says.
Cody evacuated to Houston before the storm. Upon returning to his home, he promptly cleaned out his refrigerator, which he described “as the worst thing in the world.” That was until he went to the plant to help clean it up, beginning with disposing of the 2.5 million lbs. of rotting product. It took seven employees 11 days to remove it. At first, they wore hazmat suits but took them off because they were so uncomfortable to wear in the searing heat.
Much of the equipment in the building had to be replaced, as did the processing floor and part of the building’s roof. After everything was removed and sanitized, the facility had to be tested for mold. Thankfully, the test came back negative.
Outside the building, the Chisesis worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to have 24 trailers set up so employees, whose homes were damaged or destroyed, could live in them.
There was a harsh realization among the family members that a lot of business wouldn’t come back for Chisesi Brothers. New Orleans is populated with hundreds of pint-sized mom and pop corner grocery stores that sell everything from meat to milk. Many of them were demolished in the storm and customers of Chisesi Brothers.
Schmitt and Bowen say they were fortunate to receive help from the Army Corp of Engineers to clean up the Creole Country Sausage plant. After the flood water had receded, 17 men from the Army Corp of Engineers showed up at the business wearing hazmat suits and oxygen masks. They went in and out of the building, carrying the spoiled meat and ruined equipment out with them. They tested the air for bacteria and sanitized the facility after removing the bad product.
It took three-and-a-half months for the power to come back on. During the down time, Schmitt and Bowen went to work.
“We gutted everything to a shell,” Schmitt says. “We spray foamed everything. We put in new walls. We rebuilt it back up from scratch.”
|||Read more: Like a nightmare|||
Like a nightmare
In the weeks to follow, as Hanford tried to put his business back together, he watched military helicopters fly back and forth from the city.
“You knew they were coming back with dead bodies,” Hanford says, his voice cracking. He pauses, his eyes squinting to fight back tears. “We didn’t even know who those people were.”
Hanford is still angry about the looting and anarchy that followed the storm. But 10 years later, he believes New Orleans is coming back – something he did not believe would happen.
“A lot of people gave up, but enough people hung in there,” he adds.
In the months following the hurricane, there were reports of increased mental illness, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The suicide rate in New Orleans tripled. Schmitt understands why.
“We were lucky that we didn’t go crazy,” he says.
For Cody Chisesi, Hurricane Katrina was simply a nightmare.
“You think about it and say to yourself, ‘Was that real?’ You never want to go through that again.”
Sometimes, Manuel can still smell the effects of Katrina – the putrid ammonia-like stench of rotting meat and the moldy and stale aroma of marsh mud left behind by the flood.
“Some days, it seems like a long time ago,” Manuel says. “Other days, it seems like it was just yesterday.”