Hurricane Katrina descended upon New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. Wind and rain pummeled the city while citizens huddled together in the Superdome even as parts of the roof were blown off and away. As we know, the storm was only the beginning of the city’s tragedy. The raging waters of Lake Pontchartrain overtopped the levee walls and eventually tore holes in them as large as 300 feet wide. Over the course of four days, the city filled with water — nearly 20 feet of it in places.

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, New Orleans is in the process of slow, difficult rebuilding. Many agree the city will never be the same. But the citizens of New Orleans haven’t given up. Many simply take the recovery efforts day by day, driven by the will to save their beloved city.

Al Hilton, CEO of Empire Services, and Don Kattengell, vice president and general manager of National Building Services, are just two examples of those who have come back to New Orleans to rebuild their business and their city.

Returning to devastation
Al Hilton was on vacation with his family in Destin, Fla., when Hurricane Katrina hit the Florida Gulf Coast. Since Destin was in Katrina’s path, the city began preparing for the oncoming storm and the Hiltons were forced to evacuate. They arrived back in New Orleans on Friday, Aug. 26; by Saturday they decided New Orleans wasn’t going to be any safer than Destin, so the Hiltons loaded up their car, boarded up their house and headed out to Birmingham, Ala., to stay with friends.

“My wife Donna went through Hurricane Betsy, and had to be rescued from the roof of her home, so as you can imagine she didn’t want to go through that experience again. We have a 10-year-old daughter, Courteney, and we didn’t want her to experience a hurricane,” says Hilton.

Two days after Katrina hit New Orleans, Hilton returned alone to his home in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans. He spent the next 10 days sleeping in the back of his car or on a hammock in his backyard. His house had roof and gutter damage, but luckily, no rising water. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said about his company’s headquarters.

“Our downtown building was condemned. We had about five feet of water in the lobby. The problem was that our building had all of its mechanical equipment in the basement. So needless to say, the basement filled with water,” he says.

After five days of pumping out water, the building still was unsalvageable.

It was pretty much the same story for Don Kattengell of National Building Services. Like Hilton and many other New Orleans residents, Kattengell evacuated the city, but he and his family didn’t leave until Sunday, the day before the storm.

“I was hoping it would turn, like the other storms, but of course it didn’t,” he says.

The Kattengells had stayed through Saturday to get a full night’s sleep before traveling to a hotel in Dallas at 8 a.m. the next day. Their stay in Dallas was brief, but instead of rushing back to a house filled with water, they traveled to stay with relatives in Lafayette, La., and with colleagues from Red River Sanitors in Shreveport, La.

It was a week before a manager from National Building Services came back to the city. Kattengell followed a couple days later to assess the damage to the facility.

“We had five feet of water on the first floor, part of the roof was torn off. The only office spared was mine,” he says. “We never expected this much water.”

Nothing could be saved: files, cleaning supplies, office materials. All of it was drenched.

“We couldn’t salvage anything. The motor froze up in every machine we had, ” says Kattengell. “We had a warehouse full of stuff, now nothing — a 20-foot container has become our new warehouse.”

Adding to the frustration, National Building Services lost nine of its company vehicles. However, Kattengell had to wait until a second storm, Hurricane Rita, was over before he could replace them.

“We couldn’t buy new trucks because we couldn’t get them insured,” says Kattengell. “Rita was threatening, and insurance companies won’t insure new vehicles when a storm is in the Gulf.”

Rebuilding business
For these two BSCs there wasn’t time for self-pity — there was still a job to get done. Even though the phone company had flooded and landlines were shut down, calls from customers still came in via cell phone.

“We became the worker bees at that point,” says Hilton. “We immediately started working with two of our customers.”

With a staff of about 20 employees, Empire Services began performing duties that went beyond normal service.

“There was no janitorial work going on right after the storm,” Hilton says. “We were setting up drying equipment, which we ran with generators, and removing wet ceiling tiles, carpet, sheetrock and debris. Whatever customers needed, that’s what we did.”

In the days following the storm labor was scarce. Current employees came back to the city when they could, but there weren’t many. However, as days turned into weeks, Empire Services was able to find new employees to replace those who couldn’t return.

“We were very fortunate to have contact with people that were out of work because of Katrina and were looking for employment in this area,” says Hilton. “We drew from the surrounding parishes by word of mouth.”

Within two weeks of the storm, Empire Services had built a work force of approximately 275 employees, nearly 150 of them new to the company. To house so many people, tent cities were erected in employees’ personal backyards or on customers’ property.

For BSCs, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina became an opportunity for their business. Never before had cleaning been so urgent. Hilton and his teams were ready to answer the call.

Each morning at 7 a.m., Empire Services employees would begin their day in a local shopping center parking lot to alert people driving by that Empire Services was there to assist them. They serviced a variety of clients during those first few weeks: shopping centers, office buildings, medical facilities and apartment complexes.

“Because we had labor available during a very difficult time we were able to respond to and help building owners who were not our regular customers,” says Hilton.

With so many contractors not able to respond to their customers’ emergency needs, Empire Services was able to add approximately 1.5 million square feet of new business to its New Orleans portfolio.

For Kattengell and National Building Services, those first few weeks were similar to Hilton’s. Kattengell’s pickup truck served as company headquarters and his cell phone was the main line of communication. The majority of early calls were from employees asking about their paychecks — the storm had hit around payday.

Despite the abnormal conditions, Kattengell and his crew were ready and willing to aid their customers. Since most of the office buildings still were shut down, National Building Services’ first accounts were banks. Some banks even had three or four other banks operating out of the one facility.

“For these, we just emptied the trash during the day. You couldn’t really clean them at night because the building closed and the National Guard patrolled at night with guns,” says Kattengell. “We had keys, but we weren’t going in. They’d say, ‘Move along,’ and we’d reply, ‘Yes sir!’”

Emptying trash meant hauling away wet debris or emptying out refrigerators full of spoiled food. If the odor still remained even after tossing the food, Kattengell says he had to trash the fridge itself.

After Katrina, most accounts had to be day-cleaned because there was no electricity, nor bodies to staff the facilities at night. Also, after the sun went down, no one was quite sure how safe the city actually was. There had been reports of violence and looting. Traveling past dark was best avoided, which Kattengell experienced firsthand.

“It’s a weird feeling with no electricity, the city is completely black. One time we had to clean a Naval Base and it was late at night. It was the only building with electricity — it was pitch black on the drive out there. I pulled up to the gate and the guard said ‘Are you crazy?’ I told him ‘No, but I drive really fast!’”

Unlike Hilton, Kattengell didn’t have the same success finding employees. The early staff consisted only of one manager, Don, and his two sons.

“It was so exhausting. One time we were driving to an account and one of my sons was passed out in the back of the truck. Someone said the phrase, ‘Weather the storm.’ My son immediately perked up and said, ‘There’s another storm coming?’ I was like, ‘No, no, go back to sleep.’”

In fact, Kattengell labored so intensely during those first few months that people joke he looks 20 pounds lighter. But the weight loss is probably accurate. There wasn’t much food to eat during that time: junk food or army meals eaten in the truck on the way to the next account passed for lunch.

“You would get so tired of eating peanuts and chips for lunch sometimes that you would have to stop for a sandwich,” he says. “But then you could barely find a place that was open. And those that were had lines so long they were out the door.”

But things picked up as more employees eventually returned to the city and went back to work for National Building Services.

“We would reach breaking points with accounts, where you didn’t think you could take on any more, but then you get a couple more employees back and things would get better,” says Kattengell. “And once you had a body you used them as much as you could. If they were part-time employees, they quickly became full-time.”

But there never seemed to be enough employees to cover the demand. National Building Services was spread too thin, and had to start cutting customers. The first to go were the accounts on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.

“Going across the lake is hard. It’s 30 miles each way. We were traveling 60 miles a night just to cover a couple accounts,” says Kattengell. “We hate to give up business, but you had to.”

One year later
Now, a year after the disaster, business for these two BSCs has started to return to some semblance of normal. Both companies are now headquartered in Metairie.

Empire Services has roughly 300 employees; the company staffed 450 before Katrina. Business has continued to steadily increase. They have retained the new accounts they serviced immediately following the hurricane and have added new customers as a result of more BSCs not returning to the area. Empire Services also is servicing additional accounts in the Baton Rouge area.

“We picked up more square footage than we lost,” says Hilton.

Though business is thriving for Kattengell, he is still experiencing labor-related problems. A lot of his former employees haven’t returned because there isn’t enough housing. Employees who had rented apartments before the storm have no home to return to. Only employees who owned their own home have been able to come back.

The labor problem is also a case of supply and demand. There’s a high demand for able bodies, but short supply. All businesses are fighting for people in a very shallow labor pool. In fact, fast-food restaurants are paying more than $8 dollars an hour for workers. To stay competitive, Kattengell has had to increase his wages by a few dollars.

“It’s like a bidding war for employees.”

As a result of being short-staffed, National Building Services is still turning away potential customers.

“We take care of our existing accounts first before we look for new ones. We have to wait until more employees are back. We tell [prospective customers] to check back with us in a couple months — and they do.”

When disaster strikes, cleanup efforts will always be a necessity. BSCs with fortitude and resourcefulness will be able to turn tragedy into opportunity.