Rebuilding a Territory

Edition: May 2006 - Vol 14 Number 05
Article#: 2402
Author: Repertoire

In the first few hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall at 6 a.m. Monday morning, Aug. 29, 2005, many residents believed that, once again, they had escaped the worst. Gradually, though, the truth became apparent. Storm surges and breached levees had delivered knockout blows to their houses and communities.

After experiencing the initial shock and concerns about the well-being of family members, the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast began to confront longer-term issues. Where would they live? Where would the kids go to school? What about their jobs?

This month, Repertoire speaks with three sales reps whose lives were altered by Katrina. Through luck, family and friends, and help from their companies, they are about the task of rebuilding their territories out of what, for some, was sheer devastation.

Hard-headed woman

Labsco sales rep Julie LaNasa is hard-headed. Even she says so. It’s no surprise, then, that as Katrina was gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico in the days leading up to landfall, she resolved to stay put in New Orleans. Her home is just blocks away from Lake Pontchartrain, which lies north of the city. In a concession to reality, she booked a hotel room downtown, in an exercise New Orleanians have come to call “vertical evacuation.”

But at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, a friend called LaNasa to urge her to leave the city. “This was a Category 5 [hurricane] way too early in the game,” says LaNasa, who was featured in April 2005 Repertoire for her role as a Mardi Gras queen in 2000. “So I called my mom and said, ‘We’re hitting the road.’” It was the second time in her life that a storm had forced her to evacuate. By that evening, after a nine-hour drive that should have taken two, she had joined a friend in Breaux Bridge, about 10 miles from Lafayette, La., to wait out the storm.

“We were glued to the TV all night,” she recalls. “We could see that the weather was getting bad. But we watched and went to sleep, figuring the worst had hit and that we had fared pretty well. I figured I could pack up and return the next day.” Then the news came that the levees – one of which lay just a couple of blocks from her home – had been breached. By Tuesday afternoon, she was on the phone, looking for an apartment in Lafayette. By Wednesday, she had rented one. “My next step was to go buy a mattress.”

Hungry for news on her house, LaNasa tried to contact her ex-husband, a New Orleans policeman. The only thing working was text messaging. “He went by my house by boat. He was able to get a block away, then he walked. But he couldn’t tell if water had gotten in and receded. So we had to wait and see.” It would be more than four weeks before LaNasa would be able to inspect her home.

‘My territory was gone.’

Days after the storm, customers began calling LaNasa from their cell phones. “Some contacted me and said they either planned on reopening or they were relocating and wanted to settle up their accounts,” she says. “The corporate office was fabulous,” she says, speaking of Louisville-based Labsco. “I called them when I could and told them what I was going to be doing. It was very emotional. The thought in my mind was that my territory was gone.” Her territory had included the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the New Orleans metropolitan area.

When she finally was able to physically inspect her home in early October, she discovered that, remarkably, it had been spared any flooding. The house lies just a quarter mile away from one failed levee and about two miles from another. In her subdivision alone, some houses sustained as much as 8 to 10 feet of water. Five homes around hers had been looted, but hers was spared. So she moved back in.

“There weren’t any phones, but we did have power, water and gas,” she says. “Once you got inside your home, it could have been sort of like normal, except there were no sounds around you. Outside, it was quiet – and dark. A couple of streets had lights, but everything else was black.”

On the Gulf Coast, the few blocks between the railroad tracks and the water were – and still are – scenes of “utter devastation,” she says. “You can’t recognize anything.” Customers who had multiple sites shifted their operations to inland locations. One cardiologist set up his practice in modular trailers.

Physically calling on customers wasn’t a problem. “Once [authorities] knew I was calling on physicians, I had no problem at the checkpoints,” says LaNasa. Receiving and delivering supplies was trickier, because the vans were hampered in their efforts to navigate the most heavily hit areas. In some cases, LaNasa instructed her customers to drive to particular drop sites to pick up supplies.

Business remains slow today. “I’ve got doctors who are waiting to see what will happen to their patient population,” says LaNasa. “Many are gone, others are sharing other physicians’ offices.” She does a lot more cold-calling than she did prior to the storm, following up leads wherever she can get them, including people she meets in the course of her day. Through it all, Labsco “has been very good to me,” she says.

And Mardi Gras? “We rolled.” Tourists were fewer in number, the parades were shorter, and the Krewe of Mid-City didn’t have royalty or a ball. “But the riders and spectators were into the spirit of it,” she says.

Thirty two people, seven dogs, four cats

Between Roberta Fisher and her extended family – including 32 people, seven dogs and four cats – Hurricane Katrina claimed 13 houses and a way of life.

Since the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27, PSS sales consultant Fisher, her husband and two children have traveled from Houston to Baton Rouge and, most recently, to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, driven by the need to find shelter and schooling. Her husband has reopened his family jewelry store in Metairie, and Fisher’s days are getting busier too. Still, things are slow. Some of her physician customers are returning to the area, and she has taken over some new accounts. “People are coming back, but it’s a lot slower than we thought it would happen,” she says.

When her family awoke that Saturday morning, “we knew we had to evacuate,” recalls Fisher, who was born and raised in St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. Thanks to the hard work of her sister, who had been on the phone for several days, the entire clan had a place in which to ride out the storm – an extended-stay hotel in Houston. Before they left, Fisher made a quick trip to get her aunt from a nursing home – the same one (St. Rita’s in St. Bernard Parish) in which 32 residents were later found dead. By 3 p.m., the Fishers were on the road to Houston, making a quick stop in Baton Rouge to pick up some of her son’s things, who attended Baton Rouge College. (Her husband stayed behind another day, in order to board up his store and retrieve his elderly parents.)

“The weather was fine until we got close to Houston, when we started running into bad weather,” she says. “We couldn’t see our hand in front of our face, and we had this convoy of cars.” By Sunday night, they knew St. Bernard Parish was going to take a direct hit. And it did, on Monday morning, with winds of up to 140 miles per hour and a 20-foot storm surge. “On Monday morning, we watched the TV. There was a lot of crying.”

For days, they watched what the rest of the country was watching, such as scenes from the Superdome. Soon enough, their fears about St. Bernard Parish were confirmed. “My brother-in-law talked to some people who had stayed, and they said that St. Bernard Parish was under water.” Located about four blocks from a levee that had been breached, the Fishers’ house was no exception.

People in Houston were generous and caring to the evacuees, says Fisher. Still, after eight days or so, she knew she had to get serious about getting her 16-year-old daughter enrolled in a school. So the family went to Baton Rouge and, for about a week, lived in a mobile home in the driveway of a couple of PSS reps. Slowly but surely, the Fisher entourage started finding and moving into apartments in that city. Two PSS reps from Mobile, Ala., packed up a 34-foot truck with furniture and household items from a condo they weren’t using, and brought it to the Fishers. “That’s a story close to our heart,” says Fisher. Her daughter began classes in Baton Rouge.

Taking stock of the territory

Once the family settled in Baton Rouge, Fisher began to take stock of her sales territory – St. Bernard Parish, Plaquemines Parish, Metairie and parts of the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. “I was frantically trying to find people,” she recalls. So she started calling her customers, to see who had stayed or who had left a message on their machines. (Luckily, she had her laptop with her. However, she did leave behind her reliable daytimer – a bitter pill to swallow for someone who was recognized as the “phone number guru” of her branch).

Throughout September, Fisher worked primarily from her phone, because it was difficult to get into the New Orleans area. Gradually, she started visiting accounts. Travel times from Baton Rouge were three hours instead of the normal one. In early November, the Fishers moved in with a niece and her family in Slidell, just north of Lake Pontchartrain. Their daughter enrolled in a high school in Covington.

About five weeks after the storm, the Fishers were finally able to visit their home. “I felt like the world had ended, and I was the only person standing there,” she says. “There was not one house for miles and miles that was not totally devastated.” Her house had taken in 12 feet of water – all the way into the second floor. Wearing masks, overalls, boots and gloves, Fisher and her husband were able to enter the house. “I felt like I was looting my own house,” she says. “Police were everywhere; you had to show identification; helicopters were flying over.” Her goal was to retrieve old videotapes of her kids, family photos and other personal objects.

“We didn’t touch one thing downstairs; there was two feet of sludge, and everything was turned upside down,” she says. Sadly, most of the videotapes and photo albums were destroyed. Although Fisher had moved them upstairs prior to the storm, she had left them on the floor, not expecting water to reach that high.

The house is a total loss. At press time, the Fishers weren’t sure if it would be demolished, or gutted and rebuilt. In the meantime, the family has bought a lot in Madisonville, on the north shore, on which they intend to build.

Physicians are tentative

Business continues to pick up, although Fridays remain slow. That used to be the day Fisher would call on accounts in St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East. Physicians remain tentative, as they wait on insurance claims, she says. Some have moved into offices with other physicians with established practices, and are sharing expenses, at least for the time being. Things could change as insurance claims get settled, she says.

For physicians, as for everyone else, many decisions hinge upon what’s best for their families, says Fisher. Those who relocated to areas with good schools are likely to stay, at least until the end of the school year. “I think a lot of people will come back then,” she says.

Roberta Fisher’s life has changed. The extended family is scattered. No longer is she able to go for walks with her sister every night, and she’s lucky to see her mom once a month. But her husband opened the jewelry store in November, and had a fantastic Christmas. And she is grateful to PSS for helping her through the tough times.

“The one thing that made me realize I was going to recover was PSS,” she says. “From the first day, they made it well known that they would help us get through this, and they have, every step of the way.”

In harm’s way

PSS sales rep Owen Hines calls on customers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, from Pass Christian to Pascagoula. Prior to Aug. 29, it is where he lived with his wife and two-year-old son. His mother and sister and her family lived in the area as well.

Living in harm’s way is nothing new for Hines. His family evacuated the area prior to Hurricane Camille in 1969, when he was a little boy. They did it again, albeit briefly, when Elana made landfall in 1985. By Saturday, Aug. 28, it became clear that another evacuation was in order. There was a 99 percent chance the storm would head north after landfall, so Hines and family didn’t want to head in that direction. And the roads west were likely to be clogged.

So, at around 2 p.m., after he had boarded up his house in Long Beach, Hines, his family and extended family left for a bed-and-breakfast in Grayton Beach, Fla., just east of Destin. His sister and her husband had stayed there before, and the B&B had agreed to take in the Hineses and their pets – three dogs and a cat. They arrived in Grayton Beach between 7 and 8 p.m. Sunday.

“That night and Monday morning, we watched the Weather Channel, just like the rest of the country.” The weather in Grayton Beach was rainy and windy. From his laptop, Hines was able to get reports from local newspapers. Those reports indicated that the Gulf Coast had been devastated.

His house lay about 200 feet south of a set of railroad tracks that run parallel to the water’s edge. He was to find out soon that authorities had closed off the area south of the tracks because of the devastation. Even so, a friend was able to get within 300 feet or so of Hines’s house. “From that distance, he could tell the roof was gone, but that was it.” The Hines family stayed in Grayton Beach for three days, then drove to north Mississippi, to join other family members.

Razor wire

That weekend, Hines, his brother-in-law and nephew ventured to the southern part of the state. They attached a wide metal tray to the back of his wife’s car, then strapped gas cans to it, anticipating that no gas would be available near the coast.

“It wasn’t really that bad of a drive,” he recalls. “There were so many reports to stay off the roads.” When they reached the coast, they reported to a makeshift command center at a fire station, where they produced proof of their address. The area by the railroad tracks was guarded by the National Guard. Razor wire had been put up to discourage looters from entering the hardest hit areas south of the tracks.

Climbing over trees and debris, Hines and his colleagues saw the devastation first-hand. “Everything for two blocks along the coast was gone. I mean gone gone. There were concrete slabs where houses had been. It looked like a nuclear bomb had annihilated it.” Debris from buildings at the water’s edge had been pushed two to three blocks inland.

His house had lost most of its roof. “In all the past hurricanes, I had never lost one shingle,” he says. Without a roof, the inside of the house had gotten soaked by heavy rains. His mother’s house was in the same shape. They put tarps on the roofs of the two houses to prevent more rain from coming inside, and took what valuables they could.

Then they walked to his sister’s house. “It was odd going down there. The closer you got, the worse it got, and the more your mind couldn’t comprehend it.” On each side of her street loomed 10-to-12-foot piles of “anything you can imagine – cars, furniture, boats, cars, roofs, trees, dead animals.” Natural gas was leaking freely, and the men got headaches. Carbon monoxide detectors were beeping and chirping. “And there was this awful, funky, moldy, dead-animal, everything’s-wet smell.” The house itself had been pushed back about 15 feet. “We only stayed 30 minutes or so. Our heads were pounding from the gas.” So they drove back to north Mississippi, only to repeat the routine the next day.

A PSS rep in Mobile offered to let the Hines family stay in his late mother’s house. “Even though it was an hour and a half from where we lived, it was our best option,” says Hines. So they moved in and stayed until the end of December. Then a friend moved from her house in Gulfport, Miss., and rented the house to the Hineses. At press time, a contractor had gutted their house prior to rehabbing it.

Slow motions

The first week following Katrina, business was, in a word, slow. “There was nobody to call on,” says Hines, who guessed that the majority of his physician customers lived near the water’s edge and were probably homeless. That said, many clinics survived, located as they were north of the railroad tracks.

It was during the second week after the storm that the phone calls started coming in. “People started calling, needing tetanus shots and things like that,” says Hines. Luckily for Hines and his customers, PSS delivered products in its own vans. “The biggest surprise business-wise was what a complete meltdown UPS had. It blew me away.” Companies such as UPS and FedEx suffered damage to their buildings, and transportation was difficult. But according to Hines, their main problem might have been the fact that they had large numbers of packages in their warehouses, but no one to deliver them to, given the number of homes that had been destroyed and the people who had evacuated.

During Week 2, Hines started calling on accounts. “It was more of a recon-type mission,” he says. “Basically, we were all asking each other, ‘Are you OK? What’s going on?’”

Like everyone else, many doctors and office staff were busy taking care of their own families. What’s more, the patient population had decreased. Most of the casinos, which employed large numbers of locals, were shut down indefinitely.

Seven months after Katrina, Hines characterizes his life as “closer to normal than abnormal.” On the coast, north of the railroad tracks, “there’s a lot of damage, but it’s what you expect from a hurricane. South of the track still looks like a war zone. On my street, every other house is under construction. A block south of us, people are still picking up debris. You can’t fathom it.”

Most of his customers are “just doing their doctor thing,” he says. He has replaced some exam tables and diagnostic equipment, but in many senses, it’s business as usual.

“But things are different in that everything is more difficult,” he says. Just getting to accounts is harder, for example. Recently, he worked with a manufacturer rep from New Orleans who hadn’t been to the Mississippi coast since the hurricane. “She almost ran out of gas,” explains Hines. “She was going to go to a gas station she knew, but when she got there, there was absolutely nothing there. Things like that happen. I’ve kind of gotten used to it, but people who aren’t around haven’t.

“We’re still living out of boxes, because the whole time, you’re thinking, ‘We’re going to get back in our house,’” he says. He has no doubt that the Hines family will; they just don’t know when.