13. The tech ‘SEALS’

When Steve Hebert said he was getting life systems back on at the Hibernia Center – electricity, water, sewer, some air conditioning – the IT group immediately wanted people back there to start up computer systems.  Servers for secondary applications were needed urgently.  Many of system engineers – they called themselves “propeller heads” – volunteered to go, even though they had been working nonstop in Shreveport and it meant entering the city while it was still under military control.

CHRIS BERTHAUT: 'SEAL' team leader / Photo: Russ Hoadley

CHRIS BERTHAUT: ‘SEAL’ team leader / Photo: Russ Hoadley

They would have to camp out in the building, and there were no restaurants or stores.  They had to take practically everything in with them.

A group of eight drove in three black SUVs packed with the food and gear.  They took an around-about route over the Huey P. Long bridge, passing drowned cars, abandoned boats, smashed signs and a burning building.Chris Berthaut, a systems engineering manager with Hibernia for 12 years, led the first group. “We bought about $600 worth of camping gear – air mattresses, sleeping bags, solar shower, boots – and food.”  They tried to think of every eventuality, since they did not know what to expect.

The men with Berthaut were Jeremy Lala, Patrick Kadow, Shawn “Scoop” Foret, Kent Wedel, Ryan Rodrigue, Anthony Sciortino, Bo Matthews and Steve Braden.

‘Grocery list’ of work

They had a long “grocery list” of things to do as well as things to retrieve for colleagues.  These ranged from important servers to pull out to something as simple as a Rolodex or family pictures off a desk.  One fellow wanted his 17-inch monitor in place of the 15-inch screen that had been assigned to him.  The team nixed that one.

DEBRIS EVERYWHERE: Samshed cars, boats, signs / Photo: Skip Federico

DEBRIS EVERYWHERE: Samshed cars, boats, signs / Photo: Skip Federico

Nearing the center, they drove by Hibernia’s headquarters on Carondelet Street and thought it looked all right.  But when they rolled down their windows, they were hit by an overpowering stench.  At their building on Tulane Avenue, they backed in to the front door, leaving their vehicles partly in the street.

They were met by guards – heavily armed and all business – hired to secure Hibernia’s buildings until order was restored.  The guards were ex-military, including former Navy SEALS.  They looked prepared to shoot intruders.

The ‘SEALS’

That first day, as they went about their chores, the team found evidence everywhere of storm damage, spotty water pressure and air-conditioning, and few functioning restrooms.  The building was inhabitable, but just. The young engineers were told to be careful moving around the building and to use passwords – “blue” and “friendly” – if challenged, especially after dark.  As days passed, the engineers themselves came to be called the “SEAL team” back in Shreveport because they were sequestered with these high-security guards.

As evening curfew neared, some of the guys packed up items for Shreveport and drove back out. Six stayed behind – Berthaut, Lala, Wedel, Kadow, Foret and Rodrigue – as the first team in the center, ready to fend for themselves.  Four days later, a second team came in – consisting of Bensel, Federico and Manint.  For the next several weeks, the two groups and a few others worked in shifts of several days each while camping in the building.

TECH ‘SEALS’: IT engineers camp out -- Kent Wedel, Shawn ‘Scoop’ Foret, Ryan Rodrigue, Chris Berthaut, Patrick Kadow and Jeremy Lala in front of Hibernia Center / Photo: Patrick Kadow

TECH ‘SEALS’: IT engineers camp out — Kent Wedel, Shawn ‘Scoop’ Foret, Ryan Rodrigue, Chris Berthaut, Patrick Kadow and Jeremy Lala in front of Hibernia Center / Photo: Patrick Kadow

Nonstop work

Work at the center turned out to be nonstop, 24 hours a day.  “We would get calls at any time of the day or night to bring this server up or shut this one down or do this or that procedure to another,” remembered Kadow.  “We had the exact same challenges to get servers back up in the center as we had in Shreveport to get the recovery servers up.”

Sciortino, at 27 the youngest member of the team, had started work on March 7, the day the Capital One merger was announced.  He was the “go-fer” for the others.  He helped prepare servers, string cables, anything that was needed.  He remembered being so tired once that “I fell asleep standing against a server rack … with wires dangling down across my face.”

SHUT-EYE: 'Scoop' Foret sacks out near his desk / Photo: Skip Federico

SHUT-EYE: ‘Scoop’ Foret sacks out near his desk / Photo: Skip Federico

The team worked and slept in shifts around the clock.  When off, they would stake out a spot on the floor, usually near their own desks, occasionally in someone’s office.  Sleep was an “iffy” proposition.

An eerie place

It was easy to be spooked.  Once, Wedel found himself at the business end of a guard’s gun when, walking up a darkened stairwell, he was stopped.  He called out – “blue, blue, blue” – but was ordered not to move.  Apparently, when the guards changed shifts, they forgot to pass on the latest code word. The building was eerie, especially as night set in – quiet and empty except for the engineers and the guards, who were usually unseen but not absent.

On one floor, the guys found a life-size mannequin, probably left from a long-ago marketing campaign.  It did not take the young men long to begin shifting it from place to place as a practical joke, “to scare the bejeesus” out of each other.

GEN. HONORE: Army commander chats in background; Robert Minint, foreground / Photo: Skip Federico

GEN. HONORE: Army commander chats in background; Robert Minint, foreground / Photo: Skip Federico

Discovering the mess tent

Food and ice were an interesting problem.  The team had brought a lot of stuff, mostly canned goods, MREs and an awful lot of junk food that, they said laughing, had been selected by “Uncle Ben” Gautreaux, the fatherly disaster recovery chief and a man apparently with a taste for treats.  But they tired of this fare pretty quickly.

Soon, they ventured around the business district and found a large military encampment on S. Peters, at the edge of the French Quarter.  U.S. Army Gen. Russel Honore and his troops were there.  An open-air mess tent was feeding troops and recovery workers.  The computer team began to walk there some evenings before curfew, and they were allowed in line for a hot meal.

Scoring a bag of ice

HAS ICE: Nice lady in charge of freezer

HAS ICE: Nice lady in charge of freezer

GETS ICE: Bryan Bensel scores a bag / Photos: Skip Federico

GETS ICE: Bryan Bensel scores a bag / Photos: Skip Federico

On one trip to the mess tent, the SEALS also found ice, a prized commodity.  Bryan Bensel, Skip Federico and Robert Manint were in line for dinner when they spied a walk-in freezer nearby. 

With an armed MP on duty, they were pretty sure it was restricted, but Bensel was once a U.S. Marine sergeant.  He served in Operation Desert Storm in the early ’90s.  And, well, he sort of knew his way around.

He ambled over and chatted up the young woman in charge of the freezer.  And before long, with a broad grin, he shouldered a bag of ice that would replenish their coolers back at the center.

Other than the ice-lady, when Jeremy Lala and Patrick Kadow looked around, they were struck by the fact that it was mostly a “city of guns and men.”  Everywhere they went they saw armed men – soldiers, police, others – and almost “no women, no kids,” recalled Federico.

PATRICK KADOW: The cat man / Photos: Skip Federico

PATRICK KADOW: The cat man / Photos: Skip Federico

Saving cats

While there, guys on the team also had a chance to get out and check homes.  One night Foret and Kadow went uptown to Kadow’s place.  On the way, they also checked the home of a friend, Carly Kacsvinsky, one of Hibernia’s young line of business controllers, who handled financial accounting for the administration group.  Kacsvinsky had evacuated and left three cats behind.  The engineers got in through the garage and found they were all right despite there having been 10 feet of water.  Later, they collected the cats in a pet carrier and brought them out.  “It took an hour to corral those cats,” Foret recalled.

There were other pet rescues.  Kadow came back on the Sept. 5 weekend, because his two daughters, 11 and 5, and his wife, Nancy, were worried about “Olive” and “Bingo,” their two cats.  Although “indoor-outdoor” pets, Kadow had to see if they were all right.  He found them safe and sound, then went to the Lakefront to help a friend, Rudy Horvath, retrieve his two dogs.

MR. BOOTS: A little blur

MR. BOOTS: A little blur

(Kadow’s wife and children left shortly from Shreveport for Chevy Chase, MD, to stay with his parents until it was safe to come back.  The girls enrolled in school there.  Kadow visitedtwice before they returned in January.  Philosophical about the separation, he said it gave him time to work on their Loyola Ave. house.  As an Uptown neighborhood block captain, he also put new padlocks on looted homes near his own, where doors had been kicked open.)

Saving ‘Mr. Boots’

That was not the end to pet rescues.  Other friends had left a mostly outdoor cat, “Mr. Boots,” and hoped Kadow might be able to get a glimpse.  “It was near my house, so I called for the cat, but no cat.  Then, when the team was leaving, I had to go back just one more time.  It was dusk.  I called, but again, I didn’t see anything.  Just as I was leaving, there was a little blur out of the corner of my eye.  I grabbed my camera, took a picture in darkness, and got their cat with glowing eyes.  My friends had two kids, like mine, who wanted to know.  I got great emails from them.”

Sciortino recalled that he and Jeremy (Lala) went to Mandeville to check his house, tarp his roof and bring family and friends some supplies.  “This is when we got Chris Berthaut’s dog (a Lab named “Dolch”) and gave him a ride to Chris’ fiancé.  The look on Chris’ face was thanks enough.  And we didn’t do it because he is our boss; we did it because he is our friend.”

GRILL CHEF: Robert Manint fires up the BBQ on the roof / Photo: Skip Federico

GRILL CHEF: Robert Manint fires up the BBQ on the roof / Photo: Skip Federico

Dinners on the roof

While team members cycled in and out of the center, some “SEALS” brought a grill and got permission to go on the roof for evening cookouts.  Robert Manint, one of the main “grillers,” prepared barbecued chicken, burgers and the like.

“It was the only place to get away when the curfew was in force,” Kadow recalled.  “The city was still black.  Our building was a lone beacon, every floor lit up like a Christmas tree.  You knew there were other buildings out there, but none had lights.  You could hear the military and police sirens and see vehicle headlights once in a while …”

A band of brothers

Kadow found their time in the city “extraordinarily exciting.”  He felt like “an inside guy, telling people what the city looked like, sending pictures.  It was a one-time chance to go around town, checking houses out and take a lot of pictures.  You wouldn’t believe how grateful people were.”

The “SEAL” team described a profound bond, like men and women who have gone through combat.  Sciortino, the newest, thought Hibernia had recovered better than others because of this.

ARMED CAMP: Army truck rumbles by with Hibernia in background / Photo: Skip Federico

ARMED CAMP: Army truck rumbles by with Hibernia in background / Photo: Skip Federico

“You hear a lot of stories from other banks or businesses, and they sound nothing like what happened in Shreveport.  There are a lot of things many of us might like to forget, but we remember why we work here.  It’s not the benefits, pay or facility.  It’s the people.

“The folks in distributed services are a testament to how well ownership of a product works.  Bryan Bensel did not have to go to the center … and get the BlackBerry servers, and Shawn Foret did not have to go get all those tapes ready for shipment.  These guys did it because they care, and that’s why I knew I had to be there helping … I was there to ease the struggle, and I saw a lot of my coworkers doing the same.  If someone needed a soda, people would offer to get it no matter how high up they were on the food chain.

“In my (job) interview back in March, I told Chris that, if they wanted me to take out the trash, I would, because nothing is beneath me.  I am very happy to say that I work with about 50 people who feel the same way.”

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