23. A roof over their heads

Housing turned out to be just about the biggest single issue for Hibernia’s recovery.  To bring the business back required people, lots of them.  To get people back required temporary housing, and there just wasn’t enough.

As employees reported their whereabouts, Capital One’s call center took down their needs and channeled them to Mike Zainey and others in disaster recovery, property management and corporate design, as well as to Capital One’s merger coordination group.  These areas began figuring out how to deploy displaced employees where they were needed most and how to provide a temporary roof over their heads.  In October 2005, Ron Samford catalogued for Hibernia’s board of directors the complexities of this:

  • Employees did not evacuate to where jobs were relocated.
  • There was uncertainty regarding the duration of the evacuation.
  • Available housing was quickly absorbed in all nearby markets.
  • There was competition for lodging from thousands of emergency relief personnel.
  • Housing policy had to be developed quickly to ensure equity among displaced employees.
  • There were significant communications difficulties.
  • There was less administrative control than desirable.
  • Some duplication of effort occurred between Hibernia and Capital One, and between the companies and employees, all simultaneously searching for housing.

While this list covered the issues, it hardly described the intricate Rubik’s Cube that faced everyone.

In past recoveries, the chore of finding temporary lodging for a relatively small group of mission-critical workers was handled by the disaster recovery team – Greg Stelly, Ben Gautreaux – and by the purchasing department – Mike Broussard and others.  In the past, perhaps 50-75 people needed hotel rooms, mainly in New Orleans near the Hibernia Center and in Shreveport near the Benton Road office.

Unprecedented situation

The situation after the storms and flood was unprecedented.  Some 400 people were called to Shreveport.  They were not going to need a hotel room for two or three days.  It would be more like two or three months.  And they were not alone.  Many had evacuated, of course, with their families – sometimes including in-laws, grandparents, aunts, uncles – and their pets.  No one in any senior level of management or on the Incident Management Team had contemplated the scope of what unfolded those first few weeks.  The need for longer-term housing – and extended livability – seemed overwhelming.

From necessity — and desperation — a hasty plan took shape, hammered together mainly in Samford’s operations and administrative areas, with help from human resources and a huge assist from Capital One.  “That was really a great example of where Capital One and Hibernia came together, and we leveraged each other’s strengths … an amazing feat,” recalled Chris Palumbo, director of business unit integration at Capital One.

There were two parts:

  • Securing lodging where it was needed most, and then
  • Assigning employees in a reasonably fair way based on need – that of both the employee and the company.

Capital One help

Capital One took the task of finding most of the hotel space – focusing first on getting hundreds of units in Shreveport, Dallas and Houston, and then in Baton Rouge.  They had national relationships with large hotel/motel and apartment firms.  Hibernia focused on getting the longer-term apartment arrangements, again with Capital One’s help, and with tracking and placing the people.

Donna Barry gets the job

Meanwhile, office space also had to be found.  Donna Barry and her small corporate design staff were at the vortex of both the office and lodging maelstrom.  Tuesday, she went to Baton Rouge and camped in the office of Tommy Doiron, in property management.  She was stunned when she opened her email and found 600 messages about workspace and housing.  Two of her staff – Pat McCann and Brian Smith – joined her.  They placed the messages in boxes for each region.  These became their all-consuming project.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Corporate designer to landlord


Photo: USGBC

Donna Barry, a 20-year employee, oversaw the design, building, renovation and equipping of all Hibernia properties.  She was the acknowledged expert of corporate design, with a staff of 20 and relationships with many contractors.  She and her husband of 20 years, Craig Johnson, were parents of two teenagers,17 and 14.  They lived in Lake Vista.

Saturday night, she recalled, after moving furniture, they decided to leave during a pizza party with friends.  The next morning, with her 80-year-old mother, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, they drove to the home of a Baton Rouge friend, which eventually housed 12 people.  Monday, they lost power for six days.  That night, her boss, Ron Samford, called her to join IMT calls, because emergency space was topping the list of needs.   Meanwhile, her husband downloaded a picture of their house.  They thought it looked okay.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Walter Walker, outgoing IT chief, said, “We are on the Titanic, and you have to keep it afloat,” she recalled.

They pulled out floor plans and plotted temporary workspaces, even using supply rooms, closets and hallways — anywhere they could find lights, electricity, computer and phone outlets, and a few square feet.  Over the months, she and her staff – with others – managed a near-impossible feat.  They created hundreds of new temporary and permanent workplaces in various cities, while also helping employees get into temporary housing.

“It was the biggest nightmare of all,” recalled Zainey.  “Donna Barry should get kudos from now until the end of time for taking that on.”

As a little dust settled, she had to turn on a dime and bring people back to New Orleans in late October.  Coordinating that – recovering and repairing buildings, finding new temporary housing – was just as hard as the first phase.

The most frustrating part?  “The lack of gratitude of some employees after Hibernia had been unbelievably generous,” she said.  And the most satisfying?  “Some employees were so grateful …”

In hindsight, she felt a sense of accomplishment.  “My whole unit kicked in to help the bank out … We did a good job.”

The lodging puzzle

WENDY PUTNAM: It was an intense process / Photo: Russ Hoadley

WENDY PUTNAM: It was an intense process / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Wendy Putnam and Pat McCann were thrown into the lodging issue and Putnam eventually became the point person.  She reported to Melissa Lewis, but Lewis was on maternity leave.  Putnam was pretty much on her own.  A trained interior designer, she had been in Barry’s department about two years.

Putnam, 33, and her husband of eight years, Barry, evacuated without incident with their two cats and a yellow lab.  They drove to West Monroe to join a family group that eventually totaled seven or eight people and six pets in a two-bedroom trailer.  Putnam’s first reaction after the storm was, “We’re not going home for a while.”

By Wednesday, she had talked to Barry and was directed to Baton Rouge.  “I was happy to jump into work … it was comforting.”  As soon as she arrived, she started trying to find hotel space – about 50 rooms – for others who were showing up.  It was an “intense process,” she recalled.  “We had people literally driving in who needed housing right now.”

Her work conditions were rudimentary.  “It was very strange.  We had one computer to share among four of us, and we were going in a million directions.”

People’s lives in her hands

Some days she dealt with 100 phone calls and 200 emails.  For someone who believed she would “rather have too much to do than too little,” it was a good fit.  Often the first in and last out of the office, she “… felt as if I had people’s lives in my hands.”  Through September and October, it was a tough process punctuated by many long days, but “as communication between us and Capital One improved, it took off.  It seemed like there were a thousand rooms that had to be found and filled.”

It was difficult to assess and meet personal expectations.  “We housed people on so many different levels of employment.”  Putnam learned that putting people in apartments was a “very personal thing … (those) in another city expected more – ‘make me comfortable while you are inconveniencing me’.”  She created big spreadsheets to capture employee needs – the number of people and family relationships; the number, type and size of pets; special needs, such as handicaps; details of each available room and apartment.

At first, she relied on housing estimates provided by executives, but they proved wildly inaccurate.  Eventually, each major division named a housing coordinator with whom Putnam worked to develop lists of specific employees and their needs.

Hotels first

Initially, employees and their families were put up in hotel rooms because that was all that could be obtained quickly.  Capital One’s volunteers handled a large part of this.  However, hotels were hardly acceptable for more than a few weeks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hotel stories: The birds and the snake

Melissa Brown of Capital One helped with lodging.  She heard a lot of strange stories.  A sample:

“A woman shows up with her two parrots at one of the hotels which did not accept pets.  They were huge parrots, from what I understand.  The front desk called me.  I was like, ‘What?’  We asked people what pets they were coming with, and I just remember sitting there.  When I asked her, she said they weren’t pets;  she did not consider them pets.”

How was it resolved?  “She was ugly to try to move.”

* *  *

“This was right after Rita.  We’re not sure how the snake got to the 8th floor in the hotel, but apparently, someone opened the elevator, and it went in and got up there and then got into someone’s room.  I received a call (from the hotel), in a panic: ‘There is a family throwing a fit.’ The snake apparently was found in a corner, and the mother was afraid for her children, and she wanted us to move (them) right away.

“It was like Noah’s Ark in Shreveport. Everybody and their brother and all of their pets.  For all we knew, it could have been somebody’s pet from another floor.”

How was it resolved?  “I called the manager, and they took care of it.  It was just a little, tiny snake.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As the crises dragged on, families wanted more livable arrangements.  Hibernia’s people worked on this, but rental houses, apartments and condos were in short supply everywhere, especially Shreveport.  “Eventually, we took nearly every available unit in that city,” Putnam recalled.

A big question was who should go where and when.  “We wanted to help the most desperate people first, but we didn’t always know their needs, or we couldn’t find the best accommodations for them.”  There were also safety issues.

A rule they followed was that families came first, with singles next.  People with pets went after those without, because it was hard to find “more-accepting properties.”


Inevitably, there were mismatches – a couple placed in a two-bedroom apartment while a family was still in a single hotel room.  In time, most of these were sorted, but some never could be resolved.  Some mismatches led employees to make their own “swaps.”  This created problems when others were being assigned.

Probably nothing created more stress for displaced employees than where they were living.  “Some were completely satisfied, and some you could never satisfy,” Putnam recalled.  “I learned more about people than I ever wanted to know.”

In time, she developed a theory:  It seemed families from the hardest hit areas – St. Bernard Parish, for example — were the most grateful.

Melissa Brown and Kim Bourne of Capital One volunteered to help find Shreveport hotels.  They had similar experiences.  “I think the worst were the people demanding suites or something with a kitchen or something that had more space, or they just didn’t like the hotel,” Brown recalled.

“Of course, we were very sympathetic, but sometimes I would get off the phone and think, ‘You know, it is a disaster … it is the worst disaster in U.S. history, and that is why it’s called a disaster, because it is unpleasant’.”

If employees or their families misbehaved in their lodgings, landlords naturally held Hibernia accountable, often contacting Putnam.  “At one apartment complex, the employee showed up with three cats, a camper and cars, and cursed the building manager,” she remembered.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In memoriam

JOSEPHINE PLOTT / Photo: Chris Coniglio-Amato

Photo: Chris Coniglio-Amato

Josephine Plott

Sometimes a housing situation was heartbreaking for Wendy Putnam, as in the case of Josephine Plott, 52, a loan services manager.  Plott had been in remission from cancer before the storm and was back at work.  Known as “JoJo” to her sister, Chris Coniglio-Amato (Hibernia’s accounts payable supervisor) and friends, her function was mission-critical.

“She was my No. 1 person,” said Sally Brink, loan services manager, “because of the controls, the planning and how she set up her department.  It was like a mini-assembly line.”

While in a one-bedroom unit, Plott’s illness returned.  Soon she required hospice care, and Putnam was able to get her a hospital bed.  As Plott continued to decline, Putnam was able to find her a two-bedroom unit so her sister could stay with her.

Plott died on Dec. 28, 2005. Survivors included two children.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Occasionally, an employee who had been put in lodging by Hibernia would abandon his or her job.  “It was hard sometimes to get people out of a property.”  Also,, some apartments were furnished at Hibernia’s expense.  Occasionally TVs, beds, chairs or linen disappeared.  “Some people didn’t leave in a responsible way.”

Many compromises

The limited lodging meant there were many compromises.  “We expected our own managers to help explain that it’s temporary, and we have to take it or leave it,” Putnam recalled.   “Some handled it well; others couldn’t say no.”

Pets and handicaps presented special issues.  Many hotels and some apartments would not allow animals or would limit types and sizes.  Some required damage deposits, as much as $400, which Hibernia paid.  It was hard to match pet owners with properties.

Stairs were trouble for some employees or family members, even if not handicapped.  “Older, heavier-set people sometimes had a problem with a second-floor unit.”

Wide range of behavior

When it came to expenses, too, she found a wide range of behavior.  Some employees were concerned about how much their units cost.  They tried to be frugal.  Others took advantage or nitpicked.  Some requests would “shock the heck out of me.  One occupant wanted a floral-pattern sofa instead of what was in the unit.”

She also found some property managers “jumped through hoops for us,” while others were indifferent or difficult.

When the company extended housing three months, as the final deadline closed in, Putnam found some employees actively looked for alternatives, while others tried to “keep following the gravy train.”

How to keep employees responsible

“How to keep employees responsible” was an interesting problem, she found.  She concluded that not enough had been done to manage employee expectations.  More realistic communications were needed in the future — how much was enough, when it would end, where they should plan to go next.

Lack of a plan

What she found hardest about the placement project was “the lack of a plan – who, what, where, when?”  In the future, she said, it would be important to have someone in each region ready to help.  Managers would have to do a much better job determining their employees’ real needs.  “The confusion we had in the beginning could have been avoided with proper planning.”

Even with these issues, the seemingly monumental task was “quite rewarding,” Putnam concluded.  Most people “seemed pleased with what we were doing.”

Remarkable housing program

The statistics on Hibernia’s on-the-run housing program were impressive.  Total units rented reached almost 1,800, the largest number in Shreveport.

Only in one market, Dallas, did the scheme seriously misfire.  Early estimates of the number of employees who would need to go there topped 300, after the government estimated it would take 60-90 days to pump New Orleans dry.  Working on that, managers planned to move more operational jobs.

Instead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “de-watered” the city in about three weeks, and the bank began re-populating the Hibernia Center in late September and its headquarters building on Oct. 31.  The Dallas housing had already been reserved, but it mostly remained vacant.

In every city, the company rented more space than it used, a result of its attempt to fit people to spaces before it knew what everyone needed.  In some cases, it had to rent blocs of rooms or apartments or not get any.

Capital One’s assist

Hibernia managers acknowledged a huge debt of gratitude for the help from Capital One.  The Virginia-based company sent people to Louisiana and offered other assistance even when there was a chance the merger might unravel because of the disaster.

City Hotel rooms Apts/Condos Total rented Total utilized
Shreveport 432 320 752 578
Houston 104 261 365 334
Dallas 323 323 6
Baton Rouge 50 15 65 59
Greater New Orleans 240 55 295 25

Mike McBride and Melissa Brown were two Capital One people “on the ground” in Shreveport.  McBride, a nine-year associate, was a senior information technology integration expert.  A technology engineer by training, the 40-year-old led the build-out of Capital One’s offices in the United Kingdom and had been in charge of its infrastructure team the past three years.  In Hibernia’s merger, his job was to coordinate with Bart Bragg, Walter Walker and Ron Samford.  A lifelong Richmond, VA, resident, he was married with three kids.  Right after Katrina hit, he headed for Shreveport with a bag of clothes and an air mattress.

Brown, 32, was an administrative assistant in Capital One’s information technology area.  She’d been vacationing in Myrtle Beach, SC, when the storm hit, and as soon as she got back to work after Labor Day, she was bombarded.  “I hadn’t even logged in, when my manager asked if I would go to Shreveport.”  She was on a plane the next day.  Another associate, Kim Bourne, also was called to Shreveport.

Like New York Stock Exchange

What Brown found when she walked into the command center was “not even controlled chaos – it was like the New York Stock Exchange.  It was just crazy – people yelling back and forth about hotel rooms and family names, and how many people, and how many pets, and I am, like, ‘What have I gotten myself into … What is going on?’ ”

Brown was able to help with the hotel search.  Another Capital One person back in Richmond – Tamara Jones – also assisted.  She was in the corporate travel area and started to engage hotels.

“… That first week it was just hundreds and hundreds of (Hibernia) people,” Brown recalled, but Capital One people, mostly in IT roles, also were arriving and needed lodging.

Most frustrating

“The most frustrating part … was not having a place to put people.  It got to a point where you just hit a wall.  Shreveport is not very big, and Hibernia obviously wasn’t the only company to evacuate there … We were constantly getting calls from hotels about people wanting to check in or move or about any problems they were having, and some associates would call directly, and you could hear their kids crying in the background.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

She remembered Charlotte Murla

Meeting Charlotte Murla, an ATM administrative support employee, was something Melissa Brown said she would never forget.  Murla was in New Orleans through the storm, but eventually found her way to Shreveport with her children, and went right to work in the command center.  Her grandmother had perished in a St. Bernard nursing home.

“Charlotte came in one day and …It was like looking into darkness.  She came from a shelter with her children, pretty much with a suitcase of clothes, nothing else.  I think her home was lost, and her grandmother, so there were a lot of tears when she first came.

“I will never forget the day I left.  I went over to say goodbye to everyone … We would always hug and kiss … I hugged her and she looked at me and said, “You are coming back?”  I will never forget the look on her face.  I told Mike (McBride) I didn’t even want to leave that day.  ”… Since then we have kept in touch over email.  I have sent her clothes a couple of times.  I remember an email she sent just made me cry, she was so appreciative.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

‘It never dawned on me’

“When I came to Shreveport,” she added, “it never dawned on me that I would be working alongside the people who were just evacuated, who had either lost their home or didn’t know the status of their homes, had lost family members … it just never occurred to me.”

When she would prepare for brief trips back to Richmond, “They would joke about another flood coming because I was leaving, and I would cry for 30 minutes … I just felt such an attachment to the people …”

Brown acknowledged, however, that the connection was not immediate.  “Probably the first couple of days, there was almost a hesitancy of how to (work with us) – this ‘Big Brother’ – if you want to look at it like that.”  By the fourth week, however, Brown had forged close ties with Leslie Asburn, Sally Parrish, Monique Speers, Ashley Ponsano and others.

Spiraling out of control again

When Rita struck, “Things had definitely quieted … then it all spiraled out of control again, with people being evacuated from Lake Charles and Houston.”

McBride remembered, “We actually got a call from a manager in Houston or Dallas, and there were like 50 people who came on a bus, and of course we needed at least 25 hotel rooms.  We were able to acquire them … but some of those people were two-time evacuees – once from New Orleans to Houston and now from Houston to Shreveport …”

Full circle

Toward the end, Brown recalled, “It was kind of funny, because we came full circle from when Hibernia associates were reluctant to hand over the process.  I felt the same way … It was kind of like my baby … when I was back in Richmond, and my boss would yell at me, ‘You are not working on hotels are you?’  And I would say, ‘No, no.’ Of course, I was lying.  This was my special project.”

‘Very, very personal’

“It was very, very personal.  It was my name that they saw first.  You know what I mean?  It was very hard to let go.”

Looking back, she felt “there has to be a better process” for lodging … We can have a better process of tracking employees, holding managers accountable for where all their people are … just a better overall process.”

Hotels and their management are a piece of the puzzle, she thought.  “We need to reach out to them to figure out how we can help out each other and make it a little bit smoother” the next time.

She also thought there could have been much better communication between the people searching for accommodations.  “There was a lot of confusion” and sometimes they would be working at cross-purposes, trying to find space for the same people.

After about a week, “We all sat in a room, and were talking and Sally Parrish looked at me and asked, ‘… What do you think about the process?’  I just broke down and started crying.  Then it went around the room, and all the girls started crying.  Mike McBride turned and said, ‘You guys are not allowed to meet together ever again’ … It had all come to a head … I looked at Sally and said, ‘There is no way I am going to leave this’.”

The death toll

Inevitably, in the terrible personal upheavals caused by Katrina and Rita, there were casualties, and it was important for Hibernia to make a record, although not every death was attributable directly to the events.  The human resources department tracked 26 deaths of employees or  their relatives or company retirees in the five months following the storms.

 Although probably not a complete record, 26 deaths of employees, retirees or family members were reported to Hibernia’s human resources department through February 2006.  Not all were attributable to the disasters.
10/06/05 Vanessa Mitchell Employee
12/28/05 Josephine Plott Sister of Chris Coniglio-Amato
01/21/06 Kendra Toney Wife of Tommy Toney
01/21/06 Tommy Toney Husband of Kendra Toney
Dependents of employees
09/11/05 Richard Ricele Husband of Connie Disbrow
09/30/05 Joseph Laurie Husband of Antoinette Laurie; fell right after hurricane
10/02/05 Dominique Narcisse Daughter of Cynthia Narcisse
10/29/05 Eric Perreand Husband of Juanita Perreand
12/04/05 Sherwood Price Husband of Rita Price
12/11/05 Luther Penny Husband of Karen Penny
12/25/05 Wilbur Selestan Husband of Carolyn Selestan
12/29/05 Andrew Kiker Husband of Christine Kiker
Retirees and their dependents
09/13/05 Joseph Hayward Dependent
09/15/05 Josephine Bailey Retiree
10/03/05 Louise Rosenweisen Retiree
10/19/05 Miriam Cantrell Retiree
11/01/05 Gilbert Jackson Retiree
11/25/05 Carolyn Rodriguez Retiree
11/26/05 Dorothy Brister Retiree
12/04/05 Dolores Collins Retiree
12/12/05 Rita Bethard Dependent
12/27/05 Margaret Bredhoeft Retiree
01/19/06 Harold Doss Retiree
01/27/06 Edric Comeaux Dependent
02/02/06 Marguerite Starnes Retiree
02/08/06 Reynolds Townsend Retiree

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