3. Hibernia Center: Key to the bank

Hibernia’s swift recovery was a remarkable result of efforts by many people doing many different things under many kinds of hard, harsh and risky conditions.  “The hurricanes were a defining moment,” noted Capital One’s CEO, Rich Fairbank, at a February meeting. “What you all did was the most unbelievable thing I’ve seen in business – the selflessness, the sacrifice and the risks … the things you did for the company and, in the end, for each other,” he told a New Orleans consumer banking rally.

One person’s uncommon efforts perfectly illustrated these qualities.

Steve Hebert, 48, Hibernia’s head of property management, was a solidly built man.  Most of his 21 years at the bank had been devoted to property management, although he began his career in retail banking where he’d done just about everything in  branch – teller, proof operator, manager, retail lender.  He and his wife, Judy, had been married 28 years and had two daughters, 22 and 19.  Hebert did not evacuate, but Judy went first to stay with a cousin in Lafayette, then to St. Francisville, then to Baton Rouge.  And during that time, Hebert supervised the rescue of 36 people from the Hibernia Center.

STEVE HEBERT: In charge of all the buildings / Photo: Russ Hoadley

STEVE HEBERT: In charge of all the buildings / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Hebert was responsible for the entire physical plant owned, leased or operated by the company – 355 offices and other buildings, land, maintenance, upkeep, cleaning – totaling more than 4 million square feet in two states.  He did this with a modest staff – 76 people – and various service vendors.

His area was critical in disaster planning and recovery.  He worked closely with Ben Gautreaux and Greg Stelly, Hibernia’s disaster preparedness coordinators, as well as with the company’s Incident Management Team (IMT), the senior managers who planned and coordinated recovery.

As Katrina marched across South Florida, Hebert was not particularly concerned.  In truth, given the forecast when it first entered the Gulf of Mexico, he could not have foreseen the ordeal ahead.

He and his team – some called them the “green guys” for the distinctive maintenance uniforms they wore – went into “normal hurricane mode.”  They updated call lists, checked with important vendors about re-supply of equipment and materials, and ran down checklists on building life support systems.

“Honestly, I did not think it would be an unusual event in the first few days,” he said.

Friday, Aug. 26

Then Friday, when forecasters warned that Katrina could grow to Category 5 strength and possibly veer westward, Hebert’s crew “turned it up a notch.”  They focused on the important Hibernia Center, a “storm-hardened” operations building on Tulane Avenue, about four blocks from the company’s Main Office in the Central Business District of New Orleans.

HIBERNIA CENTER: Bank's central nervous system / Photo: Russ Hoadley

HIBERNIA CENTER: Bank’s central nervous system / Photo: Russ Hoadley

The main thing was to keep the mainframe computer operating, although a pre-planned backup site was ready in Dallas if needed.  In previous storms, emergency electrical power was supplied from a large mobile generator mounted on a truck, but because it was on the street next to the building, severe flooding could render it useless.  Now, new equipment had been installed safely 6 floors above any possible floodwater, but there was a hitch.  The three new diesel generators had arrived in June, fulfilling a longtime goal of Hebert and his boss, Ron Samford, to have independent electrical capability.  But a punch list of about 50 uncompleted items meant they were not fully “checked out” as Katrina approached.

The tan 10-story building had unremarkable features, by design.  The functions and equipment in it were so critical that, for security reasons, it was deemed unwise to call attention to the location.  Among other things, it housed the bank’s mainframe computer, its telecommunications systems and network operations.

BREAK ROOM: Windows blown out / Photo: Alex Mobley

BREAK ROOM: Windows blown out / Photo: Alex Mobley

Saturday, Aug. 27

As in past storms – Georges, Ivan, Cindy, Dennis – Hebert helped Judy, his wife of 28 years, pack and leave.  Theirs was a well-rehearsed plan.  Judy always evacuated, and they always made sure their two daughters were out of harm’s way.  He and Judy tried to stay in touch regularly by telephone.  It was a system that had worked well in the past.

Sunday, Aug. 28

As was his custom, Hebert attended Mass in the morning before heading for the Hibernia Center where he expected to bivouac that night in a makeshift command center on the 7th floor.

One difference this time was that he would be almost alone.  The rest of the Incident Management Team had evacuated to set up the primary recovery command center in Shreveport.  Only essential computer systems engineers and security guards remained.

VANDALIZED: Glass, equipment on street / Photo: Alex Mobley

VANDALIZED: Glass, equipment on street / Photo: Alex Mobley

Once at the building, though, he found a problem he had not expected.  Three of his four building engineers who operated life-support systems had decided to evacuate.  It was the company’s policy to allow employees to make their own decisions when storms approached, even in jobs considered critical.[1]  Only Jim Spiers, a building engineer with Hibernia just four months, volunteered to ride out the storm with Hebert.

The two set about reviewing how to operate the building’s systems – the controls and functioning of air conditioning, heating, electrical, water, sewerage and pumping systems.  They would stay through the storm and its aftermath, monitoring and making adjustments or repairs, until normal processes were re-established.  Hebert’s key concern was electricity and the auxiliary pumps that would sluice out any water that might intrude during the storm.

The next few days would bring them much more than they could have foreseen.

Monday, Aug. 29

As the storm arrived at dawn, some rain and wind-driven flooding began to occur in the city, but it appeared to be relatively minor.  At the Hibernia Center, Hebert and Spiers discovered a few ground-floor windows blown out and a few inches of water on the lobby floor that they and security guards mopped up.  Around mid-morning, they walked outside to survey damage, feeling a sense of relief.  The storm was almost over and the building was relatively unscathed.  Its critical functions were operating normally.

New concern

MOPPING UP: Jametta Jackson, William Caples and Shiela Layton / Photo: Alex Mobley

MOPPING UP: Jametta Jackson, William Caples and Shiela Layton / Photo: Alex Mobley

By the afternoon, however, Hebert had a new concern.  Thirteen other employees had stayed in the building to weather the hurricane – two in bookkeeping, eight systems specialists and three security guards.

The systems specialists kept systems such as ATMs running during the storm.  Their families usually rode out the weather at either the Fairmont Hotel (a couple of blocks away) or right in the Hibernia Center, staying nearby so the engineers would not worry about them while tending the computer systems.

But the Fairmont Hotel had lost electricity and water.  Family members came to the center, and soon the total in the building swelled to 36 — including 10 wives and girlfriends (one pregnant), 11 children, and 2 dogs.  The center had adequate food and facilities, though basic, but if the building experienced any life-support system failures, Hebert would have to figure out how to care for these additions.

In late afternoon, he walked a couple of blocks from the center to the Fairmont, where he also had a room reserved, hoping he might be able to take a shower, but he too discovered the hotel had no utilities.  He continued another four blocks to Hibernia’s Main Office Building on Carondelet Street, noticing glass and debris on the deserted streets.  “It was desolate,” he recalled, but relatively dry.

FLOODED: Street fills at Hibernia Center / Photo: Bruce Martin

FLOODED: Street fills at Hibernia Center / Photo: Bruce Martin

Water floods in

Monday night, he bedded down on the floor at his command post, until about 11 p.m. when an employee, Paul LaCoste and his wife, Holly, woke him.  Something was wrong.

Hebert had no way of knowing what was occurring.  He could not get any radio or TV news reports and his contact with the Shreveport disaster command center was spotty.

Water – a lot of it – was flowing into the Central Business District.  Hebert went to the roof to get a better look.  He was shaken by what he saw on Rampart Street.  It was flooded and more water was coming.  Moreover, the first floor of his building was re-flooding where it had been dry earlier.  Hebert had no way of knowing what was happening.  He could not get any radio or TV news and his contact with the Shreveport command center was spotty.

Tuesday, Aug. 30

Sometime after midnight, he received a cellphone call from Hibernia’s veteran technology executive, Walter Walker, who had evacuated to Baton Rouge and was watching television.  Walker told him some canal levees – including the one at the Industrial Canal – had been breached by storm surge off the lake.

It appeared much of the city was flooding.  Tuesday morning, Hebert re-surveyed the scene around him:  now there was 3 to 4 feet of water on the first floor.  “I felt defeated,” he said.

Donald Barry had a similar sinking sensation.  Barry, head of a department called Item processing, had evacuated to Houston and already set up a number of recovery operations there.  He happened to see Bryan Williams on NBC News Tuesday morning.  Williams was doing a live feed, knee-deep in water at the corner of Canal and Baronne.  Barry looked hard.  He knew the corner well.  It was near the Hibernia Center.

ON THE MOVE: Men wade by / Photo: Alex Mobley

ON THE MOVE: Men wade by / Photo: Alex Mobley

That was the moment I knew we were going to be in very, very serious trouble,” Barry recalled.  “I thought about the doomsday scenario for New Orleans – about how it is a bowl – and realized we were going to see it play out.”


Hebert and others at the center also began to see looting.  They witnessed vandals entering and leaving a pharmacy across the street at Tulane Avenue and Elk Place.  LaCoste noted that “loot was being carried down Elk constantly.”  The building had four stairwells to guard and only three security people.  Faced with leaving one entrance unprotected, Hebert and Spiers simply decided to screw the door shut.

Later, the precaution proved well founded.  He and the guards heard loud banging and voices just inside.  Inching down the stairwell, they spotted four would-be looters who apparently had entered through broken windows.  They had pried open soft drink and snack machines.  Next, they worked over an ATM machine with a sledgehammer.

BLEAK VIEW: Street transformed into river / Photo: Karen Childs

BLEAK VIEW: Street transformed into river / Photo: Karen Childs

One of the guards was armed; the other brandished a cellphone like a gun.  When they yelled, the vandals turned, made threats, but fled.

The ATM was battered but had not been opened.  Casting about for some way to protect it, Hebert decided simply to camouflage the ATM under a pile of storm debris, hiding it in plain sight.

As Tuesday wore on, it became clear that he and the others who had stayed (and their families) were stranded in the building.

Briefly, Hebert turned his attention to the recovery of other damaged buildings that were being reported to him by occasional cellphone calls from his staff.   He and Tommy Doiron, his Baton Rouge regional property manager, a 30-year employee, talked about lining up recovery vendors and suppliers – tree-cutters, carpenters, electricians, restoration specialists – to begin examining damaged offices.  There were 70 branches in hardest hit Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, and each one needed to be visited.

Unfortunately, some first-response vendors, on call to assist, could not be reached or could not help due to their own damages.  Nevertheless, Doiron and others persevered.  By Tuesday evening, they had surveyed some locations and already had made some repairs to a Mandeville office and another in Slidell.

Deteriorating situation

Meanwhile, things were deteriorating at the Hibernia Center.  Up to this point, the team there had adequate water, toilets and auxiliary power — and supposedly enough food for 50; nevertheless, their welfare was becoming more concerning to Hebert.  How long would supplies last?  Even more worrisome was the city’s water system.  If water pressure should drop, he would have to shut down the building.  ­And if that happened, the information technology team somehow would have to evacuate, not something he or the engineers wanted to think about.

ENOUGH FOOD?: makeshift pantry / Photo: Alex Mobley

ENOUGH FOOD?: makeshift pantry / Photo: Alex Mobley

City water was used by the building’s air-conditioning system, which was essential to cool the large computer rooms.  Without water, the AC would fail.  Without AC, the computers would fail.  Without computers, banking services would fail.  Before such a catastrophe occurred, the technology staff would have to create backup tapes of the invaluable data and perform a controlled shutdown of the massive computers.  Somehow, they would have to transport the tapes to Dallas, where a back-up mainframe system waited.  Luckily, the Center had a large water storage tank on the roof, which fed the AC system.  Before the water all ran out, Hebert and the technology team would have a little time to react.Time would be of the essence.  By Tuesday evening, the groups’ worst fear was realized.  City water slowed to a trickle.  The clock was ticking.  Hebert’s best efforts to protect and operate the vital computer center were unraveling.

Wednesday, Aug. 31

Wednesday dawned with grim issues.  Conditions in the city had degraded significantly.  Besides rising floodwater, a power blackout and the loss of city water, lawlessness and looting were on the rise.

Concern about this civil disorder heightened another more immediate worry for Hebert.  For two days, his building had been operating on its new generators.  While the machines were running without a problem, providing electricity for all the systems, they relied on diesel fuel, which was beginning to run low.  Two fuel tanks initially contained 12,000 gallons – enough for several days – but it would not last a full week without re-supply.  Hebert knew he would never be able to persuade a fuel company to send a truck into the besieged city.

He estimated he could shave enough power consumption through the building to stretch the fuel until Saturday, Sept. 3, but probably no longer.  He and Spiers trudged through each floor and shut down noncritical systems – lighting, air-conditioning, office equipment, and computers – everything except systems vital to the mainframe.

Last ditch effort

He also had a last-ditch idea that might keep the AC going without city water.  After all, he was surrounded by a flood.  Although the water was noxious, it might possibly be used in the “chillers” on the roof.

He had a heavy-duty lift pump on one side of the Center intended to keep the basement dry.  It might be coaxed into sucking floodwater from the street up to the rooftop storage tank.  It was a long shot, but he might be able to run the AC with the “nasty, dark green, smelly” liquid until another solution could be devised.

He, Spiers and Ronnie Earhart – exhausted, wet and dirty – went to work.  They hooked up the hose and dangled the suction end into the street.  The pump, however, was itself barely above the flood line.  If the water should rise even a few inches more, the pump motor would drown.  Wading about, Hebert and his helpers worked doggedly for several hours.  Despite their best efforts, the lift-pump just would not “prime” enough to create the suction needed to reach the top of the building.  Frustrated, they finally were forced to give up.

Hebert’s assessment of the situation now was bleak.  He estimated he would have to shut down the air-handlers on Thursday.  It was time to evacuate.

(See Chapter 4 for the extraordinary story about the rescue of men and women trapped in the Hibernia Center.)

[1] In 2004, after hurricane Ivan, when the company came under criticism from employees for waiting too late to close, a set of guiding principles was established for such events.  The Incident Management Team followed these rules closely in subsequent events:  1) Err on the side of conservatism,  2) If the city closes, the bank closes,  3) Update communications hourly,  4) Customers will understand,  5) Encourage managerial autonomy, based on specific circumstances.

One thought on “3. Hibernia Center: Key to the bank

  1. 15 years later, Steve Hebert is at it again, this time helping out the folks in Lake Charles with IBERIABANK, (recently acquired by First Horizon.) What is it about Louisiana banks getting bought and hurricanes?

    Thanks again Steve, for 2005 and again in 2020 !!!!

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