4. Life rafts, helicopters to the rescue

As early as the Saturday before the storm, Ron Samford, chief administrative officer, had asked the Incident Management Team to develop a contingency plan for transporting the Hibernia Center’s “stay team” out of New Orleans, if it became necessary.  Walter Walker pointed out that, theoretically, there were only three ways:  By boat, by helicopter or by amphibious vehicle.  By Tuesday, their worst fears were materializing, with the computer engineers and their families becoming stranded in the flooded city.

BEN GAUTREAUX: He organized helicopter rescue / Photo: Russ Hoadley

BEN GAUTREAUX: He organized helicopter rescue / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Ben Gautreaux, Hibernia’s technology risk manager, had relocated to the recovery command center in Shreveport before the storm, and already was plotting how to rescue the employees and important data tapes they would being carrying when they shut down the mainframe.

He decided on helicopters.  But where would he find them?

The 30-year banker was a true son of Louisiana’s Cajun heartland. He came to Hibernia from the Acadiana area, after serving as chief operations executive at Argent Bank before it merged with Hibernia in 1998.  Geautraux and his wife, Linda, had been married 28 years and the couple had two children, 23 and 18. They lived in Scheiver, LA, and evacuated first to Lafayette and then Shreveport.

Until the levees broke, the disaster plan Gautreaux and Greg Stelly, his chief lieutenant, had implemented was right on target.  Now, with the situation deteriorating at the operations center, rescuing the nearly three dozen people trapped there had become their most urgent issue.

Any available commercial helicopters were already pressed into recovery work, pulling crews off battered oil rigs in the Gulf.  Military aircraft, if anything, were even more slammed, rescuing stranded people off rooftops.  Finding even one helicopter was not going to be easy.

Calling on old friends

For Gautreaux, 51, it was just natural to go back to his roots.  He remembered old friends of the bank back in the Houma and Thibodaux area he called home.  He reached Brian Cheramie, an official of SEACOR[1], an offshore service company.  Unfortunately, Cheramie didn’t have any helicopters available, but he knew someone else who might.  That led Gautreaux to Jerry Umfeet, of ERA helicopters, another Hibernia customer.  “Jerry put his fleet on hold for us,” Gautreaux recalled.  “He had oil rigs to service, but he was willing to help Hibernia out.”

Wednesday, Aug. 31

The recovery chief worked with Steve Hebert, head of property management, who was in the building.  Fighting spotty communications, they set up a rescue.  They had to decide when and how to leave the building, a situation complicated now that they had the safety of 34 men, women and children (plus two dogs) to consider.  The first thing to figure out was where to land the helicopters.  The roof of the Hibernia Center was ruled out.  It could not bear the weight of the aircraft.

When Hebert heard this, he went out and scouted other buildings nearby.  He saw helicopters evacuating patients from a parking garage at Tulane Hospital Medical Center, about two blocks away.  Maybe he also could use it.  But how would he get the people over there, across a sea of contaminated floodwater?

Gautreaux had an idea.  He went back to Cheramie and asked whether his company also could provide life rafts.  The answer came back “yes.”  Because they serviced offshore oil rigs, they had to carry survival rafts.

Rescue takes shape

HELIPAD: Choppers spotted at Tulane Hospital / Photo: Alex Mobley

HELIPAD: Choppers spotted at Tulane Hospital / Photo: Alex Mobley

So, a rescue began to take shape.  Helicopters would drop three large rafts onto the roof of the Hibernia Center.  Hebert and some of the other men in the building would carry the heavy canisters down the stairwell, wade outside and inflate them.  Then the stranded employees and their families — carrying the all-important computer tapes — would climb aboard.  Some of the men volunteered to wade down the street, towing the rafts to the parking garage.

But first, they had to obtain permission to land on the Tulane building.  Try as he might, Gautreaux could not reach anyone in charge, either at Tulane or any emergency coordination center.  He appealed to Herb Boydstun, Hibernia’s CEO, to try to reach Scott Cowen, Tulane’s president, or state officials, but Boydstun also could not get through. Even when phones connected, which was not often, no one answered.

Finally, Hebert decided just to wade down Loyola Avenue to the medical center.  There he climbed the stairs and found Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries officers supervising patient evacuations.  They told him landings on the garage roof had to be authorized by an official who was stationed at City Hall.  No one could reach him from the roof.

So Hebert next slogged down Loyola to City Hall, usually a 10-minute walk.  It took him about two hours to make the roundtrip as he felt his way carefully along the broken pavement, sometimes slipping to his chin in filthy water and rubbing blisters on his feet.  He eventually found the air traffic control official who gave him a go-ahead.

Around 5 p.m., Hebert, Spiers and others were ready to begin.  Gautreaux briefed them during a teleconference they somehow managed to hook-up.  Some would ride in the life rafts to the medical center garage.  Others would wade.  They would have only one chance before nightfall, but if there were no delays, they could carry it off.

ALL LOADED: Paul LaCoste holds life raft   outside Hibernia Center / Photo: Bruce Martin

ALL LOADED: Paul LaCoste holds life raft outside Hibernia Center / Photo: Bruce Martin

UNDER WAY: Hieu Luong tows raft  / Photo: Bruce Martin

UNDER WAY: Hieu Luong tows raft / Photo: Bruce Martin

The computer tapes containing many terabytes of data were boxed, then wrapped in improvised plastic bags.  These trash bags contained practically every bit of information on all the bank’s customers. The backup mainframe computer was waiting in Dallas, but it would stand idle without the data.

One focus: Rescue the people

In spite of the urgency surrounding the data, Gautreaux never let the team forget their primary mission — to rescue the people.  He insisted that every single individual be accounted for from start to finish before any discussion related to the tapes.

As darkness approached, they started.  Volunteers Paul LaCoste, Hieu Luong and Alex Mobley loaded the rafts, carrying some of the children to them.  Most of the other men waded.  LaCoste, Luong and Mobley pulled the rafts with their precious cargo through the flooded streets — past other evacuees, past military troops, past waterlogged cars.

Hebert stayed behind with Spiers to shut down the building’s systems.  They methodically secured every outside door, driving large screws into the frames.

Meanwhile in Shreveport, Gautreaux gave the helicopters the go-ahead.  The flight to New Orleans from Houma was supposed to be only 15 minutes.

But things happen.  When the group arrived at the parking garage and ran to the roof, some “heavily armed Tulane security” stopped them, LaCoste recalled.  The wet and beleaguered band waited and watched, hoping they soon would be whisked away from all of this – to safety, to a hot shower, a decent meal and blessed rest.  The tapes would wing their way by chartered jet to Dallas.

WAITING: Wet family members search the sky / Photo: Bruce Martin

WAITING: Wet family members search the sky / Photo: Bruce Martin

Everything was poised for the lift-off.  Boydstun and others around the company who were aware of the unfolding drama waited anxiously.

The choppers are waved off

Recollections differed about what happened next.  LaCoste thought that they were told by someone from Tulane that a helicopter for them landed around 5:30 but then left.

Gautreaux and Hebert understood that someone on the rooftop waved them away.  With no way to communicate directly, the pilots didn’t know what to do, so they returned to Houma empty handed.  Some of the stranded people thought the helicopters turned away because snipers made landing too risky.  They could hear shots, but no one knew where the gunfire was coming from.

Later, Gautreaux concluded that the wave-off was simply a failure in communications.  He thought someone in charge of hospital evacuation probably signaled the helicopter that there were no more patients to be airlifted that night, not realizing the helicopters were coming for Hibernia’s people.

ANNA MOBLEY: When will they land? / Photo: Bruce Martin

ANNA MOBLEY: When will they land? / Photo: Bruce Martin

No rescue until morning

When the empty aircraft returned to its base, Gautreaux was shaken.  By now, it was too dark for another attempt.  There were too many wires and other aerial obstacles for the choppers to negotiate a landing in the dark city.  They would have to wait until morning.  “That was the longest night of my life.  It broke my heart.”

No return possible

Meanwhile, the stranded group had a difficult situation — They could not go back to the Hibernia Center.  The building had been tightly secured and all of its life-support systems had been shut down.  Hebert tried to negotiate for some space for them inside the medical complex, but conditions there, if anything, were worse than in the garage.  The realization came gradually that they might be stuck there for the night.

Bad as that sounded, at first, it looked like it might get even worse. Tulane Hospital guards told them it was too risky for them to stay and that they would have to go somewhere else.

Hebert dug in.  He explained what was happening to his people, about his crippled building, about the women, including one who was pregnant, and the children, and the pets.  They had to stay.  They had to stay because this was where they would be rescued.

The guards relented.  They said it would be OK if the group would move off the roof and go down to a lower floor.

MAKING DO: Jordan Martin asleep on  garage floor / Photo: Bruce Martin

MAKING DO: Jordan Martin asleep on garage floor / Photo: Bruce Martin

Absolutely stranded

It was not an easy time.  Some members of the group were naturally upset.  And like Hebert, now virtually everyone was wet and dirty from wading or riding in the rafts.  No one had anything to sleep on.  And there was almost no food or water, except for a few snacks a few happened to bring along.

They had to beg for water and someone at the garage gave them a few week-old donuts, remembered LaCoste.

Worst of all perhaps, there was no bathroom.  Hebert went into the hospital and tried to negotiate for water, for use of a restroom or at least for some toilet paper.  He bartered his own labor by helping unload a supply truck.  And in return obtained five gallons of drinking water.  But, the hospital was adamant about the bathroom.  There weren’t any available, Hebert was told.  No toilet paper, either.

If this wasn’t trouble enough, in the back of everyone’s mind was the fear of looters.  They were warned by Tulane security not to used flashlights because it might attract them.  How were they going to protect themselves, or for that matter, the tapes?  They felt absolutely stranded.

Making do

Resigned to a bleak night, they set to work to “made do.”  They made themselves as comfortable as possible and shared what they had to eat or drink.  Some talked quietly, others tried to sleep.

Where to relief themselves was left mostly to individual discretion, LaCoste recalled.  They went off to other areas in the garage.  “We all lost our modesty that night,” Hebert said.  “It was a weird night.  Everyone was so good.  We never felt threatened.  The kids were fine.  The baby cried a few times.  They were all troopers.”

Recalled LaCoste, “We didn’t know if other helicopters were coming or when, until cellphones worked around midnight.”  Gautreaux was able to get through and tell them the choppers would be back first thing in the morning.

Through the dark hours, Hebert’s thoughts ranged over the last few days’ events.  He was not sure what dawn would bring.  About 3 a.m., he walked up to the roof.  Looking across the forlorn city, he saw the glow of small fires.  He heard the occasional pock-pock of gunfire, and somewhere nearby, loud rap music.  “It was surreal.”

MAJ. CINDY HAYGOOD: Hibernia manager is key to the lock / Photo: Cindy Haygood

MAJ. CINDY HAYGOOD: Hibernia manager is key to the lock / Photo: Cindy Haygood

The National Guard comes through

Meanwhile, Gautreaux was a man possessed – consumed with a single mission – to get his people off that building.  Working through the night, he negotiated for the helicopters to go again, knowing they were sacrificing other urgent work.

And through his boss, Bart Bragg, he reached out for help from another Hibernia employee, Cindy Haygood, who was a sales manager at the bank’s Baton Rouge call center.

What Gautreaux and Bragg knew was that Cindy was also Major Haygood, the executive officer of the 769th Engineers Battalion of the Louisiana National Guard.  Her unit, in Baton Rouge, had been activated for the storm.

While Haygood had been with Hibernia 10 years, her military career spanned 18 years, as had that of her husband, Bill, who also was a Major, assigned to the U.S. Army 61st Troop Command in Baton Rouge.  The couple met at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, and had two young daughters.  They lived in Gonzales where their home later sustained damage during Rita.

Haygood’s battalion was a unit of 600 “combat heavy” engineers.  As XO, her job was to coordinate logistics for the unit, now deployed to New Orleans.  When Bragg finally got through to her, he asked if she could help.

Yes, indeed, she thought she could.  “I was near the flight line when Bart called, and I went out to ask,” she recalled.  As luck would have it, the flight officer she talked to once also had worked for Hibernia.  He gave Haygood permission for Gautreaux’ helicopters to re-enter city airspace, which was now under military control.  Then she requested the 244th Aviation unit that was doing rescue missions to provide a backup flight for the Hibernia evacuees, if the company’s second attempt failed.

Haygood later remembered that night Bragg called.  “Those first five days, none of us had much sleep.  We were working 20-21 hours a day.”  Despite all of that, she had provided the key to lock for her stranded Hibernia colleagues.

READY TO BOARD: Ordeal almost over / Photo: Bruce Martin

READY TO BOARD: Ordeal almost over / Photo: Bruce Martin

With dawn comes hope

As dawn arrived Thursday, Hebert gathered everyone together.  He had confirmation the second rescue attempt was underway.  He wanted the people to stay in family groups as they boarded the aircraft.

Then, two helicopters dropped down around 7:30 a.m.  Bragg recalled later how hard it was for the pilots to find the right building.  He said Gautreaux was “instrumental in getting the helicopters lined up, working with the folks figuring out how to tell the helicopters how to get in, looking at aerial photos and guiding the helicopters.”

The employees and their families boarded first.  It looked like it would take four round trips to rescue everyone.  On the next to last trip, the computer tapes were loaded and the remainder of the group began to pile in.

One seat short

As they buckled up, however, they were one seat short.  Someone would have to stay behind.

Hebert stepped back.  As he watched the helicopters lift off, he sank into a discarded chair on the roof.  Oblivious to the wet, dirty clothes he had been living in for three days, oblivious to his blistered feet, he gratefully fell asleep.  About an hour later, one of the helicopters returned.

ABOARD AT LAST

ABOARD AT LAST

On to Dallas

Gautreaux had arranged a welcome for the people and tapes in Houma.  The local bank managers – Laura Mathieu and Hugh Hamilton – opened their homes for showers and meals.  Greg Stock, administrator of the regional hospital in Thibodeaux and a Hibernia customer, offered medical checkups and shots for the rescued group.

The systems experts took advantage of the medical care, but were anxious to get to Dallas as quickly as they could.  They boarded jets that were chartered for the final leg.  Once there, they rushed the tapes to waiting colleagues who began the painstaking work of recovering the data and bringing up systems.  However, that was not the end of the story for the evacuees.  The planes were met in Dallas by more Hibernia executives – John Laing, Kay St. John and Paul Craig.  

LAST LOOK: Karen Childs and grandson

LAST LOOK: Karen Childs and grandson

“Boy that was sad,” St. John recalled.  “They had only the things on their backs and had been given some personal items.”  One man was “asking how to get his wife from Alabama.  You could tell they were all in shock,” she said.

Hebert finally gets home

Hebert caught up with the others in Houma and went through the medical checkup, but the over-taxed hospital now was out of vaccine.  Never mind.

His steadfast assistant, Tommy Doiron, had been waiting to drive him to St. Francisville, where Hebert’s wife, Judy, waited.  Another colleague, Conrad Bujard, had been keeping Judy up-to-date on her husband’s odyssey.  When Hebert stepped out of the car, she hugged him … and then stepped back.  “Wow, do you stink!” she declared.

BIG SMILE

BIG SMILE

Soon, he stepped into a shower. “I must have stayed … for 30 minutes.” Then had a bite to eat and fell into a hotel bed for a much-deserved rest.  Friday morning, when he woke up, he found he was in a different room.  “I swear I don’t even remember it.  They must have just walked me there.  I got up in the morning and I go walk outside.  I say, ‘Why did I park down there?  Why is my car down there?’  I go wake up Judy, and she says, ‘That’s where we were.’  They moved us during the night (because of a double-booking), and I didn’t remember any of it.”

Returning for deposits

Hebert’s R&R was brief.  He returned to work that morning in Baton Rouge, ready to get on with assessing the branch damage and on how to re-open the Hibernia Center.  When Saturday arrived, with a police escort, he returned to New Orleans.  His mission was to get into the first-floor mailroom at the Center and retrieve mailbags full of deposits that had been left behind.  But it was no use.  The water was too deep for their cars.  “It was a total waste of time.”

In the days that followed, he tried again, this time by airboat.  “I had two Louisiana state police and two Georgia state police.  They had rifles and were loading them, and they had pistols everywhere.  When they handed me a pistol, I said, ‘What do you want me to do with that?  If they get past you four, they’ve got it made with me’!”

WHAT THEY SAW: Water everywhere / Photo: Alex Mobley

WHAT THEY SAW: Water everywhere / Photo: Alex Mobley

When he arrived at the building, he could not open the doors that he had screwed shut a few days before.  He also had trouble dislodging a small bulletproof-glass window into the mailroom itself.

“Finally, we broke in, I climbed through and there was still water 4½ feet deep.”

15 pouches of checks

Searching in the dark, dank room, he found the bags right where Darrell Dragon, head of deposit operations, told him they would be.  Gradually he brought out about 15 plastic pouches full of checks – millions of dollars worth – and drove them back to Baton Rouge in a rental truck where he turned them over to Dragon’s staff for processing.

After that first return trip, Hebert made more by airboat, in an effort to get the building’s generators re-started when city water[2] began to flow again.  The building remained flooded, but the level was subsiding from its earlier 5-foot high water mark.

Eventually, with replacement batteries, he was able to start the generators.  “That was all we were after.”  Then Hebert made his way to the Main Office on Carondelet Street “to try and assess what damage we had there.”

Special guards

By this time, the company had hired a contingent of 12 high-security guards who had extensive military, police and security experience.  For several weeks, they provided 24-hour protection at the Main Office, another building at 225 Baronne Street where support offices and two collateral-asset vaults were located, and at the Hibernia Center.  Heavily armed, some with SWAT training, “They did a fantastic job for us,” Hebert said.

*  *  *

Ben Gautreaux wrote a recollection of the rescue, from which this account draws extensively.

[1] SEACOR Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: CKH) is a global provider of marine support and transportation services, primarily to the energy and chemical industries.  www.erahelicopters.com

[2] In the summer of 2006, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans issued a water quality report, which said in part: “Hurricane Katrina’s flooding shut down the Sewerage and Water Board’s East Bank Water Treatment Plant for a few days – the first time in the 103-year history of the Board that the entire plant was out of operation.  The shutdown occurred when the Board’s power plant flooded and the commercial power network was crippled by wind and fallen trees.”

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