Joe Monaghan was a compact, sturdy man of 50. Though he had been superintendent of Hibernia’s Main Office Building for only three and a half years, he had a deep appreciation for the honorable history of the 1921 structure with its iconic tower.
Over the decades, that cupola became a well-known symbol. It shone like a beacon throughout the city at night. It was usually white, but colors were added for important holidays. The building often was referred to by locals simply as “the Tower” because of its distinctive appearance.
Some wags liked to say the Hibernia Tower had saved lives on nearby Bourbon Street in the famous French Quarter. The brilliant white beacon is visible all the way down that “street of pleasure” and if revelers ever became directionally challenged, they could always find their way out by walking (or stumbling, or crawling) toward the light.
Older New Orleanians spoke fondly of how as children they were taken to the top of the Tower, which featured an observation platform. That was closed to the public in 1970, and thereafter only an occasional visitor was offered a trip in the dome’s claustrophobic elevator. Monaghan and his maintenance staff were the ones who escorted these VIPs and they were the ones who maintained the floodlights that made the Tower so distinctive.
In the 1930s, the Hibernia Tower was the tallest building in the city. It served as an official navigation beacon for shipping on the Mississippi, and it housed the city’s first television station, WDSU, in 1948. Over the years, the building had been home to prominent local firms that leased space on its upper floors. In 2005, the venerable building was nestled among much taller and more modern structures, but its unusual Tower still set Hibernia’s Main Office Building apart. At 27 stories, it encompassed 233,000 square feet and was home to about 500 people during the day. For Monaghan and his crew of eight, it was home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Monaghan and his wife, Joette, live in Metairie where their home suffered some flood and roof damage. Married 29 years, the couple had two daughters, 19 and 24. He evacuated to Lake Charles, Houston and Baton Rouge.
He was one of the earliest to return to the headquarters building, to see what needed to be done to recover it. His team of engineers were the caretakers of the building, nursing her old systems, keeping her heated and air conditioned, maintaining her stately appearance, changing the colors in the 48 lamps that illuminated the Tower each night.
The engineers operated from the building’s basement, where massive pumps, engines, electrical switchboxes and boilers resided. After the storm, much of this equipment had to be replaced.
The basement also housed the bank’s large money vault, which included areas for safe deposit boxes and trust assets. Unknown to most, the basement also contained a currency counting area, where millions of dollars of cash and coin were sorted, packaged and shipped to the nearby Federal Reserve Bank. Well-guarded and highly secure, this “central money vault” often handled as much as $35 million in a day. These basement features would prove the Achilles heel of the building as Katrina and the flood savaged the city.
First to see it?
Chad Kannady, 28, was one of the first people to see the condition of the Tower after the storm and flood. He was a broker in Hibernia’s retail investments area in Bunkie, LA, where he and his wife, Cary, and two sons lived. He also was a sergeant in the 1086th Transportation Co., part of the 165th Quartermaster Battalion of the Louisiana National Guard.
His unit was mobilized on the eve of Katrina and Kannady spent many weeks in New Orleans on guard duty, street patrols, rescue missions, Superdome duty and clean-up.
One day, his team was driving passed the Hibernia Tower. He asked the driver to stop and he jumped out while a buddy snapped his picture. His boots were covered in smelly water as he stood on the sidewalk. During this time, the city was “apocalyptic,” he recalled. Among his team’s duties, was to deal with bodies found in the streets and buildings. When that happened, “It really messed me up,” Kannady recalled. He went back home in October, was deactivated briefly, then re-mobilized until mid-December, returning to New Orleans for security missions and to help draft a “hazard mitigation plan.” (In January 2006, he learned that his position at Hibernia was being eliminated in a downsizing, and he went to work for another brokerage.)
Monaghan began to be deeply concerned about the building on Saturday, Aug. 27, as the storm track continued to move westward.
“This storm was very powerful, and we felt this one could hurt us,” he said. “We made sure we had diesel fuel for the generators. We made sure our roof drains were clean, that our equipment was in working order, and then we decided if we were going to stay at the building or evacuate.”
Because Katrina was building to Category 5 strength, “and since it was so close,” Monaghan and his superiors decided the engineers should leave after sandbagging the doors Sunday afternoon.
In the ensuing rampage, the building initially held up well. Some windows blew out on upper floors. The emergency generator kicked on, providing power to other systems as the electrical grid failed. Rain and floodwater inevitably found its way into the basement, but emergency pumps flushed it away for a time. Then the city water system lost pressure and this became the nemesis of Hibernia’s emergency back-up systems.
Inside the handsome dome 375 feet in the air sat a 10,000-gallon water tank that, using gravity, fed all the freshwater systems in the building. That tank was filled by a brawny “lift pump” that pulled city water from street level. The water-cooled emergency generator depended on this to operate. As city water pressure slowly dribbled away, the tower tank emptied. Eventually, there was not enough to cool the generator, which overheated and stalled. Without power, the pumps stopped and the basement began to fill.
Muddy, contaminated floodwater drenched systems. The building went dark, and its life systems – electricity, fresh water and plumbing – failed about Wednesday, Aug. 31. Monaghan knew that because one of his staff, Keith Alex, was able to get into the building the day before. “The generator was running, the sump pumps were keeping the water out and there was three feet of water in the street.” There was only about an inch in the basement. Because the equipment ran so long, the building fared better than many others nearby. The basement only filled to five feet, while others in the area were swamped with as much as 11-12 feet.
‘Like a war zone’
Monaghan was able to re-enter the building for the first time a week later, on Thursday, Sept. 8. “The city looked like a war zone … like downtown Bosnia. There were collapsed buildings in the street. There was debris everywhere. There was an oil slick around the city, and the thing I remember most was the smell. That smell made Bourbon Street on a bad day smell good.” Inside the building, it was hot and dark.
There were security concerns with reports of looting and sniper fire playing large in the press. Hibernia hired a crack security team of former Navy SEALS and other ex-military special forces. That team initially swept the building from top to bottom, with some dropping from helicopters onto the Tower, moving down from floor to floor to join others coming up from the bottom.
Monaghan had a heavily armed bodyguard the first few days in the building, a precaution against possible looters. Outside, there was the “constant buzz of helicopters” as his staff opened the service elevator and set up three seven-inch pumps to draw water from the basement. It took two days.
Like everyone else, Monaghan had trouble finding and communicating with his workers. They had fled, often to family in distant places. One was in Florida, another in California, a third in Arkansas. Dax Misner, 38, was the first member of his staff who got back. He spent a lot of time scoping out damage to drowned electrical circuits, hoofing it around the building (no elevators worked) to determine damage to offices, windows, equipment and the like.
A little later, he was joined by Henry Steudlein, 67, the building’s beloved carpenter and “jack of all trades.” One of Steudlein’s first tasks was to replace the 55 broken windows and to repair wind and rain damage inside exposed offices.
In the basement, the sights that greeted Monaghan, Misner and Steudlein were grim. “You could see things floating, and the smell was ungodly,” said Monaghan. “It was quiet — extremely, eerily quiet.” His bodyguard wore a silver chain around his neck, which turned black in the noxious air.
“The first assessment of the basement was that everything was destroyed … the chillers, the electrical panels, the boilers … electronic control panels were just completely inundated with water … and everything was total darkness.”
Safe deposit vault
From the engine room, Monaghan’s people moved to the vault. “There was some question as to whether water got into it. Of course you could see the waterline pretty well on the outside … When it was first opened, there was an out-rush of water … We knew at that point.” There were 3,800 safe deposit boxes inside. The lower ones had been inundated and were now filled with dirty, foul-smelling liquid.
The cleanup began almost immediately with a service crew of about 40 workers to vacuum, pressure wash and sanitize the basement. Portable air conditioners were installed to make the air breathable and reduce the sweltering temperature a few degrees.
In addition, a parking lot behind the bank was full of debris and covered with a greasy slick, probably fuel oil spilled from a ruptured tank nearby. This parking area alone required three steam cleanings, and the entire lower part of the building exterior had to be cleaned of the greasy flood residue as well.
Interestingly, although the basement was a calamity, the building’s first floor bank lobby, a magnificent example of neo-classical design, was pristine. Not only did it sustain no damage, there was no sign that looters ever attempted to break in. “I was amazed that we didn’t get looted,” Monaghan recalled, “but after I saw the guards we had … nobody was going to loot this place.”
Relighting the Tower
Even before electricity was restored to the city, the bank’s leaders wanted to relight the famous Tower as a symbol of hope. Monaghan’s first reaction was, “Sure, we can go up there with a couple of flashlights and stand around at night.” Then, he and his men took up the task. They understood the importance of giving the people in a darkened city the familiar Tower of light.
“We set a date … and then made it.” A contractor, Frischhertz Electric, supplied an auxiliary generator and heavy cable. No elevators were working, so Monaghan, helped by Misner and electricians, hauled the thick cable up 24 flights of stairs, to connect the generator on the ground to the 48 floodlights that illuminated the dome.
‘Pulling me back down’
“On the 21st floor, the cable was pulling me back down … I wrapped a rope around myself and around a door handle. All of a sudden I heard something … and the door was about to come off its hinges. I grabbed my cellphone.” Answering his call, Misner ran up the stairs to keep his boss from going over the rail.
The cable weighing over 400 pounds was “wrapped around banister posts every few floors, but it was still tremendously heavy.” After it was hooked up, the big floodlights had to be serviced, a high-level job that went to Misner.
When the tired crew flipped the switch around 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 14, it caused a stir. The next day, newspapers around the country published a photograph taken by Los Angeles Times news photographer Rick Loomis, who was in New Orleans covering the disaster.
Headlines called it a “Beacon of Hope.”
“I was very proud to see the Tower lit. It was an incredible feeling,” remembered payroll manager Yvette Soniat. Monaghan and his men also were pleased.
“Lighting the Tower and then reopening the building on Oct. 31 are things I am proudest of,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘Thank you’.”
This account draws on an essay Joe Monaghan wrote for his communications class at Phoenix University about post-Katrina New Orleans.