6. Paying the piper

HARD ACCESS: Water, debris, city lock-down / Photo: Unknown

HARD ACCESS: Water, debris, city lock-down / Photo: Unknown

As soon as the skies cleared — long before the flood had subsided — Hibernia’s leaders were desperate to find out how badly their offices and ATMs were damaged.  They were worried about how high the repairs would be, how much they would have to pay the piper.  This was more important than usual because the repair bill might affect their pending merger with Capital One.

With roads and highways flooded or tangled in debris — and the area “locked down” by police and military — it was almost impossible to find out.  The earliest reports came from two executives who rode out the storm in their homes and from beleagured system engineers trapped in the company’s New Orleans operations center.

FORLORN SCENE: How much office damage? / Photo: La. National Guard

FORLORN SCENE: How much office damage? / Photo: La. National Guard

Kyle Waters started riding his bicycle around Jefferson Parish near his home Monday afternoon as Katrina headed north.  What he saw was better than he expected.  While his wife had evacuated to Baton Rouge, Waters stayed at their home near the badly damaged 17th Street canal, and was able to provide firsthand reports about bank office damage and city conditioAns.

A native New Orleanian, Waters, 54, was one of Hibernia’s most seasoned executives, with 32 years in banking.  He was chief consumer and business banking officer for Louisiana, responsible for all retail banking in the state.  He and his wife, Cookie, had two children, 22 and 26, and lived in Metairie, LA.  Recognized as a versatile and creative manager, over the years he had taken on many assignments and served in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

‘I shouldn’t have stayed’

“I’ve always preferred to stay with my property,” he recalled, but when he watched the storm grow to Category 5 Saturday night, he had second thoughts.  He walked a few blocks to his in-laws’ nearby 7th-floor condo, believing their building was safer.  “I shouldn’t have stayed,” he conceded.  Around 1:30 a.m., Monday, electricity and water went out.  As the storm roared in, the wind was so fierce he went to a third-floor area on the more-sheltered south side of the building.  By 11:30 a.m., Monday, the worst seemed over.  Waters thought he could walk back to his own condo.  On the way, he saw fallen trees, but no power lines down.

KYLE WATERS: Saw damage first hand / Photo: Donn Young

KYLE WATERS: Saw damage first hand / Photo: Donn Young

“My condo was standing, just west of the 17th Street canal.  I didn’t know it, but I was on an island in a problem area.”  He spent Monday night there, filling the bathtub with water, but he had no phone or power.  Tuesday morning dawned bright and clear, as it often does after a storm.  There were rumors that New Orleans levees were caving in and flooding neighborhoods.  But nothing was confirmed.

Riding his bike

Waters rode his bike along Veterans Boulevard, checking bank offices along the way.  “They were not too bad,” he recalled.  At the intersection of Causeway and Veterans boulevards, he encountered “a lake, about a foot high.”  He pushed his bike through, getting into about two feet, and made it to another Hibernia branch.  There he found about three feet of water in the street and he discovered someone had tried to loot the ATM, without success.

Nearby in Fat City, a Metairie entertainment district, he was surprised to see smoke rising, and he yelped involuntarily when a school of fish swam by in the street, and one brushed by his leg.  “They scared the carp out of me,” he laughed.

GUARDSMEN SET UP: Truckloads of supplies brought in / Photo: Chad Kannady

GUARDSMEN SET UP: Truckloads of supplies brought in / Photo: Chad Kannady

‘Pure despair’ in her eyes

Next, he cycled to the Causeway branch, noticing National Guardsmen setting up an outpost on the south side of the overpass crossing Veterans Boulevard.  When he reached the bank, he encountered an Asian family huddled in a car, wet clothing draped on the hood and fenders to dry.

Around the corner, he stopped abruptly.  A young African-American woman, sat there in tears, breast-feeding her infant.   He saw no sign that she had any food, baby supplies, clothing or transportation.  “Are you all right?” he asked.  Her eyes “stared back in pure despair.”  It was a stark moment.  He wanted to help her with something – supplies, money, water, anything – but he had nothing to give.

Shaken, he rode on, checking the homes of fellow employees who lived nearby – John Morton, Ann Francis, Bob Tusa, Deb Connelly.  Eventually he returned home, nursing a stubbed toe.  He sent voicemails to associates about all that he had seen.  For company officials, it was the first reliable eyewitness report of conditions.

Later, Waters ventured out again and saw something troubling.  Floodwater now was flowing down Metairie Road – high ground that follows a natural ridge, but he did not know why.  “I still thought I was safe, and I stuck it out through Tuesday evening,” he recalled.  He bathed in his building’s swimming pool.  It was a beautiful night, he thought, but about 11:30 p.m., he received an anxious call from his wife.

“You have to get out. The 17th Street canal is breached,”  Cookie told him.

SEVERE BREACH: 17th Street / Photo: NOLA.com

SEVERE BREACH: 17th Street / Photo: NOLA.com

Car trouble

The couple’s condo was only a block or so from this canal.  “I could see the water starting to rise, and I was concerned that I would not be able to leave if I stayed too long.”  Waters decided to load his new car and drive out while he could.

Then – with no streetlights – he took a wrong turn and drove right into three feet of water on a nearby street.  “This can’t be happening,” he thought, and made his next mistake.

Instinctively, he hit the accelerator.  The car spurted forward and died.  Now, “totally embarrassed,” he could not abandon his swamped auto.  Wading out, he pushed the vehicle to the side of the road, closed the door and carried his suitcase on his shoulder back to his condo.  There, he was able to use a friend’s car, and left more carefully the second time.

As he drove onto I-10 about midnight, he saw helicopters landing on the highway and flying away in a steady pattern, ferrying evacuees from a makeshift checkpoint.  State police stopped him, only 10 feet from a helicopter’s whirring rotors.  Blinding floodlights bathed the area.  They let him pass and Waters eventually made it to Baton Rouge, connected with the rest of the executive team and provided valuable early information about conditions he had witnessed.

TOMMY DOIRON: Assessed building damage / Photo: Russ Hoadley

TOMMY DOIRON: Assessed building damage / Photo: Russ Hoadley

Assessing the damage

Almost immediately after the storm, Tommy Doiron put together a list of damaged offices in the area, an astonishing 130 buildings in all.  It was a remarkable feat considering how hard it was to reach some of the banks and how little help was available to prepare estimates.  Sometimes he reached the locations so early that he beat the police or other first responders.

Doiron, 50, had been with Hibernia for 30 years and was the regional property manager headquartered in Baton Rouge.  Married 34 years, he and his wife Katrina, had two daughters, 15 and 18.  Living in Baton Rouge, Doiron and his family had no need to evacuate.  (Yes, they thought it was funny that the storm and she shared the same name.  “I won’t have any trouble remembering,” he chuckled.)

He and his staff began making field assessments of all the branches, which made him one of the first Hibernia people to comprehend the full extent the devastation.

A hot tip

Doiron was the right man for the job.  Detailed, meticulous and experienced, he has been part of Hibernia’s property management department, mainly in Baton Rouge, for 30 years, almost as long as he has been married to Katrina.  The week before the storm, Doiron had called his boss, Steve Hebert, to report what his nephew, a U.S. Weather Service meteorologist, was telling him.  There was a good chance the hurricane might come their way, and it was going to be big.

Friday before Katrina, he and his staff in Baton Rouge began to prepare.  They made sure computers were turned off and covered with plastic bags.  He sent some of his nine-person crew home for a little time off, knowing the next few days could be hard.  Doiron felt he knew how to prepare for a storm.  He had seen many in his years at the bank, including Andrew,[1] a major 1992 storm that devastated parts of south Florida and south-central Louisiana.

He stayed in touch by cellphone and two-way radio with Hebert, who was trapped in New Orleans.  When the storm hit, it “didn’t dawn on me” that it was as severe as it turned out to be.  Then Doiron began to hear reports that 80% of the city was flooded.

CAN'T GET THERE: Tommy Doiron and staff could not reach all branches / Photo: La. National Guard

CAN’T GET THERE: Tommy Doiron and staff could not reach all branches / Photo: La. National Guard

Tuesday and Wednesday after the storm, he and his people were on the road, their mission to assess damage.  He visited more than 20 offices in person and remembered many times he could only travel 15-20 m.p.h. because trees, electric wires, utility poles and debris choked roads.  He started by checking less-damaged areas like Madisonville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and Bogalusa and Folsom.  Then he moved in to Slidell and Covington where things got worse.

If offices had no electricity and suffered only minor damage, he directed the installation of auxiliary generators he had stockpiled.  He especially remembered Mike Smith, who got nicknamed “gas man.”  Doiron had acquired a fuel truck for the bank and Smith drove it from Baton Rouge every few days to deliver diesel fuel to each of the locations for the generators.   “Mike drove all over the place,” Doiron recalled.

WESTBANK: General DeGaulle office / Photo: Tommy Doiron

WESTBANK: General DeGaulle office / Photo: Tommy Doiron

Devastation hits home

As Doiron made his way into New Orleans, the city’s ugly reality set in.  An office on the West Bank seemed badly damaged, but it was just a preview.  The office across from the Superdome had been vandalized.  Mold was growing up the walls.  At another, besides mold, he found water and sludge.  A location in eastern New Orleans was swamped in three feet of water.  As he drove down I-10, he was amazed to see dead fish on the highway.

He worked his way down to St. Bernard Parish.  There he found a key branch “blown out.”  Another location was full of mud.  Furniture was washed out into the parking lot.  He saw a truck hanging from a tree, and boats and houses washed into the middle of streets.

TRUCK IN TREE: Strange sight in Plaquemines parish / Photo: USGS

TRUCK IN TREE: Strange sight in Plaquemines parish / Photo: USGS

After he and others finished these initial inspections, Doiron coordinated contractors – various early responders, water and mold cleaners, debris-removal crews, tree-cutters, electricians and carpenters.  He worked closely with branch office people – Kyle Waters and others – to figure out how to remove money from the vaults.  They also had to worry about safe deposit boxes, valuable papers and records and lost or damaged work-in-process, all left behind before the storm.

It was exhausting.  “We could not be tired those first weeks,” he recalled.  Every morning he was up at dawn.  His 15-year-old daughter would outfit him with a cooler of drinks, ice and snacks, knowing he would live and work out of his truck all day and into the night.  Eventually, property management crews got every bank functioning that could be repaired.  In some cases, they were even ahead of branch employees’ ability to re-staff and re-open.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We could not be tired those first few weeks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

MIDCITY: Interior of New Orleans office / Photo: Tomy Doiron

MIDCITY: Interior of New Orleans office / Photo: Tomy Doiron

Some locations were a total loss, and a few, while repairable, were in such devastated areas that bank leaders could not be sure that it made sense to rebuild them, at least for the time being, if there was no population to serve.

Dorion’s speedy damage assessment after both storms helped bank leaders immeasurably as they moved forward with Capital One to preserve the merger agreement between the two companies.

Paying the piper

In an early report for the company’s board of directors, the executive team estimated physical damage at something over $40 million.  That figure included rebuilding or repairing 59 structures and repairing both the Hibernia Center and the Main Office Building in New Orleans.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Damaged                                         Number                 Estimate (millions)

   Branches                                                   56                                   $27.0

   Other buildings                                          3                                      16.3

 Total                                                          59                                  $43.3

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Grading the damage

These estimates were based in part on a detailed evaluation Doiron designed to categorize and calculate damage at a total of 130 structures.  He created a five-point scale to “grade” the extent of damage.  Predictably, the greatest number of storm-damaged buildings was in the New Orleans area, which, by his field count, totaled 54.  Another 31 were in Baton Rouge, 20 in the Tri-Parish area of LaFourche, Assumption and Terrebonne parishes and 15 in St. Tammany Parish.  There were also eight damaged locations in the River Parishes[1] and two mortgage loan production offices in Mississippi.  Among these, he considered 19 structures a total loss.  Another nine suffered major damage, 28 moderate damage, 64 minimal damage and nine minor damage.

[1] The River Parishes consist of St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes.

[1]Hurricane Andrew was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the U.S.  It raged from Aug. 16 to 28, 1992, impacting the northwestern Bahamas, south Florida’s Miami area and south-central LouisianaAndrew caused $26 billion in damage ($45 billion in 2005 dollars) – mostly in south Florida – making it the most destructive hurricane up to that point. Source: Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “6. Paying the piper

  1. Russ, what a treasure this is for the Hibernia community and New Orleans. A great reporting job. I can’t wait to finish it. So many heroes from those dark days.

    I recall watching the news from Colorado (Laura and I were away attending a wedding). Each evening we’d come back to the lodge and click on the TV. (That was just before everyone was carrying smartphones. I remember using a PAYPHONE, if you can believe it, to check on my parents in Covington. They were ok.)

    I was heartbroken watching my old city in such despair. I particularly remember the heroism of the Coast Guard. The image seared in my mind is of a man who had broken through his roof from the inside with an axe to be rescued from the floodwater.

    Thankfully my family was spared most of the misery (my brother, as you know, had water in the house, but was thankfully safe).

    Steve

    • Steve, Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve just now seen your September post and I thank you very much for your kind words. It was (and is) a heart-breaking event; one that forever changed many lives.

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