Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM
YEARS AFTER Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are catalogued in weather data books, Tanya Babin still will be explaining some of the horrific details of those storms to her children. Babin is the terminal manager for Superior Carriers in St Gabriel, Louisiana, and the mother of two children, including a daughter born two months before untold numbers of residents lost their lives, homes, and jobs when Hurricane Katrina came calling on the Gulf Coast.
Many of the bodies of those hurricane victims were housed in a warehouse just down the road from where Babin and other Superior Carriers employees work. They saw refrigerated trailers lined up at the warehouse entrance waiting to deposit additional bodies that were found as government and industry officials conducted a massive clean-up effort of the coastal states.
“We [Superior] were prepared as possible for the storm,” says Babin who is a native of Louisiana. “But the loss of life — I don't even know how to explain something like this. It's overwhelming. One dispatcher came back to the office in tears after seeing five tractor-trailers filled with bodies parked at the entrance of the morgue.”
St Gabriel is a small town located along the Mississippi River, 60 miles west of New Orleans, just below Baton Rouge. The town's 5,500 residents are spread over 70 square miles. At the edge of town, the Federal Emergency Management Agency transformed a large steel warehouse into a temporary morgue.
More than 100 temporary FEMA employees were assigned to this location, including an epidemiologist, funeral directors, embalmers, and forensic experts from around the country, to process and identify victims of Hurricane Katrina. The makeshift morgue was organized by FEMA to handle up to 140 bodies a day.
By November 14, Louisiana officials, working in conjunction with coroners from local parishes, had reported they had recovered more than 1,000 bodies, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The St Gabriel morgue processed 883 bodies.
All of the Superior Carriers employees at St Gabriel survived the storm with no injuries. But one Superior Carriers driver has not been able to find his grandchildren who were in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane, Babin says. Several drivers who work at the St Gabriel terminal completely lost their homes to the storm while others continue to make house repairs to storm damage.
“It's terrible to see drivers lose their homes, or their friends and family being affected by the storm,” Babin says. “We were fortunate that we had no fatalities or injuries with company employees, and other Superior terminals brought in additional drivers and equipment after the storm.”
The Superior terminal in St Gabriel survived Katrina's wrath with no damage to equipment. After electrical power was restored four days later, immediate problems included availability and price of fuel and traffic delays.
“It was several weeks before any fuel was available at our location,” Babin says. “I told all the drivers they'd better come in with a full tank. Most places with any fuel were limiting drivers to just 50 gallons, and usually that meant waiting in line for at least a couple of hours.
“My lease-operators really got hurt. Prices immediately after the storm were averaging $3.60 a gallon. Drivers who were able to buy fuel were stuck in traffic with no way to get out of it. A 10-minute trip turned into an hour-and-half ordeal. Road closures backed up traffic, and the population in Baton Rouge spiked up another half million people. Traffic delays have just begun to lessen in the past few weeks.”
Katrina is the first hurricane Babin has experienced up close and personal. But she vividly remembers Hurricane Andrew when it blasted its way across south Florida on August 24, 1992. Two months prior to the storm, she gave birth to her first child, a baby boy.
“After Hurricane Katrina, my mother told me perhaps I should be happy with two children and just leave it at that.”
Lester Richard, who is manager for the Superior terminal in Sulphur, Louisiana, says his company location also was lucky when Hurricane Rita hit his native state the following month. Richard was a young boy when he and his family faced the fury of Hurricane Audrey in 1957. This time, he didn't wait around for the oncoming storm after securing equipment at the Superior terminal.
In anticipation of the storm, Superior drivers parked tractors and trailers as close as possible to the terminal building. Richard says the 100-mile-an-hour-plus storm ripped up trees around the area like toothpicks, but only a little trim was blown off the Superior terminal building.
“We were very fortunate,” Richard says. “We didn't even have a shop door blown off. And we were lucky that our terminal happens to be on the same electrical grid as one of the local hospitals. So we were without power for only 10 days.”
Unfortunately, not all of the 39 terminal employees in Sulphur emerged unscathed from the storm. Four drivers completely lost their houses, and another six received heavy storm damage. One driver sleeps in his rig in the company tractor yard because he's waiting to receive compensation from his insurance company. Communication with employees after the storm was limited to cell phones — sometimes unreliable as some cell phone towers were blown down.
Richard says Sulphur had no water for about 10 days. In preparation for the next storm, he will fill at least a couple of the tank trailers with water for cleaning and washing. After the hurricane, it was virtually impossible to get tank trailers cleaned because all the wash racks had received storm damage.
The Sulphur terminal includes a bulk fuel storage, which Richard made sure was full before the storm arrived. “Our diesel supplier had to ration fuel just like everyone else, but he made sure we never ran short.”
In spite of the physical and mental stress, the incredible list of details, and the responsibility of people and equipment, Richard says he has learned a lot from the ordeal. “Everyone pulled together to help. Something like this turns good folks into even better people.”
Other terminals along the hurricanes' paths were not so fortunate. A terminal in Pearlington, Mississippi, that was operated by Blue Flash Express is closed and Leonard Aguillard, company president, says it's too early to predict if the dry bulk facility will ever reopen.
“The wind blew our trailers several hundred yards away like garbage cans,” he says, “and the storm surge covered our tractors. This was a disaster that has no defense. We got totally wiped out. So we're waiting for insurance.
“The town itself also was destroyed. No power. No infrastructure. No place to return to. We're not sure whether we can ever return. It all depends on rebuilding of industry in the area.”
As a native of Louisiana, Aguillard says he's never seen the type of devastation that his state sustained this year. “Some say the storm surge was 20 feet, others say 30 feet. But building codes need to be revised, and levees need redesigning. None were ever built to handle a Category 5 storm.”
Most of the drivers working for Blue Flash Express in Pearlington lost their homes. They have relocated to temporary locations and are being dispatched out of the Baton Rouge area. After 30 years of operation, this is the first time the company has ever received storm damage.
Ironically, a warehouse packaging and container business owned by Blue Flash Express was left untouched in the northeast corner of New Orleans when the city was crushed by the hurricane. Nineteen 40-ft dry freight containers filled with product received neither wind nor water damage. Container cargo at the New Orleans terminal has been rerouted to Houston, Texas, because the Port of New Orleans still is rebuilding.
Railroads suffered major damage from the hurricanes. Approximately 39 miles of CSX track in the Gulf Coast area were destroyed, along with six major bridges, including the Biloxi Bridge and the Bay St Louis Bridge, which was wiped out right down to the support piers. CSX has resumed operations in Pascagoula and has reopened the New Orleans yard for limited activity. Track and bridge repairs are ongoing and on schedule, according to CSX officials. It is expected that work will be completed by mid-February 2006 with the restoration of the Bay St Louis bridge. CSX service to local customers along the Gulf Coast will resume as repairs are made in phases over an estimated six-month period. The rerouted trains will be brought back to the original lines when all major repairs are completed.
As of the beginning of December, CSX was rerouting trains through Memphis, Tennessee, and East St Louis, Illinois, and down through Birmingham, Alabama. The company has limited operations in New Orleans and can run over Norfolk Southern lines through Mississippi in order to connect with its lines in Alabama. Expenses anticipated from the storm are currently estimated to be $250 million. These estimated expenses include the capital costs of rebuilding rail infrastructure, losses from business interruption, and other costs associated with the storm damage.
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