[PCO Profiles] Life on the Gulf Coast Post Katrina

Features - Convention Extra

Gulf Coast PCOs recall the struggles they faced following Hurricane Katrina; remain optimistic about region’s rebirth.

October 19, 2011
Hallie Moreland

In Aug. 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, leaving unprecedented devastation in its wake. By the time the storm subsided, entire cities were underwater, with destruction stretching over 100 miles and damage estimated at over $75 billion. The impact of Hurricane Katrina was felt by everyone in the Gulf Coast region, from those who lost their homes, belongings and family members, to those who had their businesses affected, including PCOs.

PCT has shared countless first-hand accounts from PCOs impacted by the storm, checking in with them shortly after Hurricane Katrina (see October 2005, PCT, "What's Next?") and then again one year later to see how business had changed.

With PestWorld 2011 being held in New Orleans, it seemed fitting to check back in with some of these PCOs, six years later.

Eddie Martin, Terminix Service Co., Metairie, La. Looking back on that day six years ago, Martin can't recall what was hardest to overcome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "I can't think of the hardest thing, it was just a total mess," he says. "My most vivid memory was all of the houses with their roofs sticking out of the water." Yet even during this seemingly bleak time, neither Martin, nor his employees let the storm prevent them from doing their jobs. The storm also taught Martin the importance of developing systems to keep in touch with his employees and the need to stay up to date with technology.

Bruno Milanese, Bay Pest Control, Ocean Springs, Miss. Milanese remembers not only having to worry about his business, but also his immediate and extended family, most of whom ended up homeless as a result of the storm. "Then facing the fact that my employees were displaced or relocated and most of the homes and businesses that we serviced were either damaged or demolished . . . it left a tremendous burden on me mentally, physically and financially."

Milanese's employee and family concerns were not the only worries he had to contend with. "Personally I had to overcome the mental stress of being in my prime pre-Katrina, to being in the largest challenge of my life post-Katrina," he says.

Six years later, Milanese feels as though Hurricane Katrina has made his company, and himself, stronger. "Because of Hurricane Katrina, I know that my family and business are solid," he says. And after seeing how strangers from all over the country rose to help those affected by the storm, Milanese tries to reach out to others in any way he can. "I know that it makes a difference and know the importance of receiving and giving — not just to your community but on a larger scale."

Chris Caire and Jed D'Arensbourg, DA Exterminating, New Orleans, La. When Caire, vice president of DA Exterminating Company, thinks back on the days following Hurricane Katrina, he remembers a couple he encountered a few days after the levees broke. "I saw a middle-aged couple sitting in their pickup truck. They were just staring straight ahead, dazed. She looked at me and burst into tears, saying, 'We have nothing. We have nowhere to go, we don't know what to do.'" Even six years later, whenever Caire thinks about the days immediately following Katrina, he thinks about that couple and wonders what became of them.

But Hurricane Katrina also taught Caire an important lesson about human strength. "I learned that human beings are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. When confronted with a crisis, we are able to respond better than we might have imagined."

Thankfully, six years on, Caire and his employees have moved forward and business has remained strong. And although he hopes nothing like Hurricane Katrina ever happens again, he knows that if it does, both he and his company will be ready to deal with it.

DA Exterminating President Jed D'Arensbourg, added, "Chris [Caire] left out something about the people he encountered. He gave the lady $300, which was all the money he had at the time." D'Arensbourg also remembers the moment when he was finally able to reenter the city and see the destruction firsthand.

"The unknown was hard to grasp," he says. "With so much devastation and death, I didn't think the area would come back or, if it did, it would be a fraction of its original size. I thought, 'There's no way my business will come back.'" Thankfully, it did and people started coming back and rebuilding within weeks.

Since Hurricane Katrina, D'Arensbourg says that not much has changed at DA Exterminating, at least not when it comes to the way they do business. "All of us here at DA have a new respect for Mother Nature," he says. "We still do business the same way, but I think we are more appreciative of the wonderful business we have. You could lose it all in the blink of an eye."

Bob Kunst, Fischer Environmental Services, Mandeville, La. Kunst, owner and president of Fischer Environmental Services has two particularly nightmarish memories of Hurricane Katrina. The first was being disconnected while speaking with his son on the phone. "We had no contact with him or anyone that knew him for 9 days," he remembers. His second memory is the destruction he saw when returning to the area after the evacuation. "I never saw such devastation in my entire life, no horror film ever showed anything like it," he recalls. "92,000 square miles of devastation."

To make recovering from the storm even more difficult, Kunst himself was just recovering from cancer surgery. "I had lost thousands of customers and my home was damaged, there were no phones, no electric, no water, no banks and no post offices." And yet, against all odds, Kunst and his employees worked day and night to repair their business. "In 13 months we had one more customer than we had the day before the hurricane struck."

The storm taught Bob Kunst about faith and hard work, he says. "When it gets right down to the nitty gritty, it is how your team gets behind a common idea and has faith in you and themselves as well as God to lead them back to success."

Although his company is doing well post-Katrina, Kunst does not believe he could take another storm of its kind emotionally. "When a storm of that magnitude comes ashore a human is so small and insignificant and what they consider important before so silly and of no consequence it makes you revisit all the reasons you are here and exist."

Gordon Redd, Redd Pest Solutions, Gulfport, Miss. Redd's memories of Hurricane Katrina bring him back to Aug. 17, 1969, the day Hurricane Camille struck the Gulf Coast. Redd recalls traveling with his father through the damage caused by that storm, only to discover that there was no office, warehouse or buildings owned by Redd Pest Control left standing. Redd faced a similar scenario when traveling to his Redd Pest Solutions office post Katrina.

In order to rebuild his business, Redd recalled the actions taken by his father some 36 years ago and how the situation he had now found himself in was remarkably similar. "My most vivid Katrina memory is what I experienced beginning August 30, 2005, until Redd was able to get itself somewhere back to normalcy," he recalls. "I found myself 'walking in my father's shoes.'"

Just like his father, Redd solicited work from agencies involved in recovery efforts. "Here it was 36 years removed from each other and, yet, it was as if Redd was reliving the Camille experience in its entirety." Although Redd Pest Solutions lost a large customer base, the new contracts created through recovery efforts were able to help others in need, while also keeping the company afloat.

Katrina: A Look Back

Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States, with over 1,800 lives lost. Although that number may seem small compared to the 8,000 who were killed in Galveston, Texas in 1990, Katrina was responsible for much more damage beyond the death toll.

Katrina was the third strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. The storm caused devastation over 100 miles, affecting the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

It was also the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with hundreds of thousands of people left unemployed, more than one million Gulf Coast residents displaced and 300,000 homes either destroyed or made unlivable.

And, of course, it is impossible to forget the destruction in New Orleans alone. Following the breaching of the levees, 80 percent of the city of New Orleans ended up in at least 10 feet of water.

Since the storm, organizations like FEMA have launched initiatives to improve the pace of recovery efforts and aid in the rebuilding of affected communities. And even though many neighborhoods have been restored, areas like the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans have changed little since Katrina hit 6 years ago, serving as harsh reminders of a storm that can never be forgotten.

Like so many others, for Redd, the most difficult thing to overcome post-Hurricane Katrina was balancing his own personal needs with the needs of his company. "We had pest management services to render, office damages to repair and the staff had personal needs, as well."

Beyond some business changes made by Redd Pest Solutions, Gordon Redd believes that Katrina also changed the outlook of everyone affected. "I believe Katrina gave us all a greater appreciation for the simpler things in life; for the importance of family, a greater consideration for others and a realization that many aspects of our lives should not be taken for granted."

LESSONS LEARNED. One thing that Gulf Coast PCOs agree on is the importance of developing a disaster preparedness plan in case of an emergency. "I must think of the future now with a rebuilding plan and a crisis plan because I can never be comfortable again with where I am and where I am going," says Milanese. He believes that a crisis plan should be tested to see if your company can "rebuild from the beginning, middle and present. Most of us have a crisis plan but never imagine needing a plan to rebuild from the beginning."

Both Caire and D'Arensbourg also learned the importance of having an emergency plan. "I made some strange decisions before I evacuated for Katrina," D'Arensbourg said. "I put important personal items on the second floor of my house; raised all my new drapes in the house; and put many other items on higher shelves. It ended up saving me thousands of dollars."

Redd admits that although Redd Pest Solutions did not have a disaster preparedness plan pre-Katrina, they have developed a detailed plan for the future that lays out instructions for employees to follow in the event of a disaster. Redd also makes sure he knows exactly where employees plan on staying during emergencies, along with ways to contact them, and recommends having a plan to protect company vehicles.

Hurricane Katrina also served as a reminder for PCOs of the true strength and dedication of their individual staffs.

"We had employees working hand in hand to rip out damaged carpet, move office furniture, paint, make temporary roof repairs to our buildings and handle numerous other projects; while simultaneously planning and implementing route duties," Redd recalled.

D'Arensbourg also recalled the commitment of his own employees. "My employees are the best. They were ready to come back and work. I had one employee who, unknown to me, slept in his truck for a week. He was at work every day."

Caire added, "Because of them, we were able to get on our feet very quickly. Once we found a temporary office to operate from, we hit the ground running."

Terminix's Martin recalls, "We were back in a week. "Our employees [were] already working. Got most of them back within six months."

One thing is obvious: PCOs throughout the Gulf Coast will never forget the generosity they received from others. "When people that you never knew, reach out to you like the world did the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it gives you strength that you never would have had before this happened," says Milanese. "A strength that you have to find deep in your soul when you are standing in the middle of a catastrophe that affects you personally and professionally."


The author is a contributing writer for PCT and can be contacted at hmoreland@giemedia.com.