About 12 hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana in 2005, Barry Miley and Chris Baxter were called into service. Miley and Baxter are ExxonMobil Baton Rouge employees who volunteer with the company’s oil spill response team, and Louisiana State Police needed all the help it could muster.
Along with nine other volunteers, Miley and Baxter took four boats, some tools and supplies to New Orleans, where they spent the next 36 hours going house-to-house, looking for survivors from floodwaters that surged into the city when the levee system suffered catastrophic failure.
With help from the U.S. Coast Guard and some locals, the group rescued people who were stranded on rooftops, in attics and in trees. They pulled nearly 300 deaf students and neighborhood residents from a three-story school, navigating the hallways in a bateau for 15 or 16 trips through water that reached halfway up the second floor.
“All the people that lived in the neighborhood of course went to the highest structure,” Baxter says. “We got around the corner and pulled up, and there’s all these people standing on top of this building. We came up with a game plan, and got everybody lined up and in order.”
“We had to bring them all the way back through the floodwaters, which was the sad part, to drop them off on the interstate,” Miley says, “or at the infamous Superdome.”
At least 1,200 flood victims were evacuated by the group, which hadn’t been trained for the job, though the emergency response preparation had apparently served it well. And if something similar happened again, they say, they would be even better prepared—as would the rest of Louisiana.
“There was a great difference from Katrina to [2008’s Hurricane] Gustav,” Miley says. “It was like a switch turned on for Gustav. Things were better prepared, everyone knew what to do and the staging took place a whole lot earlier.”
The response to any major disaster, be it a hurricane, a tornado, a flood or an oil spill, often must be a public-private partnership: government might coordinate the efforts, but the private sector has most of the assets.
Louisiana has had more than its share of experience responding to disasters over the past decade, ranging from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Presumably, the state’s businesses and governments should be getting better at this sort of thing.
Economic development officials often fret about the perception left by an emergency that makes national headlines. They don’t want business leaders to think the state is underwater or covered in oil.
But is there an upside to this unfortunate—and often tragic—experience? Is Louisiana getting any better at the business of disaster? And can the state’s emergency preparedness and response expertise be marketed to the rest of the world?
The right stuff
The Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center looks a lot like a college computer lab, which is fitting given its location on LSU’s South Campus. State government, LSU’s Stephenson Disaster Management Institute and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette collaborated to open the center last year.
Nameplates mark assigned places for various member associations, including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the Louisiana Motor Transport Association and Louisiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The room seats about 40.
“Usually what other states will do, they’ll have a seat set aside for a Walmart or a Home Depot,” says Mark Cooper, who directs the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
What makes the LA BEOC unique, he says, is the state identified the industries that are important during an emergency and gave their trade associations a seat at the table.
“This is where the handshake happens between the business community and state government,” SDMI Executive Director Col. Joseph Booth says.
The center also provides a nexus of communication among businesses, he says, so they can coordinate resources in a way that didn’t happen in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA calls the BEOC a best-practice model for public-private partnerships.
“We now have a tool that’s going to help business and industry before, during and after a disaster, where previously that did not exist, and does not exist in all the other states,” which gives Louisiana a business-recruitment advantage, Cooper says.
“Not only are we better prepared than we were before,” Booth adds, “but we’re better prepared than our counterparts in other states.”
Cooper says the conversation at national conferences has shifted from what went wrong after Katrina to what Louisiana is doing right: Officials from places as diverse as Alabama, Iowa, Haiti and Japan have visited or contacted the state to learn what they can apply in responding to their own disasters. SDMI is co-hosting a series of conferences in Washington, D.C., with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“We think this is something that’s going to have a lot of traction on policymaking in Washington,” says Andrew Schwartz, a senior vice president with CSIS.
Maureen Lichtveld, who researches disaster preparedness and holds the Freeport McMoRan Chair of Environmental Policy at Tulane University, spent 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control before coming to New Orleans shortly before Katrina.
She says people around the country might feel Louisianans “are so disaster-prone, that we can’t be helped,” but notes that experts recognize the state’s hard-won knowledge can be applied in places such as Alabama, affected last month by a tornado outbreak that killed more than 200 people; Haiti, affected in January 2010 by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed between 92,000 and 220,000 people; and Japan, affected in early March by a 9.0-magnitude quake and the resulting tsunami that killed more than 14,000 people and left another 10,000 people missing.
Lichtveld stresses that investing in preparedness leads to quicker recovery.
“We have to take care of ourselves [without federal help] for the first 96 hours or so,” she says. “There were a lot of expensive lessons learned during Katrina. Perhaps we sacrificed for the nation because of that, and in fact for the world.”
When oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill threatened Louisiana last year, the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t have sufficient boom and skimmers ready, nor did they have a boom plan to protect the coastline. Officials said they expected the Coast Guard and rig operator BP to protect the state; instead, the administration created a plan with leaders from coastal parishes several days after the crisis began.
State and parish leaders say they should have been given more leeway by the federal government to manage the spill response. Booth says LSU researchers from multiple departments are studying the spill, adding that SDMI plans to incorporate that work into a single document.
Response and research
Some of the economic benefits of the state’s recent disasters are obvious and well documented.
The federal government’s post-Katrina GO Zone program helped fund a construction boom throughout south Louisiana. Capital Region industrial and commercial contractors participated in rebuilding work, helping cushion the blow of the national recession to the Baton Rouge economy. Much of that work now is winding down.
Some area businesses directly involved in emergency preparedness and response have gained national prominence. Hammond-based Worley Catastrophe Response, a “diversified risk management company” that contracts with insurers and other corporations, has worked in “every major headline incident” nationwide in the past 15 or 20 years, owner Mike Worley says.
The company’s revenue increased 102.6% from 2007 to 2008, from $68.1 million to $138 million, and it climbed from No. 48 to No. 26 on Business Report‘s Top 100 Private Companies list. Revenue dropped 23.9% from 2008 to 2009, to $105 million and the company slipped to No. 30 on last year’s ranking.
The recent nuclear issues in Japan, where the March earthquake and resulting tsunami led to the threat of a reactor’s meltdown, could lead to a reevaluation of nuclear power throughout the world. But the crisis also has opened opportunities for The Shaw Group, Baton Rouge’s only Fortune 500 company.
Shaw is assisting the Toshiba Corporation, which owns the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, with mitigation, remediation and recovery. Some company experts are providing services on the ground, while others work on engineering, assessment and design from the United States.
In years past, Shaw has also mobilized: following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters; hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma; and earthquakes in Haiti, Northridge, Calif., and Sumatra, the company says.
Shaw CFO Brian Ferraioli told attendees at a Tulane-run conference that a special type of nuclear reactor developed by Westinghouse, of which Shaw is part-owner, would not be vulnerable to the problems that have plagued the Fukushima station. The reactor, AP1000, might now be in greater demand.
Madhu Beriwal founded IEM, an emergency management and security consulting firm, in Baton Rouge in 1985; the company now has a presence in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and it works with clients all over the world.
IEM moved its servers out of harm’s way before Katrina and Gustav. Now it keeps the bulk of its IT infrastructure at its new headquarters in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, near Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. But it remains useful to have a significant presence here, and the Baton Rouge office still is the company’s largest, at least for a few more months.
“Disasters do happen very often in Louisiana,” Beriwal says. “You always want to be close to your customers.”
LSU hopes to attract federal funding for an international-caliber disaster preparedness complex at the site of the Fire and Emergency Training Institute on Nicholson Drive between its main campus and south campus. With LA BEOC and SDMI already in place, the university has a chance to be a major research hub for the industry, with the potential to spin off businesses into the South Campus research park it wants to develop.
Beriwal moved IEM’s headquarters in part to take advantage of collaborative opportunities with North Carolina universities, opportunities she felt were lacking in Louisiana. A current IEM executive helped set up SDMI in 2007, she says, and a former IEM manager now works for the institute.
Beriwal met with SDMI before making her move, and came away with the impression that it needed to narrow its focus.
“This field of disaster research institutes is a crowded one,” she says. “My suggestion would be that you figure out the niche area, what you want to be known for, and really hone in on that niche. It’s hard to be all things to all people.”
For example, she says, the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado at Boulder is renowned for its floodplain management expertise.
SDMI is based inside LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business, which officials say shows a unique commitment to apply business principles to disaster management.
Beriwal says that commitment might be a good starting point, but the school now needs to decide what specific problem set it wants to solve. If the institute wants to create businesses, she says, it should focus on marketable late-stage research and cultivate relationships with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
“Our niche is that we have a lot to offer,” Booth says. “We have the bench of LSU, as well as the experience of one of the most disaster-prone, if not the most disaster-prone, areas of the United States. We’ve been there, and we’ve documented what works.”
Marketing the industry
Geoshield, a company housed in the Louisiana Business & Technology Center incubator, produced the blast mitigation film on the BEOC’s windows. Co-founder Burns Mulhearn also helped start Seashore Environmental, which tried to help small, local companies get work in the BP spill response.
“Louisiana has a great deal of these good companies out there, just because we have seen so many natural disasters,” Mulhearn says. “I would market them nationwide, if not worldwide.”
Louisiana Economic Development is implementing a Blue Ocean strategy, focusing on industries with significant growth potential in which the state can realistically compete for a leadership role. Disaster management and response arguably fits those criteria, so why not promote the industry?
“There is a lot of expertise there,” LED Secretary Stephen Moret says. “But it’s also one of the most common challenges that we face,” apprehension regarding the occurrence of disaster.
When companies evaluate areas for relocation or for a new facility, he says, the site-selection process really is more about elimination. The perception of hurricane risk eliminates sites throughout south Louisiana, including the Capital Region, and LED doesn’t want to encourage that view.
“We have been a little hesitant to market that particular part of our economy,” Moret says. “Those companies are doing a great job marketing themselves, and certainly we’re happy with the growth of that sector.”
South Carolina-based site selection consultant and strategist C.R. “Buzz” Canup says the historic emergency-response performance of a given area is a factor in a company’s overall risk assessment.
“I don’t know why any state would want to market that,” Canup says. “I think everybody’s getting better along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast.” Florida’s ability to recover from four hurricanes and one tropical storm in 2004, he says, “was nothing short of miraculous.”
Bob Price, director of Herron Consulting in Atlanta, says site selection professionals don’t need to be told about Louisiana’s disaster-management experience.
“We’re fully aware of the issues in Louisiana,” Price says, adding that CEOs who might make only one major location decision in their careers might not be so well informed. European clients especially are influenced by what they see in the media, he says, and it could be dangerous to emphasize the state’s experience with disasters.
“Once you start talking about this issue, it’s difficult to overcome those [negative] perceptions with facts,” Price says. “Is there a payback? Can we market ourselves as a prepared state, and somehow translate that into more effective economic development marketing?”
“You definitely have to walk a fine line,” GOHSEP’s Cooper says.
Disasters happen everywhere, from flooding in the Midwest to earthquakes in California, so it’s not as though south Louisiana is the only place that’s vulnerable. Cooper understands why Moret might be hesitant to promote emergency preparedness and response, but argues the state’s growing expertise and capabilities could ease the concerns of an executive nervous about a possible hurricane or oil spill.
Booth says Louisiana has to think about the competition.
“If we don’t mention it, they’re going to,” he says. “I’d just as soon say, ‘Let’s tell our story.’ There are some wonderful things going on in Louisiana in the emergency management community. That story needs to be told, and we’re getting the word out.”
TAKEN BY STORM
Wayne Stabiler started Catering Cajun about 22 years ago. But in the past 10 or 12 years, his company has become known as one of the nation’s leaders in emergency relief.
With a motto of “Whatever it takes,” Stabiler’s company often swoops into a community during the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster. Within hours of receiving the call, Cajun Catering can feed several thousand people, and it can set up temporary housing within a day or two.
“It’s all about having the equipment and the relationships,” he says. “Being in the business as long as we were, doing very large-scale events, we had the equipment that it took to go to a staging site and cook in volume. It was real easy for us.”
Stabiler says the growth of his Perkins Road-based business doesn’t depend on being located in Louisiana. Its first disaster-related job came after a hail storm in Independence, he says, and it has responded to the last 20 hurricanes. Catering Cajun typically contracts with the local utility company, he says, which is part of a close-knit community, and word spreads fast when you do a good job.
Catering Cajun’s revenue depends on the number of disasters in a given year; the company annually takes in tens of millions of dollars.
“People would think it’s hurricanes, because we’re in the South, but really we do just as much ice work and tornado work,” he says. “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and here we are.”
WHAT TO DO?
In the event of a natural disaster, businesses should ensure the security of their people, as well as information, equipment and resources essential to their operations and customers, and companies should be prepared with the correct information to apply for disaster assistance programs, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber says. Tips can be found at brac.org/recovery, getagameplan.org, ready.gov/business, and sba.gov/services/disasterassistance.