Six Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina over the Gulf of Mexico on August 28, 2005

Hurricane Katrina over the Gulf of Mexico on August 28, 2005

With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the East Coast, Welding & Gases Today revisits GAWDA distributors hit hardest by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. Faced with shifts in population due to evacuee relocation, inventory damaged by flooding and the looming question of whether it would happen again, companies on the Gulf Coast modified and updated the way they run their businesses. Here are 6 lessons GAWDA distributors shared in 2006 in the aftermath of the hurricanes:

1. Safety First
“Our primary responsibility is to keep our employees safe,” says Billy Fields, safety & compliance officer at Aeriform (Houston, TX). Fields cites an experience with one employee who could not be contacted for ten days after Hurricane Katrina hit. Due to storm damage, employees could not get through the phone lines in Louisiana to report where they were. Aeriform developed an 800 number system where calls are now sent away from the disaster area. “Now employees can call us and let us know where they are, what their situation is, and that they are safe,” Fields says.

Distributors were prepared for wind, but surprised by water, like the flooding shown here at Industrial Welding Supply.

Distributors were prepared for wind, but surprised by water, like the flooding at Industrial Welding Supply's pumping area.

2. Never Enough Preparation
WESCO (Prichard, AL) came out of Katrina virtually unharmed, but with a lesson in the power of water. “The water was something we weren’t used to,” President Jenny McCall says. “We were used to dealing with strong hurricane winds.” Although the water surprised them, McCall says they learned quickly to handle it. “You have to put everything up high and anticipate flooding on your bottom floor,” she says.

3. Communication Is Key
After Katrina, Industrial Welding Supply in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (now Gas and Supply), lost the use of its phone and the Internet because its provider’s line ran through the middle of New Orleans. Despite communication challenges, the company was fortunate enough to have employees with the ability to quickly put together an Internet site where people could check in with their whereabouts. “During the storm, we depended on word of mouth to spread the news about the website, but now it’s part of our corporate manual,” says Marty Kearns, CEO.

2005: Flood-damaged showroom at Industrial Welding Supply's New Iberia store.

Above, flood-damaged showroom at Industrial Welding Supply's New Iberia store. Below, the restored showroom, well stocked with safety supplies to meet new demands.

2006: Restored showroom, well stocked with safety supplies to meet new demands.

4. Evacuees Bring Business
F.R. Blankenstein Company (Natchez, MS) experienced the unique side effects of life after Katrina: business life in a town offering a new start to evacuees. Local churches supplied evacuees with a safe haven as they fled their homes because of hurricane damage, bringing a boost to local real estate. “Our community is benefiting from having more people in town,” President F.R. Blankenstein Jr. says. “Business in general improved with all the construction taking place.”

5. Prepare for Customer Demand
With only minor wind damage, B & R Industrial Supply (Laurel, MS) focused on keeping emergency items in stock. “We made lists of things that were common commodities, and we kept a large supply in stock of those items during the hurricane season,” President Nathan Stringer says. Generators, lanterns, batteries and gas cans were among Stringer’s stockpiles.

6. Upgrading and Updating Is Necessary
Although his stores were hit by only minor damage from the hurricanes, Michael Dempsey, president and general manager of National Welding Supply Company (New Iberia, LA) took several steps to secure his business by securing his technology. He reevaluated the company’s ten-year-old computer system and decided that a new one would allow more flexibility in accessing data from home and between stores in case one location is hit by a storm. Working with a local power company, Dempsey is also considering the installation of a knife switch to be able to switch to auxiliary power in an emergency. “It’s not a fail-safe effort,” Dempsey says. “How much precaution can you take?”

Note: The Department of Homeland Security has issued an alert for providers of medical oxygen on the East Coast.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association