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Lessons of Hurricane Katrina Learned Firsthand: Part Three

September is National Preparedness Month. Are you ready?

This is the third installment in a four-part series about Robbie Endris’ personal experience as the Executive Director of the state’s child support agency in New Orleans during the 2005 arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Click to read Part One and Part Two.

When disaster and bedlam became the new normal, we moved from crisis to recovery and began to assess what we needed to do to rebuild our program in New Orleans. After a few weeks, we were allowed to go to our office on Poydras Street to check the damage. We eagerly got four of our leaders from the New Orleans office and four of our State Office staff prepared with protective clothing, face masks, and boots. We went at the first opportunity fearing that we would only have one chance. We were right. When building inspectors moved into the area where our office was located, we were forbidden to go back until the building was completely gutted.

We only thought we were prepared for that trip. Security was high and checkpoints were set up. Houses in our neighborhood were marked with the infamous large X’s to indicate what had been found in the house.   The water line was clearly visible on all of the buildings. Boats were miles from the water and could be found anywhere. The National Guard was on duty to protect the city. This was an emotional trip for all of us, but particularly for our New Orleans staff.

The building was devastated. Water pooled above desk height. Drawers could not be opened. Mold and mildew had grown to the top of the water line. We walked through a muddy sludge and were thankful for the face masks. Without them, the smell was intolerable. The File Room was a 100% loss. Shelves had pulled away from the walls and every folder was lying in the floor, wet and covered in mold. We could not save one sheet of paper. It was indescribable.

The server room was another problem. We learned that when you have a server to install on a rack, don’t leave it on a pressboard table if you are short on metal screws. Those tables melt into a sawdust mud when placed in standing water, and your server is buried in the mud on the floor. We dug it out, but it was a total loss.

After our inspection, our State Office staff went out and respectfully left the New Orleans group in the building. They came out with family pictures, keepsakes left on desks or cabinets, and all of the framed licenses belonging to the attorneys. Most of these items were restored and saved. A few administrative documents were saved because they were in the top drawer of a file cabinet. Otherwise, nothing was salvageable.

We knew that we had to travel a long, hard road to recovery. Documents that were needed for paternity establishment and order establishment were lost. We would spend many hours over many months rebuilding our documentation.

Lesson learned? Document imaging is the only protection that you have from this type of loss. Fire, wind, and water will wreak havoc on paper documents. It took a while to get the funds, but Louisiana now has an imaging system.

Do you wonder what happened with the building? We had a highly motivated landlord. As soon as approval was given, he worked with the State Buildings group to gut the building. A construction crew from Central America came in and they went right to work.

In the meantime, we opened “New Orleans North” in vacant space in our building in Baton Rouge, and we rented space in Thibodaux, Louisiana, which we dubbed “New Orleans West.” About two-thirds of our staff returned, and we did all that we could to help them return to business as usual.

The staff began taking and making telephone calls and working through our statewide system to resume services. Many people were now living out-of-state. Assessments were made on how to move forward. Parent locate activities became a major part of the job as we looked for parents and children. From time to time, we got sad news, but more often, we found families moving forward and starting over.   The real work of child support resumed. We were on mission to support our children again.

By April 2006, we were back in the building. We were one of the first State offices to return to the city. OCSE Commissioner Margot Bean came to visit when we reopened the office. It was a happy day for these dedicated child support employees. The North and West offices were closed, and they returned home to New Orleans as one group. We were proud to show off that “new” building. It was bright and pristine, a stark contrast to many of the buildings in the neighborhood. New furniture and equipment welcomed the staff back. Thanks to a new satellite dish, we had connectivity to work in our automated system.

We were moving quickly down the road to recovery. We were back in business in the Big Easy.