The NEW New Orleans
by Tara Taffera, Trey Barrineau and Casey Flores
They tell you when you jump out of an airplane, the parachute is going to work – but do you really know?
That’s the analogy Jim Roland, owner of Window World Baton Rouge and New Orleans, uses to give a picture of the situation in New Orleans and the surrounding areas after Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005.
“Did we know there would be a lot of work? Yes,” he says. “Were we sure enough to be able to sleep at night? No, not that sure.”
When the huge Category 3 hurricane pounded the Gulf ten years ago with 125-mph winds, the world watched as flood waters drowned one of America’s most historic and culturally rich cities. Up to 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, hundreds were dead and hundreds of thousands were homeless. More than a million housing units up and down the Gulf Coast were damaged, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), including 134,000 in New Orleans.
Many TV viewers will never forget those images. But what they may not know, or have forgotten with the passage of time, is the severity of the situation for those who lived and worked there. We may fail to recall that when Katrina hit, the city stopped. As Roland describes, “it was like someone turned the faucet off.”
Just a suburb away in Metairie, La., it was a similar situation at Amazing Windows & Doors, as owner John Roberts explains.
“We were devastated,” he remembers. “The roof came off the building, and we had about $750,000 worth of inventory that was totally destroyed. My building is about three feet off the ground, and we had about three and a half feet of water throughout.”
Roberts says he couldn’t get back into Jefferson Parish for about seven days, while others had to wait two weeks.
“We had 25 employees at the time, and 22 of them were totally homeless,” he says. “They lived in the Ninth Ward and had nowhere to come back to.”
Nowhere to go, and no income coming in. And homes and businesses lying in ruin.
“When Katrina happened, the revenue side of my business went to zero,” says Roland. “At that time, New Orleans was 85 percent of our business. One hundred percent of all my customers and potential customers left town and had no idea when they were going to be allowed back.
“It was a crisis for a couple of days but after a week or two, every single homeowner was gone and we really didn’t know if the city was going to reopen,” he continues. “It evaporated for two months – it was a trying time.”
Literally Rebuilding …
“What happened in New Orleans truly was unique. We had to rebuild an entire city,” says Roland. “That’s never been done before.”
It was a huge undertaking that’s still ongoing. According to statistics from Women of the Storm, more than 60,000 residential construction permits have been issued in the New Orleans area since Katrina hit.
CGI Windows and Doors, a door and window manufacturer that serves much of the Southeast, but primarily Florida and the Gulf Coast, was deeply involved in the rebuilding there.
Steve Dawson, vice president and general manager, confirms the perception that there was a long lull after Katrina before any kind of recovery work could begin.
“People were just taking stock,” he says. “There was a lot of debate in the low-lying areas about [whether or not to rebuild]. The whole area was in a waiting period as people figured it out.”
And how could the communities rebuild when so many residents were forced to leave? Who was left to do the work?
“New Orleans was the tightest job market in the history of the U.S.,” says Roland. “It was almost impossible to get anyone. Electricians would walk down the street and have 15 jobs.”
So they cast their net beyond Louisiana. They didn’t just place ads in papers in Cincinnati, Detroit, Oklahoma and all throughout the Rust Belt. Roland and his team also hit the phone lines.
“Every evening for three hours we made phone calls,” he says. “These guys [many of them installers] would drive down, often on their last nickel.”
Once contractors started to come, it became a flood of demand. What came next was all about logistics. At Window World at least, Roland says the manufacturers did a great job of keeping the supply flowing.
“They did a sterling job of supplying us,” he says. “We were ordering two and three truckloads a day, and their shipping was a saving grace as well. We never had an issue with the manufacturer not delivering their product on time.”
But they did have a problem finding qualified salespeople.
“We had to hire salesmen, and our problem was getting them trained and up to speed,” says Roland.
Eventually, they also had the issue of increased competition.
“Window places sprung up as a result of Katrina,” he says. “Every window company in the nation tried to do what we were doing, and they’re all gone now. We stayed in business and didn’t fail.” (Find out their three keys to success on page 18.)
CGI helped rebuild entire areas such as Plaquemines Parish and Port Sulfur.
On the commercial side, Dawson says it took four to five years for developers to make the decisions to do upgrades. Now, it’s one of the nation’s hottest markets for commercial construction, according to an August 2013 report from Bloomberg Business, which reported that construction starts in New Orleans, excluding apartments and infrastructure developments, totaled $1.83 billion in 2012.
Katrina: By the Numbers
Source: The Data Center, NOAA
Wind, rain and storm surge: Katrina came ashore on August 29, 2005 packing destructive 125-mph winds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It dumped up to 10 inches of rain across its path. But by far the most damaging aspect of the hurricane was its massive storm surge. Along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Alabama, it was as high as 30 feet in places. It was nearly that high in New Orleans, which led to catastrophic flooding.
Flooding: When the levees protecting New Orleans failed, approximately 80 percent of the city was flooded. Levels ranged from one foot to more than 10 feet of water.
Deaths: Hurricane Katrina killed at least 986 Louisiana residents and more than 1,800 across the Gulf Coast region.
Housing damage: Katrina damaged more than a million housing units in the Gulf Coast region. About half of these damaged units were in Louisiana. In New Orleans, a whopping 70 percent of all housing units — 134,000 in all — were damaged by the storm and related flooding.
Total damages: Total damages from Hurricane Katrina are estimated at $135 billion.
Displaced residents: The storm displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region. At their peak, hurricane evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people and, later, FEMA trailers housed at least 114,000 households.
Federal recovery funds: An estimated $120.5 billion has flowed into the city for reconstruction.
…. And Rebuilding
All those we spoke to in researching this article reiterated that rebuilding continues—ten years after the storm.
“People are still deciding now if they want to rebuild,” says Dawson. “Some still think, ‘Why should we if it is going to happen again?’”
Even ten years post Katrina, Dawson says this is a long-term rebuild, which includes renovations.
“The longer you get past that storm, the more people will want to spend on upgrades,” he says. “It’s still important to them to improve the house.”
“The city isn’t fully recovered,” agrees Roland. “There are whole sections of town that need to be rebuilt.” This includes the inner city, the Ninth Ward and other areas.
Though construction will continue, Roberts describes the city as, well, different.
“It’s nice to see it coming back,” he says. “It’s nice and new. It’s a new New Orleans.”
And he is able to see all the good that came from the bad.
“Neighborhoods have increased in value and in size because of the renovations,” he says.
That’s borne out by February 2014 statistics from the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, which found that the average per-square-foot home price in the city was up 34 percent compared to 2005.
What Window World Did Right
Jim Roland, the owner of Window World Baton Rouge and New Orleans, says there were three things he did right in the weeks and months following Katrina. “There are a lot of things that had to happen to be able to grow as rapidly as we did.”
1. Kept prices the same, despite intense pressure to raise them.
2. Found the right building to expand into—a glass distribution center.
3. Poured on the advertising, in spite of switchboards blowing up with calls. “We were getting so many leads for the money we were spending, it was ridiculous,” says Roland.
Ready for the Next Storm?
When we asked Roberts and Roland if they are prepared for the next hurricane, both are quick to clarify a major point. Yes, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but it wasn’t really the hurricane that did all the damage.
“Katrina was a man-made event,” says Roland. “If engineers had built the levees the way they said they would, that would be a completely different ballgame.”
“Our problem basically was rising water,” adds Roberts. “The parish and the state have invested a lot in pumps and levees, so that should stop the flooding … They’ve put millions of dollars into the levees.”
But should a hurricane hit the area, is the city prepared?
“We are preparing for that hurricane, because it’s going to happen,” says Roberts. “A hurricane is going to hit us. But with the impact windows [we now have], it’s definitely going to protect people’s residences.” (For more, see page 34 for an article that discusses code changes, and increased use of impact windows, at length.)
When it does happen, the Window World crew is ready.
“If a hurricane hit, there would be an increase in demand,” says Roland. “We are set up now so we can double the business we do overnight. We’re lean—we operate just right.”
Katrina’s Silver Lining: Stronger Codes, Increased Use of Impact Glass
When Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, the devastating loss of life and damage it brought to the Gulf Coast generated more than tragic headlines. It was also a call to action.
Michael Wich, president for the Building Officials Association of Louisiana and Certified Building Official for the South Central Regional Construction Code Council, says there were no mandatory statewide building codes in Louisiana prior to the storm. The state learned its lesson—and luckily, it didn’t take ten years to do so.
“By 2007 we had a whole suite of codes for both residential and commercial structures, and they continue to be updated,” says Wich. “There is a lot more enforcement now than there ever was before Katrina.”
The storm also caused the window and glass industries to focus more heavily on design pressure (DP), which led to greater utilization of impact-resistant glass. Design pressure is the force applied to a unit area of the surface of a building or component. It’s expressed in positive and negative pressures in pounds per square foot.
“I don’t think anyone was paying attention to design pressure of glass or impact-resistant glass or shutters,” says Wich. “There is a big emphasis now that all windows [in these areas] are impact- rated. We have seen more of a movement toward impact-resistant glass [though it is not mandatory if shutters are an option]. Economically, both the industry and consumers are seeing that this is a viable option.”
While Louisiana woke up significantly after Katrina, other states affected by the storm, including Mississippi, were slower to institute code changes. Although some states may not have moved as fast as Louisiana, they did improve. Wich cites Alabama as one state that now has stronger building codes.
“Mississippi has mandatory codes, but just last year they adopted a statewide code,” says Wich. “It is semi-mandatory. They had the same challenge we had in Louisiana that if you aren’t near the coast, the minimum standards are not necessary.”
The codes are strictly enforced in Louisiana.
“It’s an economic requirement,” he adds. “If we don’t do a good job enforcing those codes, insurance companies won’t want to do business here.”
It wasn’t just the state codes that changed. Wich says after Katrina the wind maps in the International Residential Code got pretty aggressive—maybe too aggressive.
“We have seen that toned back a bit over the years as they may have overestimated some of those wind speeds in an overabundance of caution,” he says.
Though nothing on the same scale as Katrina, recent storms have shown that the new codes are working. Take Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
“If you rode around that parish [hit by Gustav], you could immediately tell which homes were built before and after Katrina,” says Wich. “There was no damage to those homes built after Katrina. The ones prior to Katrina suffered some significant damage.”
He says structures built prior to Katrina were constructed the same way they were 20-30 years ago.
“That’s just the way it was,” says Wich. “We weren’t keeping up with recent developments.”
While it was a hard lesson to learn, he says Louisiana “got the job done and they did it at a faster pace than just about anyone.” And code officials in the state aren’t done yet. “It is still worked on in every code session,” he adds. “Our first goal was getting buildings to where they should be structurally. We have a state code council that works on it year round. We also have very strict requirements of what it takes to be a code inspector in the state, etc.”
None of that matters, however, if the codes aren’t enforced.
“They are enforced a heck of a lot better today than they were 7-8 years ago,” says Wich.
Some of it was simply a wake-up call.
“Most builders want to build things right,” he says. “But just like any other profession, you may get lazy and assume what you are doing is right and not look to make things better. I think every single builder learned a lot after Katrina.” In fact, Wich says the Louisiana chapter of the National Association of Homebuilders was instrumental in getting the new codes in place in the state.
John Roberts, the owner of Amazing Windows and Doors in Metairie, La., agrees the codes are stronger and better enforced post-Katrina.
“It naturally has increased the price of windows—probably about 30 percent … Everything now has to be impact,” he says. “The new building codes definitely help out tremendously.”
Tara Taffera is the DWM editorial director/publisher,
Trey Barrineau is the editor
and Casey Flores is assistant editor.
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