Magazine

Turning The Tide


Karla Cooper's home in Slidell, La., was spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina. Her family is safe and accounted for. But in her work life, Cooper, a 19-year veteran of New Orleans-based defense contractor Textron Marine & Land Systems and its human resources manager, is confronted by the vicious physical and emotional toll of the storm every day.

About 50 of the 1,150 employees at Textron M&L's two vehicle assembly plants -- one in Slidell, and one in New Orleans -- are still unaccounted for, two weeks on. More than 500 workers have nowhere to live. Each day, shell-shocked employees make their way to the Slidell plant -- where Cooper and other managers work out of a makeshift, generator-powered office -- just to make sure it still exists. "At the end of the day, I get home, I'm emotional," she says. Her voice breaks, just slightly. "You want to do something for these people, but there's so many. It gets to you. I get home and I just sit down and I'm exhausted."

As Cooper and the other beleagured managers at Textron's New Orleans plants -- evacuees all -- struggle to come to grips with the destruction of their city, their homes, and their normal lives, they must also face the harsh reality that if they don't throw themselves into a full-fledged business recovery effort, there may not be a New Orleans operation for much longer. Already, alternate sites are being scoped out -- although it's the strong preference of everyone from Textron's Chairman and Chief Executive Lewis B. Campbell down to the Gulf Coast line workers to keep the plants where they are. "We're losing sleep over this," say B.C. "Clay" Moise II, New Orleans-based vice president for marine and combat vehicles.

Cooper and her colleagues know all too well that there are literally hundreds of other businesses faced with Textron's dilemma. Each one that decides to relocate permanently would make a small, stinging cut to the economic and psychological well-being of the entire region. On a personal level, it's a heavy burden for Cooper, whose father worked at Textron, to bear. "There are so many lives that are looking to you to get rebuilt," she says. And that rebuilding, she knows, is going to bring challenges that she and other Textron managers have yet to imagine.

The urgency of getting Textron's New Orleans plants up and running is felt on all levels of management, and not just out of a simple desire for life as usual. Everyone at the plants is very aware of the real life and death issues here: Textron's two plants together make armored security vehicles (ASVS) for the U.S. Army. The hulls on the 23,000-lb. hexagonal steel beasts deflect explosions from improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Textron was making 30 a month for the Army before the hurricane, up from one per month a year ago. Now, they're making none.

A look at Textron's facility in East New Orleans makes clear the daunting task the company faces in the months ahead. At the plant, which houses a shipyard and the initial production lines for the ASVs, sheet metal has been ripped away from the walls and roofs, and everywhere the ground is covered in marsh grass and six inches of thick mud, the grimy residue of the 14 feet of water that practically swallowed the facility. Amid the crud, carcasses of snakes and nasty-looking, buck-toothed, three-foot-long swamp rodents called nutria lie among the wreckage of people's houses. Judging by the tracks, alligators have been making their way around the facility. A 65-foot wingnet shrimp boat rode the storm surge over the fence and sits outside a painting and sandblasting warehouse. "It looks worse than it is," says Jeffrey Picard, a 50-year-old Textron Systems () senior vice-president sent down from division headquarters in Wilmington, Mass., six days after Katrina hit with the unenviable task of leading the recovery effort.

STRANDED

Getting back on track isn't just a matter of making repairs. Employees are being paid a 40-hour work week, but the corporate office at Textron will not return them to plants in full force until the residue is tested for toxins. They've got it for the relatively unscathed Slidell plant, where final assembly of the ASV is completed, but it will be days before test results come in on the dank sludge scooped out of the East New Orleans facility.

Even if the plant gets a clean bill of health tomorrow, Textron is struggling to figure out just where its employees will live. Early on, the company had snatched up five houses for its recovery team at $250,000 apiece in Denham Springs, La., a Baton Rouge suburb. Now, Baton Rouge is essentially sold out of ready-to-occupy property, both commercial and residential.

Many line workers, including Willie Ladner, 29, and his pal Willie Nicholson, 33, meanwhile, are essentially stranded. Their homes, like most others in their nearby Gulf Coast town of Bay St. Louis, Miss., were wiped away in the wind, water, and rain. The duo straggled into the Slidell Plant on the morning of Sept. 7. After the Red Cross and Army helped tend to their families' most basic needs in the immediate wake of the hurricane, the two men worried about their paychecks and insurance. They were relieved to learn that Textron is paying its employees, and that their health insurance will be honored.

In an effort to find workers a place to call home, Richard J. Millman, the division president in Wilmington, has six real estate agents out looking for anything -- prefabs, trailers, RVs -- that can be rolled in close to the plants. But nobody believes that the workforce will automatically return to full productivity once homeless employees get roofs over their heads. Many Textron employees -- some of whom have lost friends, family, and loved ones, in addition to homes -- are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress in coming weeks.

Another huge question mark that Picard and his team must contend with is when the city of New Orleans' infrastructure -- power, running water, public transport -- will be able to accommodate a workforce. Outlying parishes began allowing evacuated citizens back in as early as last week, and towns such as Slidell are slowly starting to power back up. But it is anyone's guess when the hardest-hit parishes, St. Bernard and Orleans, where 28% of Textron Marine & Land workers called home, will begin to recover from the catastrophe.

Confronted with such dire circumstances, Picard has leaned hard on his team, setting an admittedly quick timetable for recovery goals that makes for a dizzying post-hurricane rush. Immediately after the storm, Picard commandeered space in a Textron fluid-pump repair plant in Baton Rouge to use as a staging area. Since the entire 504 area code was knocked out of service, he had the company set up an 800 number for employees to report in and get information. That was a huge help, but workers in particularly hard-hit areas were symied by the lack of phone service. "It's like we got broken legs," says Nicholson. "We can't communicate with anybody."

By Tuesday, Picard and Millman, his boss, assigned each New Orleans manager a counterpart from New England to relieve them of the additional stress of decision-making while dealing with their own personal evacuation and damage-control. "The knowledge was in their minds, yet initially you can imagine where these folks' heads were," Picard says. "[We tried to] take that burden off them."

By Wednesday, Aug. 31, two days after Katrina, managers in New England were squawking twice daily with whatever New Orleans employees they could find. Helicopters borrowed from Textron unit Bell Helicopter flew over the plants for an initial damage assessment. The aerial surveillance missions continued nearly every day for more than a week -- and brought supplies to weary security guards who rode out the storm.

"ARDUOUS AND GRIEVOUS"

One of the managers who spent a lot of time in the sky commuting back and forth between Baton Rouge and the plants was Moise. The day before the storm, he had fled his house in Old Metairie, La., with his wife and kids. After hastily poring over a lifetimes' worth of stuff, they packed what they could into Moise's Ford truck and were on their way to Houston to wait out Katrina.

Moise is a broad shouldered, 49-year-old Louisiana native, a University of New Orleans grad, makes his roux with bacon grease -- and he's clearly struggling with how to balance his loyalty to the company with his loyalty to the region. While he is committed to keeping the plants where they are, he knows that it may not be possible. "If we elect to move, trust me, it is going to be a very arduous and grievous decision-making process," Moise says. "These people need this -- that's what continues to go through our minds. Without this, what would they turn to? How do they get shelter over their heads?"

Sentiment had little place in Moise's consciousness as he fought to get his plants up and running. Driving back from a survey of the East New Orleans site, which still looked tattered 10 days after the storm, he listened to dazed survivors call in and recite the names of loved ones on the radio. A young woman gave the name, phone number, and address of her yet-to-be-found grandmother in Chalmette, La., a particularly devastated town, and another asked if anyone has seen a relative in the inundated Lakeview section of New Orleans. Moise turned the radio off with a disdainful flick of the hand. "The whole point of the analysis is to take out or minimize things such as emotions and gut feeling." Moise adds: "It needs to be that way."

While several managers worked to restore the plants, Picard and J.O. Smith, New Orleans-based executive director of operations, diligently inspected other production sites capable of taking on the ASV work, such as Army depots in central Texas' Red River Basin and Anniston, Ala. Alternate sites have to be considered from a business perspective, Picard says. And from a rational business perspective, what makes sense temporarily could very well make sense permanently. But the workers in Louisiana have at least one thing going for them, apart from the company's loyalty: Picard worries a great deal about quality issues that would arise in training a brand new workforce to make a complex vehicle like the ASV, since much of the manufacturing process isn't automated.

All of the Textron Marine & Land managers want more than anything to get the ASV line back into production. It has become a high-growth gem for Textron, expected to kick up $450 million to the company's $10 billion top line next year. Just 13 days after the storm, Picard watched over the Slidell assembly plant on an active Saturday morning. Huge fans thrummed, powered by generators shipped in a day before, and workers with power washers blasted the last of the gunk off the floors. Just days before, water covered the ground and debris dotted the assembly line. He got as close to giddy as he could about a new makeshift cafeteria to feed cleanup workers. East New Orleans is still a mess, but here production is expected to start in a matter of days.

Picard has traded in the dress slacks and shirt from earlier in the week for an untucked golf shirt and cargo shorts. As he surveys the plant, he muses, "It looks different, now, doesn't it?"

By Brian Hindo in Slidell, La.


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