Business owners recount flood experiences

By: GEOFFREY STOUTE

SMI Companies Equipment Manager Juan Torres patiently waited. Berry Brothers General Contractors Superintendent Troy Lombardo is thankful. Swiftships Shipbuilders President Calvin Leleux wondered what happened. Crawls and Claws owner Robert Conner was starting over.

All four work for or are owners of companies that are just a few of the victims of the Atchafalaya River’s swollen water this spring.

Now that the waters have begun to recede — for the most part — they are trying to recover.

For Torres, his work day last week consisted of driving around SMI’s Offshore Division, located at its Berwick yard, watching the facility’s lone 6-inch diesel-powered pump furiously shoot back the Atchafalaya River that the river so generously gave to them during the high water season. The flooded yard still held as much as 5 feet of water in some areas as of June 22, but as of Thursday, it now is dried except for water that accumulated from rainfall.

The facility still does not have power.

Further south at Berry Brothers, things are much calmer now, and work has resumed at its pre-flood levels, Lombardo said.

Across the Atchafalaya at Swiftships, Leleux’s yard has been pumped dry of the 5 feet of water that infiltrated it just weeks earlier, but he still is left wondering how it infiltrated his yard, much less from an area further inland from the main waterway.

Finally, there’s Conner, whose work now is no day at the beach — although it could be if he hadn’t decided to move from his preflood location at 1683 Front St. in Morgan City.

As the approximately 4 feet of water in and around his business on the unprotected side of Front Street receded, he discovered a different gift — sand. Thick sand. All over his building’s insides.

While the delays and expenses from this flood have not been what these businesses wanted, officials at all four prepared for the high water.

All vital equipment was removed from each company’s yard. Office workers and equipment and — in Swiftships’ case — living quarters in vulnerable areas were relocated out of harm’s way and facilities were fortified.

For companies like SMI and Swiftships, some moving meant traveling more than just a couple of miles.

SMI moved its equipment to its Centerville yard, while Swiftships moved seven Iraqi patrol boats the company is building as part of a contract for the Iraqi Navy. Three were ready to be shipped anyway, while the other four were brought to Seacraft Shipyard in Amelia where 50 Swiftships employees continued working on them.

For SMI, evacuations started at the beginning of April because the area floods quicker than others, Torres said. At the beginning of May, two weeks before the Morganza Spillway was opened, he said some areas of the company’s yard had as much as 3 feet of water.

“We were still cleaning out warehouses and the water was rushing in,” he said. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me. (But) no, it was coming in.”

Once the electricity was turned off, Torres said the company could not run its electrical, stationary pumps that in the past have worked so well to keep the facility dry that has flooded other facilities nearby.

Leleux, who has been with Swiftships for 40 years, remembers the Flood of 1973; in fact, he had the approximately 4½ foot watermark left by the 1973 flood painted a different color than the rest of the building to preserve it.

“That was a real, real devastating time for this company, and I always wanted to remember that and see it,” he said.

Using what he knew from previous high water situations, he had the first floor of his office facility cleared, had catwalks fabricated and installed to allow continuous access to the office and fabrication facilities if the yard flooded.

At Crawls and Claws, Conner said with the help of Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte, operations were moved to the former D&B grocery store on La. 70 in Morgan City. The company’s equipment either was placed in storage or at the new site.

As the water continued to rise during May, the unprecedented water levels forced Berry Brothers to shut down dock operations.

“We’ve never had to shut down operations before,” Lombardo said. “This time we had probably 2, 2½ feet of water across our entire dock.”

The water flooded the yard all the way to the foot of the levee.

The dock crew, normally tasked with loading and unloading vessels, was relocated to the protected side of the levee and was kept busy with miscellaneous chores that needed to be completed, anyway.

At SMI, approximately 5½ feet of water flooded the yard, while across the Atchafalaya at Swiftships, things were even more grave.

While the company is protected up to 10 feet above mean sea level by bulkheading, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2002, it placed 50-inch tall, 3,000-pound sandbags along the bulkhead to increase its protection.

While some areas along the back of the yard near the union of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway’s Alternate Route and the Atchafalaya gave them headaches, company employees patched them.

Instead, it was an area — that Leleux had few concerns about — further inland just west of the yard’s production shop that proved to be the weak spot. It failed on the evening of May 25.

First, Leleux said, a geyser sprouted up in the area, and then seconds later, the water bored its way through and into the yard.

Crews frantically worked to no avail, in water up to their chest, to plug the hole.

“We probably have 40 sandbags (weighing 3,000 pounds a piece) … that we dumped into this hole that just vanished,” Leleux said.

Within 45 minutes, the entire facility, or about 30 acres, had 5 feet of water in it, including those office buildings that had been evacuated, Leleux said.

The company spent about two days repositioning their assets before they resumed work, above the water, on two patrol boats in the production shop.

“Our resilience to these flood activities only show that the nature of the people, including the management here, is very flexible,” Leleux said. “We have had similar experiences for maybe five times since the early ’70s. We’ve been very resilient each time. We learn each time, which made us better able to cope with the latest flood, which was at record levels. There were some abnormalities but the people accepted that one day they reported here, the next day they reported to another site.”

Leleux has said he thought either water undermined the sheet-piling or blew through it, forming a hole of which depth he was unsure.

For the most part, local floodwaters began to subside quickly, except at SMI — where the yard was being drained last week by one, 6-inch, diesel-powered pump.

Now, much of the yard is dry, but the cleanup at the facility remains

The cleanup, Torres estimated, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because the company still is reeling from the BP oil spill and subsequent drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico, he said he was unsure if they could afford to re-open the yard.

“I don’t know if we’re capable of doing that right now,” Torres said. “We might be able to.”

“Hell, we’ve already really moved out of it so that we wouldn't lose any equipment,” he added.

Normal operations at Berry Brothers in all departments had resumed by June 21, while the goal at Swiftships is to have those damaged first floor office buildings remodeled by July 15, Leleux said.

In all, the company suffered $3 million in damages and some contracts were delayed.

As for that 1973 watermark at Swiftships, this year’s flood passed it by 6 inches.

The Corps, Leleux said, should fix the damaged bulkhead because they built it.

When it was installed, Leleux said he lobbied for 12 feet of protection, but he said the Corps reasoned that 10 feet would be adequate.

This past year, the yard received about 11.5 feet of water, Leleux said, evident by the watermarks on the sandbags facing the river.

While thankful for what they received, he said, “I feel they (the Corps) have some liability in this, because they didn’t build it tall enough, and I had requested it to be taller.”

According to Ken Holder, the Corps chief of Public Affairs Officer with the New Orleans District, the bulkhead was built using special funding and never was meant to be part of the Corps’ federal levee system.

He said the Corps has conducted a preliminary assessment of the situation and said the structure appears to have performed as designed.

Holder said the deficiencies appear to be related to work done, either behind or on top of the bulkhead, by Swiftships.

Both Leleux and Swiftships Safety Director Eric Geibel said they are unaware of any visit by the Corps to the facility since the flood fight.

Regardless, Leleux said he is looking to upgrade his levee system.

“If I can get some additional government help, I want it to be at least at 13 or 14 feet, something like that, because … with our government contracts the way they are, we just cannot stand this inconvenience of going out of business,” he said.

Holder said the Corps could offer Swiftships special technical assistance, if it needs it, when the company upgrades its protection structure.

Revenues lost at Swiftships, Berry Brothers and SMI Companies were unknown, while gross profit lost at Crawls and Claws totaled $108,000 per month since the flood fight began.

Total calculated losses at Conner’s Front Street facility are $586,000.

“And I quit counting,” he said. “That was up to the 12th of this month (June), and I gave up counting because there was no sense counting. There’s no reimbursement or anything. I tried every avenue we could to get help.”

Those losses include $50,000 in repairs Conner put into the facility this past winter.

Because their freezers are not set up in the new facility yet, Conner only can buy and sell live crawfish. And that crop for this season, he said, is slowing down.

Still, he is willing to start small again, like he did at the previous facility, and build himself back up.

“I think in the Bible it says build your house on a rock,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, build my house on a rock and not on sand.”

As for that sand?

“Even my wife told me that she and one of her friends wanted to go over there and lay out on the ‘beach.’ That just puts the icing on the cake,” Conner chuckled. “You’re going to go lay out on the beach at the old business, huh?”

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