Contractors feel impact of Katrina

METAIRIE, LA. Keith Bienvenu, owner of Bienvenu Brothers Plumbing-Heating-Cooling here summed up the Katrina situation on Sept. 22 when he told CONTRACTOR: " It's completely crazy right now. Everybody needs everything, and they all need it yesterday." Still, the situation in Jefferson Parish where Metairie is located wasn't as devastating as it was in Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is located.

METAIRIE, LA. — Keith Bienvenu, owner of Bienvenu Brothers Plumbing-Heating-Cooling here summed up the Katrina situation on Sept. 22 when he told CONTRACTOR: " It's completely crazy right now. Everybody needs everything, and they all need it yesterday."

Still, the situation in Jefferson Parish where Metairie is located wasn't as devastating as it was in Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is located.

"We can get around in Jefferson Parish to do work, but we still can't get into New Orleans to do work yet," he said.

Some of Bienvenu's employees suffered physical damage to their homes. Others had only minor damage. None sustained any flood damage, though. All of them have decided to remain in the area, except one.

"He decided to leave the area and work elsewhere," Bienvenu said.

In Jefferson Parish, Bienvenu's company was already replacing sewer lines that are backed up, as well as water and sewer lines that were destroyed when trees were uprooted.

The company is facing a large number of broken or otherwise damaged gas pipelines. Replacing water heaters and air conditioning equipment is keeping the company busy as well. Water heaters and air conditioning units that were flooded with salt water have to be replaced.

"All of the controls on water heaters are corroded, as are the compressors on air conditioners," Bienvenu said. "We recommend that any water heater that has been flooded be replaced, regardless of the water level."

Getting some products and other supplies has been difficult, he said. But the company's primary vendor has been able to maintain other products in stock and get in some new shipments. Bienvenu is stockpiling as many heaters as possible in his office.

Currently, he and his employees are working until 7 every night. The only reason they don't work later is an 8 p.m. curfew, and they need to allow themselves an hour to get back home.

While he is busy now, Bienvenu said he knows that the real work hasn't begun yet. The significant activity will begin when people who have evacuated-begin to return and assess the damage they have sustained.

"That's when it's going to get really busy," he said. " We may end up working 12 hours a day, seven days a week then."

Mudbug Plumbing Repair is another business that is located in Metairie and didn't sustain the damage that occurred in New Orleans. Owner Danny Bolner and members of his extended family evacuated to their mother's home in central Louisiana where 24 people from six families resided.

"We were very fortunate," said Bolner. "Our business didn't sustain any physical damage, and I didn't sustain any damage to my home, other than having to cut some limbs and do some minor roof repairs."

Although the business suffered no physical damage, it was negatively affected in another way. Bolner has lost four employees. Two have decided to move out of the area. Two others have water in their homes and won't be back to work for a while.

"The jobs are coming in faster than we can handle them," he said. "Right now, it's just me and one other truck. The way my business is set up, if I have to go out myself and turn wrenches, I'm losing money, but that's what I'm doing right now."

As busy as business is now, Bolner expects it to get even busier when people return to New Orleans and see what kind of damage they have sustained. Thousands of them will need plumbing service, he said. Bolner has responded to a couple calls from people who can't pay for the service.

"I do have a problem when I get calls from people who need the most help but who can't afford to get repairs," he said. "However, I have feelings, so I'll help them. I can't walk away. I've already done a couple of these.

"It's sad to see what has happened. You see what people have worked for their whole lives, and it's gone in a day or two. One of my friends evacuated, and his house burned down when he was gone. They have nothing now. The city will never be the same."

Kelly Bryson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Berg Mechanical, told CONTRACTOR, "We expect it to take years for New Orleans to recover."

She said that some of the 12 employees from the company's New Orleans office relocated to its other locations in Shreveport, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, La. Other employees evacuated to Houston, Kentucky and Virginia. None of Berg's employees lost family members during Katrina, although some were separated from one another.

"We feel blessed with what happened to Gallo Mechanical," Bryson said of the fellow member of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, which suffered substantially more damage than Berg Mechanical.

Despite their situation, employees of Gallo Mechanical assisted John Batz, David Lingle and Clayton Ladderer in a dramatic rescue of Lingle's mother, Mary Cusach. The three men drove 38 hours from California to New Orleans when Lingle was unable to contact his mother, who was stranded in her home by floodwaters.

Batz is a former employee of Comm-Air Mechanical Services in Oakland, Calif., and son of Don Batz, the company's senior vice president and director of operations. John Batz said that Gallo Mechanical lent him and his colleagues a boat to rescue Cusach and her dog.

"When she got on the boat she said, 'I can't believe that God has sent me three angels,'" Batz said.

On their way back to dry land, they rescued a man who had been stranded on the roof of his flooded home for days and a Labrador retriever that was in a tree, Batz said.

"I was most impressed with Gallo Mechanical; they immediately dropped everything that they were doing to help us," Batz said.

He added: "New Orleans was just a complete mess like I have never seen. The flooding and devastation was unbelievable. And there was a total lack of resources. It was mostly private citizens helping each other out."