I’ve been asked to share our Hurricane Katrina rescue, but with so many recent Katrina stories, I thought it might be redundant. However, this week I have realized how unique and incredible our adventure was.
As a native New Orleanian, I understand why the “holdouts” ignored a mandatory evacuation order. In their defense, it wasn’t the hurricane that took lives and destroyed New Orleans, but the levee breaches, flooding, and lack of leadership.
On Friday, September 2, 2005, the news of an InfoMart employee’s family, stranded by flood waters in the 9th Ward, made its way to the executive suite. Thirty-three people, mostly young men, aged 16 to 18, were stranded on the second floor of the Waldo Boys’ Home by eight-foot-high flood waters.
A couple of the men attempted to swim their way out, but rising brackish water, the irregular current, and impeding debris made the attempts futile. Food supply was low, water was non-existent, and medical attention was desperately needed for an infant, a 90-year-old man, and a cancer patient.
A converted fort, Waldo Boys Home, was equipped with a generator the stranded used to power their cell phones, at the risk of attracting looters. Explosions were heard from all directions as transformers fell and efforts were made to redirect the water.
Assembling the InfoMart and Community A-Team
Within the hour, InfoMart’s A-team assembled. The meeting was exhilarating, with everyone speaking out of turn and from all directions, sounding off needs and solutions. With a heightened sense of urgency, we made lists, created teams, and delegated tasks.
We needed food, water, medical supplies, and a logistics team to navigate a course into New Orleans due to road closures. We had to find gas and coordinate the evacuation of those 33 people from a rooftop in the 9th Ward. The gas crisis was crippling the south, and we would need fuel for five vehicles, round-trip.
Another dilemma arose: Where would the evacuees stay? Where would they live without jobs, money, IDs, or licenses? Amy Phillips, of InfoMart, and Holly (Comer) Tuchman, of the YWCA of NW Georgia, took charge in finding room and board until we were able to find a permanent housing solution.
Our fuel dilemma was solved when a local business and community leader, Kim Gresh, of S. A. White Oil, volunteered a truck of fuel and a team that would be on call 24/7 to assist in refueling if necessary.
A chain of over 100 employees lined InfoMart’s main corridor, passing coolers of sandwiches, boxes of medical supplies, and jugs of water hand to hand to the vehicles. We distributed Walkie Talkies, prayed for safety, and after a resounding “Amen” we left for New Orleans.
The greatest barrier to our mission was the rooftop evacuation of 33 people. Military forces had been redirected from search and rescue efforts to defending against looting and civil unrest, which meant that thousands of people stayed stranded on 2nd floors and rooftops. Our Georgia Congressman, Phil Gingrey, took to the phones and eventually reached Louisiana Lt. Governor, Jay Dardenne, who directed the National Guard to find our Boys Home and evacuate the stranded.
The road to New Orleans in the wake of the flooding
I received news that the evacuation was successful. The harrowing adventure of a rooftop rescue – standing on top of a multi-story building with no safety ropes or belts, hundreds of feet in the air and being hoisted by wires into hovering helicopters – is one I would not want to experience.
On the road to Louisiana, few vehicles were traveling south. The highway was lined with plywood signs spray painted “No Gas” and “No Ice” and “No Water.” When we drove up on our first barricade, the highway was blocked and heavily guarded, we had to reroute. Within minutes, our logistics team texted back alternative routes.
As an Honorary Commander through the Cobb Chamber and Dobbins Air Reserve Base (ARB), I have visited all branches of the military and experienced military exercises. However, I had never seen our military deployed until Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina. It was a sobering site, and it felt awkward to see such a large military presence just for detouring travelers.
We stopped at a travel center, and the seriousness of the situation humbled me; I saw the magnitude of despair and the enormity of this tragedy on the faces of the stranded. Weary evacuees, with their suitcases and plastic bags filled with belongings, laid on the grass. Our vehicles stirred great curiosity; sad, angry, and desperate people asked for help.
Soon, we were the only vehicles on the highway as abandoned cars lined the northbound shoulder. Additions to the highway signage read “No Food” and “No Bathroom.”
Not long after sunset, we nearly collided into vehicles driving straight toward us. This occurred on three different occasions; each time, we came to a stop and slowly made our way past the potential threats.
Rerouted – it seemed to happen every hour. “No Electricity” joined the many road sign warnings. Despite the eerie experience of complete darkness, the sky twinkled like glitter as millions of stars sparkled. I’d forgotten what a star-filled sky looked like, and at that moment I was able to forget my anxiety to look up with wonder.
The devastation of the storm was apparent, reroute after reroute, and we kept a close eye on our fuel levels. We changed routes to dodge vehicles and flooded roads. There were no streetlights, food, water, ice, or electricity, and it looked as though the world had been abandoned.
Evacuating the Waldo Boys Home in the face of unexpected challenges
An hour out, we began to pass mile after mile of motor coaches filled with boxes. The Red Cross, once approved to enter the city, was ready to deliver food and leave with evacuees.
We soon encountered another guarded barricade. Our military filled the travel centers on both sides of the highway. Giant round lights illuminated the dark as if the sun were up. Rows of semi-trailers had been converted into showers and restrooms, and tents and large military vehicles filled the camp. Voices made announcements that echoed from all directions. I will never be able to explain the extraordinary experience of seeing our military deployed and operating.
We weren’t going to be allowed to enter the city, but at 2:00 a.m., Congressmen Gingrey again contacted the Louisiana Lt. Governor and got us an escort into the airport. We made our way south on I-10. Water filled the side canals, rising to the level of the street, and the darkness was overwhelming. New Orleans has a distinctive smell, but on that night the air was filled with the aroma of brackish water mixed with centuries of history.
Emergency lighting speckled the airport. Eight-foot mounds of cardboard and plastic wrap, debris from air-dropped supplies, lined the street. A sea of people were laying and sitting on the pavement.
Our caravan attracted attention, and people walked alongside, some asking for a ride and others attempting to open the doors. Our evacuees found us. The young men blocked the van doors, holding back those that weren’t in our group and pushing our evacuees into the vehicles. Desperate victims pounded on the sides of the vans, and we made our way out in silence as people rushed and shoved at our vehicles.
Once on 1-10, we stopped in the middle of the highway and the young men poured out of the vans. They went to their knees and kissed the ground and, with tears in their eyes, thanked GOD. Then, they asked for food.
Cobb County and City of Marietta Community Rescue
The trip home was long. We had rerouted so many times that we were dangerously close to running out of fuel. We called for assistance and S. A. White Oil’s team located fuel for us.
We finally made it back to Marietta and set about the task of settling our evacuees. The Double Tree Hotel on Windy Hill Road donated accommodations for the night and allocated their ballroom for intake of the first Katrina victims to make it into Atlanta.
The YWCA of NW Georgia and InfoMart coordinated intake with an available RN to attend to medical needs and make immediate referrals for medical attention.
The City of Marietta had a representative meet with each young man to register him for school despite the lack of records and addresses. The YWCA gathered identity information to start the process of getting new Social Security Cards and records.
The YWCA of NW Georgia had three houses that had been donated, but due to renovation expenses, the houses had remained empty. Churches, contractors, and local business adopted the houses, and David Hankerson, County Manager, coordinated inspectors to come out on a weekend. Contractors and our community worked 48 hours straight making repairs, patching roofs, painting, installing fresh carpet, repairing plumbing problems, and installing new lighting.
Each house was filled with donated furniture, lamps, tables, chairs, and even bunk beds to accommodate the young men. New refrigerators went in each house and were filled with food. Within two days, our community had evacuated, rescued, and housed 33 Katrina victims.
New Orleans is a city with her arms wide open to all who pass her way. It is a community that loves her citizens. My community of Cobb County and the City of Marietta are no different. When there was a need to take action, businesses, non-profits, elected officials, and our government personnel all worked together seamlessly.
Mighty efforts like this are what make companies like InfoMart a “Best Place to Work.” This overwhelming community support is part of what makes Cobb County and the City of Marietta in Georgia the “Best Places to Live in America.”
On September 7th, 2005, Tammy Cohen and InfoMart were recorded in the 152nd Congressional Record for the heroic rescue.
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ABOUT TAMMY COHEN:
In 1989, Cohen founded InfoMart, a multi-million dollar pre-employment screening company that provides services to Fortune 500 companies nationwide. InfoMart has numerous “Best Place to Work” awards from various organizations. As a recognized expert in the employment screening industry, Cohen is often referred to as “The Queen of Screen” and was influential in the founding of the screening industry’s first trade association, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). Cohen is actively involved in a number of business and civic organizations and has received numerous personal honors, including a commendation in the 152nd Congressional Record, the Entrepreneur of the Year award from YWCA of the USA, an Enterprising Woman of the Year Award from Enterprising Women, and the Phenomenal Women Award from the Siegel Institute.
InfoMart is an industry leader in background screening services, providing businesses the information they need to make well-informed hiring decisions. With more than 26 years in business, InfoMart is a pioneer in developing innovative technology and screening services, from criminal history searches to verifications of employment. Accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), a designation earned by less than 10% of the industry, InfoMart has been recognized on Workforce Magazine’s Hot List of Background Screening Providers for 10 consecutive years. The company prides itself on its dedication to customers, innovation, and accurate reporting. For more information about InfoMart, please visit www.infomart-usa.com or call (770) 984-2727.
This article was originally posted at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/business-unusual-hurricane-katrina-rescue-tammy-cohen-phr