Boasso recovers from Katrina

Dec. 1, 2006
With almost 40 collective years of experience at Boasso America's tank container depot in New Orleans, Nicky Macheca and Tony Ortego know the drill when

With almost 40 collective years of experience at Boasso America's tank container depot in New Orleans, Nicky Macheca and Tony Ortego know the drill when a storm in the Gulf of Mexico heads toward their coastline. As Louisiana natives, they had memorized company evacuation procedures and storm preparation years ago — secure equipment, lock the gate, and head for higher ground.

Preparation always included moving all of the loaded tank containers to a central location and encircling them with two rows of empty containers to create a wall or barrier against flying debris during a storm. After a storm or the threat of one passed over New Orleans, Boasso employees would return to the depot, unstack the containers, and conduct business as usual. For the first time, the 2005 storm season would test the efficiency of such preparation.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina finished pounding the City of Lights and submerging it under water, Macheca and Ortego found each other in Baton Rouge. Along with Paul Peterson, tank operations manager, who also was staying in Baton Rouge, they made plans to return to the terminal to assess storm damage.

Getting back to the depot took hours of travel time and waiting because of the remaining high levels of water throughout the area. After a ride in a service boat provided by the US Coast Guard and a deputy sheriff's vehicle, they walked the remaining distance to the depot to assess the aftermath of the storm — dead animals and debris stuck in the fence surrounding the property, empty tank containers slammed on top of each other like toy boxes littering the yard, and the roof over the office and a repair shop for drop-deck chassis torn away. Water levels had almost reached the tops of desks inside the office area with furniture left in a mess piled up in corners.

Despite no visible damage to the fence around the depot, two dozen 5,000-gallon DOT51s were found on the other side. The only explanation seems that the storm surge came in as a huge wave that was high enough to lift the tanks over the fence.

“Our main concern was the status of hazardous materials,” says Tony Ortego, safety compliance and quality. “Much to our relief, we didn't have even one loaded tank with a leak or any damage to the containers.”

The depot had no utilities, with the exception of some portable generators brought from Baton Rouge, for months. The only available food for several weeks was MREs (meals ready to eat). A typical two-hour commute between Baton Rouge and New Orleans became a 10-hour ordeal because of flooded highways and the backlog of traffic at military and police checkpoints.

In addition to the arduous task of getting the yard cleared and cleaned, the number of tank containers had to be checked as soon as possible. A copy of existing inventory had been prepared prior to storm impact.

“We had to go to every tank container and match its number to our inventory list,” says Nicky Macheca, director of tank operations. “This took several days pulling tank containers out of stacks. But amazingly after we finished the count, not one container was missing.”

In the beginning, progress toward getting the yard operational was steady but measured in small steps because of the lack of housing, Macheca says. Employees had to relocate to various satellite locations, including Houston; Charleston, South Carolina; and Jacksonsville, Florida. Boasso management converted some of the Houston office space into temporary living quarters. By the time employees arrived in Houston, the company had secured apartment units and established a relief fund for displaced New Orleans employees and family members.

Forty-eight days after the worst natural disaster in recent US history, Boasso America reopened the New Orleans depot October 17, 2005 with a skeleton crew of employees. One year after Hurricane Katrina, Boasso America had returned to 84% of pre-storm employment at the New Orleans depot with some employees making Houston and Charleston their new homes.

Because of its location on high ground and proximity to the Mississippi River, Boasso America sustained minimal damage compared to many other companies in the New Orleans area. Macheca and Ortego say damage could have been much worse.

So the company has revised its hurricane preparedness plan that includes securing more food, water, fuel, and equipment for use after the storm. Plans also have been made on how to shift more equipment out of harm's way.

“Next time, for example, we'll be moving equipment to other locations, such as Houston,” Macheca says. “We'll pull the {evacuation} trigger much faster than last time.”