Enlarge +
(Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

Robert S. Boh wasn’t exactly a wallflower before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but since then has become something of a local hero and his family business, Boh Bros. Construction Co., has emerged from the shadows with him and into an unfamiliar limelight. The key event in the transformation occurred Jan. 6, when the 5.4-mile westbound span of New Orleans’ Interstate 10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain reopened eight days ahead of schedule. That lifted the spirits of a devastated city. Although Boh had won a tidy $1.12-million bonus for opening the eastbound span 17 days early—a welcome event given the cash demands related to the hurricane—there was no bonus associated with the westbound work.

“A lot of contractors...you won’t get that extra push that you get when there is an incentive,” says Bob Larkin, a project engineer at Volkert & Associates, the repair job’s Mobile, Ala.-based designer. But Boh Bros. gave the extra push anyway, working non-stop to get the bridge open to four lanes of traffic 130 days after Katrina. “People want to get back. They want normalcy,” Larkin says. “I can say it because I’m the outsider, so it’s easy for me to see.”

Today, almost six months after Katrina, normalcy seems a long way off for New Orleans, vast areas of which are in ruins. Louisiana’s elected officials are at an impasse with the Bush administration over plans to rebuild. A mayoral race scheduled for April is wide open, with newly declared candidates promising decisive leadership.

In the days that followed the bridge reopening, Boh’s name was heard on the region’s talk radio stations. Someone had done something right after the disaster.

“I think Boh Bros. specifically and the construction industry in general has gotten a big boost of appreciation from the population at large,” Boh says. “Our reputation was good before and it shows people what good work we do. If they needed reminding, I think they saw it.”

Yet, heroes always seem destined to be toppled. That could have happened to Robert S. Boh on Dec. 13, only a month after its bridge triumph.

After New Orleans had time to catch its breath, the Army Corps of Engineers started scrutinizing every detail of levee construction, looking for signs that someone other than the Corps and faulty design were culprits in what has been tagged the engineering debacle of the century.

That set the stage for a highly-publicized gathering at the 17th Street Canal, which had failed with terrible consequences. As sun covered the levee, Corps Brig. Gen. Robert Crear gave the command to “pull the pile” to determine if the original contractor, Boh Bros., had installed it to the appropriate depth. Numerous investigating bodies organized since the storm jockeyed for position as the official tape measure testified that Boh Bros. had met the Corps’ specifications in the sections immediately adjacent to the fateful breach. The measuring that day undoubtedly was only a tiny drop in what will surely be a deluge of investigation and testing. Where the blame will fall is unclear.

In New Orleans, the Boh name has been synonymous with construction. The company’s school-bus yellow “safety pays” logo is as recognizable an icon to locals as Coca-Cola. But in a city known for its laid-back, laissez-faire style, Boh Bros. has operated largely out of view. No one noticed what the company did unless something broke.

The original Boh brothers, Arthur P. Boh and Henry Boh, started the business before World War I, building houses and executing drainage and sewer contracts. But the company, which has had several major non-family member partners, grew more rapidly after World War II. Henry’s only child, Robert H. Boh, studied engineering at Tulane University and became chief executive in 1967. He has since retired but he and his partners shaped Boh Bros. into a diversified contractor that now employs 1,200.

The company performs heavy, highway, marine, water and sewer and industrial work under the Boh Bros. name with a union work force and has helped keep New Orleans a union town. In building construction, the company operates...