After Katrina hit New Orleans, the lives of local construction workers were turned inside out. Three who worked in the New Orleans area for Covington, Lou.-based B&K Construction took on new roles in emergency projects. At a Metairie, Louisiana staging area in New Orleans Sept. 9, here's what they had to say about work and the stricken region they call home.
|Jason Dobraska's commute got longer.|
Jason Dobraska: "We're not leaving."
By trade, Jason Dobraska is a mechanic who services equipment for B & K Construction, which has performed flood control and marine work for the Army Corps of Engineers.
On Sept. 9, about a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, he temporarily had a new career guiding helicopter pilots in to hook up the huge sandbags that are being airlifted and placed to patch the numerous breaches in the levees.
Dobraska lives in Abita Springs, a community located north of Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish.
With the Causeway (the 26-mile bridge connecting the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain) out of commission, his daily commute to the work site took a lot longer than it should. The beautiful piney woods surrounding Dobraska's home caused widespread mangling of power lines, and power is not likely to be restored for weeks. "Being a mechanic, I've got a welding machine with a generator on the back of my truck," he says. "I go home every night and hook it up."
A native of Milwaukee, Dobraska isn't even entertaining the idea of moving away from the area, even in light of the recent trials caused by Hurricane Katrina. His wife's home is south Louisiana and, like many others, she doesn't want to pull up roots. "I married a country girl and she doesn't much care for the city," he says.
|Walter Pfaff went from pile driver to sandbag man.|
Walter Pfaff: under the choppers
Although the Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters (and their precious cargo of gargantuan sand bags) are receiving more international notoriety of late, Walter Pfaff is satisfied with his position. Normally a pile driver with B&K Construction, Pfaff is happy to temporarily fulfill his new role guiding helicopter pilots to hook the huge sandbags that are being airlifted and placed in the well-publicized levee breaches. "The only pile drivers they had out here were those guys with Boh, driving the sheet piling," Pfaff says, referring to employees of Boh Bros Construction, a well-known local contractor.
But Pfaff's on-the-ground training was quick, thorough and effective. "I learned early on which helicopters kicked up what kind of wind taking off and landing," he says. When the blackhawks come in, Pfaff is backed up (literally) by his partner, Dobraska. He positions himself behind Pfaff, supporting him against the wind thrust. Pfaff's home in Old Metairie (a New Orleans suburb) is 'high and dry," he says, but without power, drinking water and sewerage services. "My house isn't in living condition."
Currently, he, his wife, children, and various other relatives are living in Sorrento, a town located along the Mississippi River about mid-way between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. "I'm happy to do this," Pfaff says. "I'm doing whatever I can to help save my community."
|Robbie Whitaker says B&K mobilized early.|
Robbie Whitaker: we were ready
Robbie Whitaker is one of many Louisiana residents who shelved personal concerns To pitch in and help with reconstruction after Katrina hit. A site superintendent with B&K Construction, Whitaker says his company mobilized September 1, the Thursday after the storm. "We started getting ready Wednesday and moved in Thursday morning," Whitaker says.
Although Whitaker has some wind damage at his home and it remains without electricity, he feels he is pretty lucky compared to many others. "I live in St. Tammany Parish, about 10 miles north of Covington," Whitaker says. "We still don't have electricity, and may not for a while, but we've got generators. We're better off than a lot of people. They need a lot of help over here."
As of Sept. 9, B & K had about 25 people on the day crew and 50 working at night, filling the huge sand bags that are being air lifted and placed to block the various levee breaches. "We get more done at night because it's not as congested and the helicopters aren't flying around," Whitaker says.
Actually, B&K filled the bags with limestone, not sand, and it was being placed in breaches "all over the place," Whitaker says. "I don't remember how many they have now."
As of Sept. 9, the Corps had identified at least two breaches on the London Avenue Canal, as well as the breach on the 17th Street Canal. "We're placing roughly 500 bags per night," Whitaker says. "At first, when we were getting organized, we were placing 300 to 400."
The National Guard actually handled the airlift and placement portion of the project, using Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, while B&K is coordinating the ground efforts. However, the terms "we" and "us" were tossed about freely as the lines between contractors and the various agencies blended in team spirit.
B&K's staging area was littered with equipment labeled with the Boh Bros. Construction Co. logo. "Boh Bros., B & K and other contractors, we all have equipment out here," Whitaker says. "We're using each other's stuff. We are doing whatever it takes to get it done."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the enormous tragedy, personal losses and need for quick fixes, everyone worked together in a fairly seamless and painless operation. "I've found no flared tempers out here," Whitaker says. "Everybody realizes there's a job to do andthey do it."
Even though many of B & K's own employees are suffering personal hardships, the company is having no problem finding enough hands. "We've hired some locals from this area who came on the site," Whitaker says. "They just came over the levee and asked for work."
"We're going to be busy for a long time," Whitaker says. "We were busy before this started, but.....It is a shame it happened, but what can you do?"