For Yoder, work is welcome respite. (Photo by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)

In Katrina’s aftermath, Fred Yoder is a very busy man. "I work 16 hours a day and it’s all I can do to drive back to Baton Rouge to be with my family and get some sleep before I turn around to come back at 5 a.m. the next morning," said Yoder, president and chief operating officer of Durr Heavy Construction LLC in Harahan, La.

For Yoder, like many others these days, work has been a godsend. "It is very therapeutic," Yoder said. "If I had to sit around and think about all my losses without something to distract me, it would be terribly depressing."

And the losses are enormous. For the past 25 years, Yoder has built a life in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. He serves as a Eucharistic minister at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, where all of his children and many of his friends’ children received their first communion. "All of my kids graduated from St. Dominic’s School and went over to Jesuit and Dominican," Yoder said. When the storm surge spilled over the breaches in the 17th St. and London Ave. canals, they didn’t just flood a few homes. They robbed families of their communities. "I lost my house, my son’s house two blocks over, my two daughters’ houses and everybody I’ve been associated with for the past 25 years," Yoder said.

Yoder knew his family was safe because they evacuated to Houston. By Tuesday after the storm, it was obvious that their homes were lost and they would have to make some long-term living arrangements. Thanks to one son, who is a sophomore at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Yoder got in touch with a rental company in time to scoop up some of the city’s quickly disappearing rental property. "We’ve got six adults, two children, two more on the way, two dogs and two cats all living together," Yoder said.

While floodwaters still lapped at the eaves of Yoder’s home, the situation seemed pretty hopeless. Making future plans was difficult. By contrast, in the offices of Durr, the atmosphere was energized, positive and upbeat. The front door and ringing telephones called attention to the constant stream of those seeking work. Yoder made no attempt to hide the fact that the company would hire as many locals as possible. "I think the people in Orleans and Jefferson love their community, and if they can be part of restructuring, I think that is a good thing for anyone," he said.

While hunkered down in a hotel in Houston, Yoder had no idea of the fate of the company for which he had worked 19 years. "Speculation was running rampant, and all communications were down," Yoder said.

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  • As it turned out, a skeleton crew of some key employees had weathered the storm in the office, which experienced nothing more severe than an extended power loss. Before Yoder physically returned to the offices, the company had signed contracts with Jefferson Parish and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for debris removal. "Tuesday after the storm we put in an order with Caterpillar to buy a lot of equipment and started that mobilizing here because we knew most of our equipment was lost," Yoder said. "Some had been lost to the storm and some confiscated by NOPD (the New Orleans Police Dept.) for their emergency use." Durr had about 30 active job sites in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes when Katrina hit.

    The next most immediate concern became feeding and housing the employees required to handle the massive cleanup. "We’re adding people everyday," Yoder said. "We are well over what our initial numbers were."

    While some employees remained camped out in the Harahan office, others scrambled to construct bunkhouses on company property. Yoder’s wife and daughters prepared hundreds of sandwiches every morning, which he transported from Baton Rouge to Jefferson Parish every day.

    As for Yoder’s home in New Orleans, Hurricane Rita delivered enough rain to flood Lakeview again, adding insult to injury. "I moved into Lakeview when I was in my early twenties so my children could go to St. Dominic’s," Yoder said. "That was my whole life, but life has changed for me. We are going to form a coalition of leaders in community and will try to figure out how to rebuild Lakeview."

    In the meantime, there is an abundance of work to occupy Yoder.