The event encompassing Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on August 29th, 2005 and the subsequent breach of the federally built and maintained levees that caused 80 percent of New Orleans to flood and killed 1,833 people, also constituted the largest insured loss the world over since 1970 – to the tune of $78.64 billion. In this short series over the week leading up to the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Comp Blog takes a look back. This edition of “Comp Blog Commemorates K10” features Mark Tullis, Administrator of LCI Workers’ Comp and native New Orleanian, as he reveals his evacuation and recovery experience and what he’s learned a decade later.
Comp Blog: Let’s start with the personal side. When did you decide to evacuate and what was your experience with it?
Tullis: Like a lot of New Orleanians, I had never evacuated before, and in fact, I was one of the people that mocked people who did evacuate. It was a pretty common sentiment before Katrina – not evacuating was a source of pride. I held onto that leading up to that Sunday morning when we finally decided to leave. I was paying close attention to the storm radar and our neighbors had already left.
I remember looking at the 4 AM reading and I saw that the barometric pressure was about 920 millibars and later that morning dropped to just above 900 millibars – which is catastrophic pressure, Camille-like pressure. The winds were around 145 miles per hour, and at that point I talked to my then-fiance, now-wife, and said we were going to have to leave. I also started calling all of my brothers and my family members telling them to leave too, and fortunately all but one listened to me. I’ve never been an alarmist – if I was going to leave it was going to be based on science and evidence.
Comp Blog: How did you decide what you were going to take with you and move to higher ground in the house?
Tullis: We were living in Mid-City at the time, which was low lying and I knew it would flood, so we started making preparations. It was a two-story duplex. The downstairs was my office and the upstairs was living space. We boxed up everything we could and started moving it upstairs. The books were a high priority, at that time I had my whole library downstairs. Eventually though I just ran out of time to move everything, especially in that anxiety-laden environment, so I pulled all of the books out of the bottom shelves of my bookcases and stacked them on a table. I lost them all anyway, the waters came up four feet in the house.
It was just the two of us then, no kids, so we got into our mid-sized SUV full of clothes and basically nothing else, no idea how long we’d be gone. Fortunately, we didn’t have any indoor pets but I had taken care of eight cats in the neighborhood as part of a trap and release program and I obviously had to leave them.
Comp Blog: Where did you evacuate to?
Tullis: We were heading to Baton Rouge. It took us eight hours to travel down Airline Highway from Carrollton Avenue to the airport, a trip that usually takes about twenty minutes. It was bumper to bumper traffic and we couldn’t run the air conditioning because we were afraid the car would overheat. I remember we started the trip with five-eighths of a tank of gas but luckily we got there. We ended up getting to Baton Rouge sometime at night and stayed with a friend. They lost power there [in Baton Rouge] when the storm hit too, so WWL radio was the only thing around to know what was going on.
Comp Blog: Did you witness anything in particular in the evacuation that struck you?
Tullis: One of the things I remember seeing as we were crawling down Airline was a sedan filled with a family and the kids were sitting on the trunk of the car. They were all laughing because, what else are you going to do?
The other thing was, I started seeing people walking on Airline Highway, away from the airport towards the city, with suitcases – whole families. Later I found out that all the flights were cancelled and they were tourists, that was why. None of the cabs were running so they had to just walk back. There was no plan for them. Tourists thought they could stay in the hotels and after a few days [as the storm approached] the hotels had to kick people out. A lot of those people ended up at the Convention Center or in the Superdome.
That’s why no one will ever stay again. No one can trust the city, no one can trust that they have a plan for people.
Comp Blog: As the days after the storm unfolded and more information came out, what was going through your head?
Tullis: At first it looked like everything was okay, the storm came through. And then you started hearing reports of flooding and reports that some areas were inundated and people were on top of roofs. But, much like 9/11, you couldn’t really piece everything together until several days later. People couldn’t comprehend eight or ten feet of water in their homes.
There was a coffee shop called Perk’s on Perkins Avenue [in Baton Rouge]. I used to go there because they had an Internet connection and I would just wait for any kind of news. What was weird was that the whole place, everywhere you went in Baton Rouge and Lafayette really, it was filled with New Orleans refugees. There was this look of true malaise on everyone’s face.
After two days in Baton Rouge we went to Lafayette to my now-wife’s brother’s college apartment and stayed for two weeks. In that coffee shop too, the CC’s across the street, everyone was displaced and everyone was monitoring NOLA.com because they had started forums for every neighborhood. I remember reading the “Pets” forum and it was just terrible. As more and more time went by, people were posting things just giving their addresses and asking anyone to come and break into their house to free their dogs and cats. It was heartbreaking.
Comp Blog: Did you feel that there was a collective sentiment among these “refugees?”
Tullis: People were incredibly angry. [Former New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin was just a villain because, before this happened, it was just incomprehensible that in 21st Century America you couldn’t get back into your own home, your own city. Of course, we had no understanding of the damage, it just didn’t register yet.
Comp Blog: What went on professionally for you during the storm and the weeks before you could get back to your office?
Tullis: I knew my family was safe so my thoughts turned to work after a few days. The thing that really saved us as a company was the fact that our claims department was outsourced and based in Baton Rouge, and they were fine, so our claimants got paid. Now, on the underwriting and billing side, we were using a company in Slidell and their offices were completely flooded so that was more difficult.
Karen Winfrey, who was in charge of the Office of Workers’ Compensation at the time, got ahold of everyone and put a meeting together in Baton Rouge with all of the workers’ comp carriers. She did a really great job in a crisis situation, taking control and making sure everyone was paying their claimants and had alternate addresses. We immediately opened up Post Office boxes in Lafayette and took ads out in the papers saying ‘if you’re an LCI claimant here’s what to do.’ In 2005 I had just gotten a cell phone, that was still pretty new.
Comp Blog: How long did it take you to get back into the city and to your office?
Tullis: They opened up zip codes one at a time and I was just waiting for them to let us in: 70119 in Mid-City. Uptown and the French Quarter got in first. The whole thing was incredibly upsetting, just the feeling that we were being refused access to our own city.
As it turned out, my brother Stuart, who had to go back to work in Jefferson Parish, asked me if I wanted to go with him back to the city and I said yes. I had printed out the LCI certificates and state documents so that I could convince a police officer that I had a reason to be there and we took Airline Highway all the way back. At the parish line there was a huge line of military and police vehicles. Luckily, I was indeed able to convince them that I had official business.
Comp Blog: What happened when you got to your office and home?
Tullis: When we got to Bienville around Jefferson Davis, the office was on Iberville, you could start to the see the water – significant water on the streets still three weeks later. We put boots on and started to wade through to walk up to the house. I was terrified because it was so silent. It was completely silent other than the occasional helicopter – no police, no people. I’ll never forget the smell either – it smelled like death and mud and mold.
Comp Blog: What did you see when you got into the house?
Tullis: I managed to get the back door open upstairs instead of breaking a window. The smell was awful from the fridge but otherwise everything looked okay. All of the work stuff was downstairs though. Eventually we were able to push ourselves into the first floor. It was a nightmare. Everything was turned over, ruined, wet, slippery. It was hard to even walk. I lost a lot of files but luckily I had retained most of the important things. I also saw one of the cats that I had fed around the neighborhood that day. For a whole year after we moved Uptown in October 2005 I came back to Mid-City to feed those cats and I wound up taking three of them back with me after that year even though I wasn’t supposed to have pets.
Comp Blog: What was your perception of that first year after Katrina and the recovery efforts?
Tullis: It was strange. Everything almost looked back to normal Uptown; the lights were back on and everything. But as soon as you took one of the streets heading out – when you hit Freret or Claiborne, it was suddenly pitch black.
People were very pessimistic about the future. The recovery was very slow in the areas that had had significant flooding and a lot of people were worried that we just weren’t going to make it. I sat on a district committee formed by the city for each neighborhood – I was on the Lakeview/Mid-City one – and I remember the leader of the group telling us how he rode his bicycle around every street and just said, ‘nobody’s here’ and started crying. I don’t know when it turned around and people started feeling good again, but they eventually did, it may have been the new blood.
Comp Blog: Was the “new blood” the biggest post-Katrina change?
Tullis: Yes. Prior to Katrina everyone was from here – anyone in a leadership position, in business, anything. After Katrina, just the opposite. There are all of these new young people here now, that’s a huge change.
Comp Blog: What are your thoughts about the concerns that come with that (gentrification, growing socioeconomic disparities, dilution of culture)?
Tullis: There’s no question that a lot of people couldn’t afford to come back. Previously, Broadmoor, Bywater and Mid-City were really affordable neighborhoods for low-income and middle-income people – musicians and people in service and hospitality. Post-Katrina, those rents have increased astronomically.
There are two types of people in New Orleans: creators of culture and consumers of culture. The people who create the culture in New Orleans have historically been low income. If we want to have the same culture we had before Katrina, we have to accommodate that and not push people out. Otherwise, we will lose it.
Editor’s Note: Louisiana Comp Blog is funded and presented by LCI Workers’ Comp.