Katrina and Rita — names that probably will not make the list of most popular baby names for 2005, but undoubtedly will not be forgotten anytime soon. The hurricanes that hit the Southern United States devastated homes, businesses, and lives. In the midst of the disaster, some airport-based businesses were able to carry on and play vital roles in recovery and relief. AIRPORT BUSINESS recently spoke with operators in the region to assess the impact.
On the airport concessions side, Hudson Group director of communications Laura Samuels says all of the retailer’s stores in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Gulfport-Biloxi (MS) International, and Mobile (AL) Regional sustained damage from hurricane Katrina, which hit the gulf region the last week of August. The damage to the stores was caused by rain leaking through the ceilings.
Samuels says quite a bit of merchandise was destroyed, but the company had no problem restocking the shelves. “We had a lot of merchandise in our warehouse ahead of time, so we really fed those stores with [on-hand] stock. And then eventually when those commercial flights began again we were able to replenish. But we didn’t run out of anything; we had quite a bit of warehouse merchandise in New Orleans.”
And then there’s Rita. Hudson’s stores at Houston Hobby were affected by the airport’s closure. Employees were also affected by the mandatory evacuation.
“The interesting thing for us,” says Samuels, “was, in New Orleans, despite the fact that many of our people were affected by the storm at home, they came into work. So our main stores in New Orleans stayed open throughout — they didn’t close at all. Those [employees] came in, even though back home their homes were suffering severe damage. “They’re the heroes of our company.”
According to Samuels, the retail stores staying open at the airport, which quickly became a hospital/evacuee center, is part of everyday operations — not necessarily disaster operations.
“Our folks come in at 5:30 a.m. We open the airport and we close it. That’s just normal operating procedure. Our everyday plan is to be there when our customers need us.” There was confusion and some unknowns for the company and its employees soon after Katrina hit, says Samuels. “We had some employees that did not know what to do. They weren’t heard from for a while so we put in an 800-number, a hotline, and tried to get as many of our people as we could to call in just to find out how they were doing and if they were okay.” Hudson has 75 employees between New Orleans, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Mobile.
Additionally, says Samuels, “The general manager from that area went down to the Houston Astrodome where a lot of people had been evacuated to that first week and he spent four days just searching through the Houston Astrodome looking for employees of Hudson Group. Of course, cell phones weren’t working and emails weren’t working. And he just felt the best thing to do was to go there and look for people; and, he found a couple of our people in the Astrodome.”
Hudson Group has established a Katrina relief collection fund at all of its locations for patrons to make donations. The retailer will match donations up to $50,000 and all funds will be given to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, says Samuels.
Caught in the Crossfire: The Million Air Chain
The Million Air fixed base operation at New Orleans Lakefront Airport is still closed and sustained “significant” damage, according to VP of marketing Sandy Nelson. “I think that when it opens back up, it will be with a temporary office building and new fuel tanks ...
“Our Lake Charles [LA] FBO is operational right now, with no electricity. They sustained damage as well, but they have the government contracts so they’re fueling FEMA and U.S. Air Force, so they’re very busy with the government support.”
Nelson says some of the chain’s locations have experienced problems with the fuel supply, including at the corporate headquarters in Houston.
She reports that Million Air Houston was the only FBO on the field that stayed open throughout the storm. “I think most of the other facilities closed, but we got creative with finding more fuel. Our goal was to keep the availability of fuel at our airport because we started doing medivac missions.”
One of the ways the operator was able to stretch the fuel was to ask pilots to take on less fuel so it could be conserved for the medivac operations. “We asked the pilots, what’s the least amount of fuel you can take? And everybody was very patient and understanding.” Million Air Houston had medivac aircraft carrying patients from Hurricane Katrina as well as evacuating patients from Houston hospitals prior to landfall of Rita.
As Hurricane Rita was approaching the Houston area, many of the FBO’s staff were evacuated from their homes. “What we ended up doing is we had a lot of key personnel and management staff that weren’t in mandatory evacuation areas and we stayed and we ran the FBO.
“We had probably 200 people in our lobby with kids, dogs, cats, and every space that was on the floor, people were sitting down. There were periods that the airport shut down the air space for general aviation and they did only commercial [air service], and there were periods where commercial aviation was shut down and general aviation was flying.”
It Becomes Critical
Crucial to the operations of many of the FBOs in the Million Air chain across North America is the server and telephone system that is housed at its Houston corporate headquarters. Says Nelson, “We have a very creative IT department that was able to put a plan together and make sure there was no disruption of service.”
“We had generators and were managing the servers to try to keep all the other FBOs across our chain alive and well. And it worked out being more important than we even realized because a lot of the military operations that were going out of Lake Charles were being reserved through our Million Air mail system. So it was imperative that that mail system stay active so they could start the relief efforts in Lake Charles.”
The Million Air dispatch center was relocated to Fayetteville, AR, says Nelson. “They dispatched for Salt Lake City, Houston, and backed up some of the other locations. And as soon as the sun started shining in Houston, they were on their way back.”
Nelson says the disaster plan the company had in place was a “solid one. But you realize how flexible its requirements are.” She relates that the Houston operation is looking into purchasing a larger generator to support the facility in case of an extended period without electricity.
“There are so many things you take for granted: food, water, open restaurants. There were just so many factors that you don’t conceive of in a disaster situation. And all of that stuff started happening — that infrastructure started shutting down with the possibility of a disaster. We had tropical storm weather — we were brushed by a hurricane; but the possibility exhausted infrastructure that you wouldn’t have considered.”
Minor Damage at MSY FBO
Signature Flight Support operates an FBO at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. According to senior director of marketing, Joe Gibney, the MSY facility has minor damage to the exterior of the building but no structural damage. “We did lose power, water, telephone service. We had a generator pre-staged and had power back on by Thursday,” says Gibney. “Other services came on over the next week and a half.”
The New Orleans facility was only closed for a “short period of time,” says Gibney. “The storm ended Monday midday. We opened and were fueling rescue helicopters Monday afternoon.”
One Signature employee stands out for Gibney. “Immediately after the storm he was able to perform all quality checks on the fuel equipment and begin fueling aircraft. He was our one employee for about 48 hours. He pumped 14,000 gallons of fuel by himself on Tuesday. And by Wednesday we were able to get additional employees in to assist him.”