Prior to 2005, anyone who thought of New Orleans probably thought about great food, great music, and great parties. The sight of large Mardi Gras crowds, the sound of jazz and Cajun music and the spicy taste of jambalaya and gumbo were synonymous with the Crescent City.

Then Hurricane Katrina came to town and forever altered the way people think about New Orleans. Visions of Mardi Gras floats and crowded dancehalls were replaced with pictures of broken levees and people sitting on their rooftops as the floodwaters rose, waiting for rescue. People who had lost everything gathered in shelters, desperate for food, shelter and medical help while supplies trickled in. Then the stories got darker, with reports of chaos among the evacuees at the Superdome, widespread looting and lawlessness in the streets. When the floodwaters finally receded and order was established, one of the country’s great cities lay left in ruins.

Three years later, it still hasn’t recovered. The population now is about 200,000 people fewer than it was in 2005. Many businesses never reopened, and large chunks of the city are still abandoned. While restoring the city was a top priority in the country right after the devastation, other news events have pushed New Orleans out of the spotlight.

Within New Orleans and the surrounding area, people are getting their lives and livelihoods back together. In many cases, they’ve had to start from scratch, but they’re determined to make a full recovery.

“I laugh at [rising] gas prices,” says Jerry Hanford, president of Crescent City Meat Co., located in the outskirts of the city in Metairie. “Compared to what we’ve had to deal with, that’s nothing.” Considering Hanford spent a week camped out in his processing plant after Katrina ripped the roof off of it, he’s not kidding.


Local favorites

Having been founded 21 years ago, Crescent City is a relative newcomer among New Orleans-based processors. Hanford started the company based off an Italian sausage recipe that had been in the family for generations.

“We started making that product, and from there it’s evolved to a full-line sausage company,” he says. We do some other pork products; we do some pickled pork, some tasso (meat products used as ingredients in recipes), but the majority of what we do is sausage.”

As a supplier of sausages to many foodservice operations, some of Crescent City’s most popular items are local products like alligator Andouille sausage and a crawfish sausage, which are also popular among tourists at the Gulf Coast casinos.

Chisesi Brothers, which had its plant close to the Superdome in New Orleans, has been a fixture in the city for more than 100 years. Nicholas Chisesi and his brother represent the fifth generation of the family.

“We make a Chisesi’s VIP ham, which is a 95 percent fat-free ham, done the way that we’ve been doing it for years,” he says. Along with a range of hams, sausages and other products, Chisesi also makes products from Schott Meat Packing Co., a company it purchased in 1985. Schott had been existence since 1879, and Chisesi still offers their most popular products, including chili and a smoked green onion sausage.

Having been through hurricanes before, Chisesi said his family’s plan has been to stay close to the city, keep the company’s 16 refrigerated trucks fueled and ready. If power was lost, they would come back after the storm, load the trucks with the product, and drive to a cold storage facility to maintain the meat.

“We were ready, from our standpoint, with what we had done for years. But when the levees broke and the waters came in, there was nothing we could do,” he says.

The 9th Ward, which suffered the most damage as a result of the massive flooding, was also home to two family-owned meat processors. Patton’s Sausage Co. Inc. started out of a corner grocery store and grew into a 6,000-square-foot facility. Frank DeGrado III is the grandson of the founder, who started the company in 1942.

“We make a pretty unique product that’s not something you see in other parts of the country,” he says, referring to the company’s most popular product. “It’s a fresh beef hot sausage, and we also make the same formulation into a patty form.”

The Friday before Katrina made landfall, DeGrado left work without making any preparations, as all the news reports showed the hurricane heading toward north Texas. Katrina abruptly changed course over the weekend, and DeGrado and his family went to Mississippi to stay with his father-in-law.

“We didn’t take any preparations at all, although anything we would have done, other than moving things offsite, wouldn’t have done good anyway,” he says.


Hurricanes and floodwaters

Patton was located in the lower 9th Ward. On the east side of the Ward was Scariano Brothers LLC, a processor and food distributor and another three-generation company.

The company started in 1932 and was one of the area’s top producers of pickled meat. The majority of the company’s revenue came from distribution.

“The more boxes we continued to bring in from other people and sell, the less and less we had to rely on our own manufactured products,” says Jack “Jay” Scariano, president and CEO.

He says that when a hurricane comes, the company gets 30 or 40 hotel rooms in downtown New Orleans and put up all the employees who wanted to stay.

“We would pay for their rooms and meals, and we’d sit around and play cards and joke around,” Scariano says. “It was almost like a bonding event.” When the storm would pass, they would get back to the facility, call to have energy restored and get back to work.

This time around, more and more employees called in to say they were leaving the area. The initial concerns was that Scariano Brothers would end up short-staffed when Katrina passed, causing difficulties in servicing its customers in the South and Southeast. As the storm gathered strength and the danger rose, Scariano went to be with his family in Baton Rouge.

“Then the storm hit on Monday morning,” he recalls. “We had shoddy reports about what was going on. We had heard that some of the levees had broken, but we didn’t know how bad our facility was.”

Scariano got to find out the next day. His son flew his single-engine Cessna airplane to Baton Rouge, and after going through all of the clearances needed, they were able to fly over the city and survey the damage.

“That was pretty cool,” he admits, flying down there at 2,500 feet, with all the Coast Guard helicopters and transport helicopters buzzing up and down, plucking people off the roofs. Then we flew over our facility, and it was totally flooded.”

They flew low enough to see that water had gotten inside the doors. Once they were back in Baton Rouge, Scariano immediately went about securing a temporary office in town and got about a dozen of his management and sales staff together.

“We had one salesman come in every day and call all of their customers to tell them that we were out of business, we were flooded, and we were working on how to get back,” he says.

Hanford, who lived far enough away that his home didn’t suffer any damages, was expecting to drive back to Metairie to fix what needed to be fixed. When the levees broke, the city was closed off, and he couldn’t get through. He and a friend packed up some supplies and drove as far as they could, dodging downed power lines and other debris. When a police barricade wouldn’t let them go any further, Hanford ran the barricade to get into town.

“They didn’t even bother trying to chase me down, because there were too many other people trying to do it,” he says.

Crescent City’s plant did not flood. The winds from Katrina ripped the roof off of the building, exposing all the interiors and the products to the elements. By the time Hanford reached his plant, two days after the storm, he was greeted by the sight of water pouring down his stairs and the smell of 45,000 pounds of meat going bad in the 95-degree heat.

“It’s hard to describe what it felt like,” he says. “I broke down. When you see your dreams and everything that you’ve worked for, and you know it’s not there anymore…”

The two immediately began the process of surveying the damage and salvaging what food they could. One freezer had stayed cold enough to maintain the sausages inside, so they were able to deliver about 20,000 pounds of food until the company’s refrigerated truck ran out of gas.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t leave the facility, as the police would not have let them back in. So, Hanford and his friend camped out in the now open-air facility for about three weeks after the storm.

Other people weren’t able to get to their facilities as quickly. Chisesi, who had gone to Baton Rouge, made several calls to get back in town to no avail.

“I made calls to Homeland Security, and the fire department and police department, anybody I could, to tell the food was there, and it would last for a couple of days,” he said. “We had bottled water and juice, because we sold to the local schools. We had everything you’d need to feed people, in a building right by the Dome. And they told us they couldn’t get to the building. That’s when I knew it was bad.”

DeGrado at Patton Sausage had other concerns, along with the state of his plant. Though his father-in-law lost power, he was able to stay connected to the city through news reports on the car radio.

“When I heard where the breach was in the levee, I know it was going to be really bad for the lower 9th Ward. I knew we’d have a substantial amount of water,” he says. To make matters worse, his parents and sister stayed in the St. Bernard Parish, and he was unable to find out what had happened to them until a week afterward.

“They were trapped in their house for eight days and had to be rescued by helicopter,” he relates. “They had about nine feet of water in their house, and it was a pretty rough experience. They said they saw snakes and fish swimming through the first floor of their house.”

DeGrado’s father, a diabetic, has some problems with his legs, so the family was taken to an aircraft carrier on the Mississippi River that had been converted to a hospital ship. He was finally able to get in touch with his family on board the ship.

DeGrado couldn’t get back to his facility until a month after Katrina, thanks in part to Hurricane Rita, which came a week after Katrina and made the flooding even worse. When he got there, he knew the building was a total loss.

“It was a cinderblock building with a flat roof, and I guess the water came up so fast that the water pressure lifted the roof off the building and then set it back down, not exactly in the same place. I knew it was going to be impossible to do anything with the facility short of rebuilding it.”


Rebuilding, recovery

After realizing the extent of the damage sustained by the storm and the flooding, each processor went about taking steps to ensure the business would survive. Crescent City and Chisesi Brothers were the only two that were able to repair their building, and Chisesi only did that as a stopgap solution before they could find another facility.

Hanford says he could have gotten his insurance to write up the facility and its contents as a total loss. However, to do so would have put the company out of business. The local business was gone, but the company had out-of-state customers to service.

“We decided to try and get it up and running with what we could manage to put together,” Hanford says. He was able to repair most of the equipment and get it running again. He obtained a massive tarp that he put on the facility to keep the rain from Hurricane Rita from doing any further damage. When the Home Depot and Lowe’s stores started opening, he could start renovations.

As a federally inspected building, the first step was to gut the interior.

“We knew that the mold sampling and testing we were going to have to do was going to be outrageous before the government would allow us to start operating again,” he said. He got the building to its cinderblock and steel beam base, treated the mold, and put everything back in.

Crescent City Meats was able to do some processing for relief workers within 30 days of the storm, and it gained USDA approval after about 45 days.

“We were the only USDA plant open for three months, so we had five inspectors living here in our little plant, because they had no place else to inspect,” he says.

Chisesi Brothers in total lost two and a half million pounds of product, 16 trucks and two buildings (a processing facility and a warehouse) as a result of the storm. Employees, friends and family cleaned out and fixed the facility in about two weeks. The company acquired a facility in Jefferson Parish that, as 128,000 square feet, was almost triple the old building. After spending two and a half years and about $3 million to renovate that building, the company moved to its new home in October, 2007.

One of the most frustrating aspects for the company has been getting the insurance payments from its former facility. Chisesi says the company was fully insured but hasn’t received anything yet.

“My dad has been buying insurance for 50 years, and we’ve never had to use it,” he says. “The one time we had to use it, we have to fight for it, and we’re in the process of litigation now.”

He adds that the company tried to stay in the city of New Orleans, but it couldn’t find a suitable building. Still, with its location in Jefferson Parish, it’s close to the city.

“We’ve been in this city for 95 years,” Chisesi says. “We’re made our money here, so we stayed in the city. Why would we move out to the country when the city needed our help?”

Scariano Brothers and Patton’s Sausage moved around before finding new homes. DeGrado says that undamaged real estate was at a premium at the time, so he turned to some industry friends while considering his options.

Double D Meat Co. was located on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain in Bogalusa. The sausage company is run by the Stogner family, who are friends of DeGrado, and they gave him some space in their facility to produce his sausages.

“Many of my suppliers and even some of my customers are surprised that another plant would let us in, but they are a smoked pork sausage plant, and we are a fresh beef plant, so we’ve never been competitors,” he explains. Patton’s used to distribute for Double D, and the companies’ products complement each other, making it a win-win situation.

Prior to the storm, Patton’s had been a state-inspected business. Double D was federally inspected, so Patton had to get USDA approval as well before production, as well as replacing the ruined equipment. It began operations again the day after Thanksgiving.

“When I got started, I wondered if we would have our customers, and that wasn’t a problem at all. We couldn’t make the product fast enough to fill the orders,” DeGrado says.

After relocating its sales office to Baton Rouge, Scariano Brothers received plenty of positive feedback from its customers, who were very supportive about the company coming back. Bolstered by that support, the company acquired a business in Pounchaloula and made that building its new temporary distribution center. When it returned to business in March of 2006, it discontinued the pickled meat production and became strictly a distributor.

“That’s the hardest thing to reproduce, because you need so much supporting labor and equipment to manufacture the product we were manufacturing,” Scariano explains. “With the distribution center, it’s easy -- box in, box out.”

Scariano Brothers is in the process of building a 50,000-square-foot distribution center in nearby Hammond, which will become its new and permanent home. It will have 40,000 square feet of cooler space, which dwarfs its current location, as well as state-of-the-art security systems with video cameras and biometric entryway systems.

“I don’t think there are going to be a lot of private [distribution facilities] in the country as nice as this when it’s done,” he says of the facility, which is expected to be operating by November 1 at the latest.

“At the point that the storm actually hit, I looked at it and said that this is going to be a five-year program to get back to where we were to begin with,” he adds. “It will be three years this year, and this is where we are. We’re really looking forward to busting it up in the next two years.”


Not victims

Three years after Katrina, DeGrado says his business for hot links and sausage patties has expanded. The company is currently producing about 10,000 pounds of product a day, and the building has a capacity for 30,000 pounds daily. While its lineup of products has shrunk from sausages and pork links to just its specialty products, its distribution has expanded outside of Louisiana.

“There are a lot of Louisiana evacuees in Texas, so we got contacted by a broker over there that was looking to get our product into stores, because there were so many people asking for it,” he says. Patton’s has also added distribution on the West Coast and is working on the East Coast.

All the processors have had problems finding employees. Crescent City Meats has 12 employees, down from its pre-Katrina numbers of 16.

Scariano notes that his 100 or so employees scattered to about 14 different states after Katrina, and replacing people with years of experience has been one of his biggest challenges.

Chisesi says the grants the U.S. government gave to New Orleans residents should have gone to businesses to get back up and running again.

“That would have brought people back, to have jobs and places to work,” he reasons. Instead, many people who were given money from the government left town to start over somewhere else.

Chisesi says the company purchased the current building to grow the business for succeeding generations. His office contains photos and newspaper clippings of the company’s past owners.

“It gives you a little extra drive and a boost, even if you might be down,” he says.

Hanford says his business is ahead of pre-Katrina numbers, but this year’s economy has hurt the momentum that businesses were enjoying. Crescent City is also dealing with insurance rates that have tripled since the storm.

“Business is good. I don’t have to be much busier,” he says. “If we could just maintain and grow the business in small baby steps, we’ll be fine.”

Immediately after the flood, Scariano and some employees drove to the 9th Ward and took a boat to their facility. There, he says that they basically looted their own building, taking all the computer systems and phone systems that were salvageable. Three years later, his new facility is nearing completion, putting an end to temporary locations and paying for extra space and storage.

“The first year, I felt like a victim, but now I’m playing the cards that I was dealt,” he says. “I’m working on a straight flush now. All I need is one extra spade, and we’ll be there, and this building is it.”