Katrina: Tales of Survival

Even some 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, both Northrop Grumman Corp. and its employees are still recovering. Northrop is still negotiating insurance claims and continues work on projects at its Gulf Coast facilities. “Even now, we’re still dealing with restoration activities,” says Ken Lehman, group director of shared services operations.

Anita Logan, director of employee relations for Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems sector, returned to work on the third day to find employees there who had nowhere else to go. At the shipyard, some found that their offices had totally washed away. Other buildings were still standing but uninhabitable. She says it’s hard to imagine the work conditions people faced. “You worked wherever you could find a space. There was no running water. There was no air conditioning. It was over 100 degrees,” she says.

With her building gone, she and her co-workers set up temporary quarters outdoors. “We were outside under someone’s umbrella. People brought in lawn chairs. Some of our tables consisted of the spools that wire came on,” she says. One worker brought over his motor home.

But if the conditions on site during those first few days were difficult, they were nothing compared with the sheer terror that people like Barbara Harris’ family experienced at the height of the storm. Harris, IT program manager for Northrop Grumman’s IT sector, decided to ride out the storm at her home, which sits 10 feet above the ground on stilts. At the height of the storm, waters rose to chest height inside her home, forcing Harris, her husband and son to swim out a window in search of higher ground.

“I was in a state of disbelief as I was watching everything I owned actually being destroyed by the strength of the winds and rising water, and I don’t know when I’ve felt more helpless as I realized there was absolutely nothing that I could do to prevent the destruction or to protect anything in the house.”

As they prepared to evacuate, Harris had to decide which few things to take with her. “As my mind was trying to sort through the reality of losing everything, I knew I had to try to save at least some of the small pictures of the children. And I had some very special pieces of jewelry from family that no amount of money could ever replace, and I put them in a Ziploc bag,” she says. She also packed her laptop and BlackBerry before swimming through a window into the storm outside.

“There was about 14 feet of water at the location of my house when we began our swim out to safety -- and it was rising rapidly,” she says. She estimates that the water crested at 17 or 18 feet before the storm was over. “We were swimming against the hurricane winds and against the flow of water, so it was extremely challenging,” she says.

Harris and her family swam a quarter mile through the storm and took refuge in a car port that was open to the winds because the doors had blown off. “The carport where we took refuge was about a quarter mile up the road from my house. It’s in the area where we moved the cars during hurricanes because the elevation was higher and the cars have always been safe from the rising waters. But not this time,” she says. They rode out the storm there, where Harris stood in water up to her neck, for about five hours before the winds and storm surge finally abated. “Then we waded [and] walked back out for about a mile and a half before someone picked us up and took us to safety.”

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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