NEW ORLEANS, La. - It was homecoming for Kathy Dionne, but there was no stadium, no football game, and no mum pinned to her chest. Outfitted in a plastic poncho, rubber boots, gloves and a cheap paper mask, she prepared herself for what she was about to see. For the first time since Hurricane Katrina came roaring through Orleans Parish on Aug. 29, she was returning to what had been her home away from home. As branch manager of the New Orleans East branch of New Orleans Firemen's Federal Credit Union, Kathy had trekked in and out of that white brick building countless times. How could she have guessed when she left it to comply with mandatory evacuation orders six weeks before that her whole world would change before she crossed the threshold again? The hurricane destroyed the new home she had moved into just a few months earlier. Fortunately, because lodging is virtually impossible to find now, she was able to obtain acceptable housing nearby. Flooding from levee breaches swamped Kathy's office for three weeks following Katrina and again after Rita. Now, she was here to visually assess the damage and to retrieve any personal belongings that could be salvaged. A glance at the front of the building must have been bittersweet. Yellow spray paint markings on the brick showed that search parties had tried unsuccessfully to gain access to the facility - a positive testimony to the security of the financial institution. A few feet away, would-be looters had ripped the fascia from the credit union's ATM, exposing the machine's guts to the world but failing in their attempt to access any cash. Chalk up another one for the homecoming court. Entering the building was both surreal and emotional. Even with breathing masks, the musty stench was overpowering. Electricity has not been restored, so flashlights illuminated the dank walls. The floors were coated with a dark layer of cracked, dried mud; the walls and furniture were giant Petri dishes growing cultures of black, green, yellow and white molds. Several feet of water had buoyed objects around the rooms and left them overturned as the water receded - potted plants, file cabinets, and even the refrigerator was on its side in the kitchen. Two people had the same thought at the same moment as they piped up, "Don't open it." And yet, some things appeared unchanged from the day human activity stopped in the building. Plastic umbrella bags hung from a metal stand, pen/pencil caddies, nameplates and a computer covered in plastic sat on desktops, and the date, AUG 29, was posted in the teller lanes. Kathy could have been jobless waiting for the facility to become operational again - and that date is still months away, but the credit union put her back to work at another of its five branches. Of New Orleans Firemen's FCU 57 employees, approximately 19 employees lost their homes in the hurricane; another nine had significant damage. The credit union under CEO Judy DeLucca's leadership worked tirelessly to find creative solutions to employee housing and employment challenges faced as a result of the hurricanes. The credit union helped purchase trailers to put in driveways of homes that were damaged but still had working utilities. They walked neighborhoods to find apartments and rental properties for employees. They even converted the second story of their Metairie branch into temporary living quarters for two women by installing a shower, a washer/dryer and beds. "Our board considers employees our most valuable asset," DeLucca said. "Our policy was to continue to pay any employee whether they could work or not. We paid them two weeks past the storm even if they didn't come back. Employees are hard to find. A lot of folks have lost half their workforce." Human Resources Director Cami Crouchet's job in the early days following the hurricane was to determine where all of the credit union's employees had evacuated and to plug them into a branch where they could report to work. When too many employees ended up near their St. James branch, they provided a company vehicle for five of them to share to commute to work daily at the Metairie branch. "We are very pro-employee. It's important to build relationships with employees before something like this happens," Crouchet said. The credit union has even allowed mothers in back office positions to bring kids to work during this transition period when childcare is difficult to obtain. "We both benefit - we keep our productivity and they keep their pay," said DeLucca. Back at the New Orleans East branch office, Dionne was trying to express her emotions about coming back to an office that was trashed. She quietly examined the items that personalized her workspace - a voodoo doll, some waterlogged business cards, and a model firetruck that dripped water from the bottom when she lifted it. "You know, I thought, `We'll be back tomorrow. This is such an inconvenience [to evacuate],'" she said. "This was much bigger than anyone anticipated." But her spirit is positive about rebuilding neighborhoods, rebuilding business, rebuilding relationships. "Yes, we're committed to staying here. We can rebuild our house. Even after the hurricane, I'm not going any further north than right here." -JFWrite@aol.com
Coming Home: New Orleans FCU Employees Return to See Katrina's Wrath
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