Needed: Help, not hassles

Needed: Help, not hassles

The other day I received an announcement that Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was holding a press conference to focus on returning jobs to Southeast Louisiana. The senator was seeking my commitment assuring that I would keep my business operations in areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

I appreciate the e-mail, but I must be blunt. There are certain things that need to be considered first by those at the federal level.

My wife and I unwisely elected to ride out Katrina, so we were flooded in New Orleans East and spent the night in our attic with an ax, watching rising water and wondering if we'd have to punch a hole in the roof. We were rescued by a fire department flatboat the following morning, then left with others to wait for the National Guard to pick us up within the hour to take us to the Superdome.

That hour stretched to three days with no food or water, so some people broke into a grocery store and a clothing store for food and water and to escape our now-stinky clothes. In a scene out of "Road Warrior," my wife finally flagged down a tractor-trailer at 3 a.m. the third morning and gave the driver $1,000 to get us to our French Quarter offices, which we heard were dry.

In a harrowing trip, we stopped at each of the downtown exits off Interstate 10, but all had water up to the top of the ramps. Crowds milled about on the elevated highway, and we had to return to our starting point, only to discover that our driver was at the wheel of a stolen truck, looking for more victims like us.

On the fourth day, we joined a group that commandeered several tour buses and traveled to Baton Rouge. We tried to fly to the West Coast, but no flights were available. We rented a car and drove north. We never saw anyone from FEMA. Every convenience store and gas station was cleaned out of food, and authorities were limiting gas purchases to five gallons per car.

Memphis was the first place with a motel vacancy, and this one rented by the hour. After a week, we found slightly better digs, where the Red Cross paid for the first 14 days. No longer did we have people still pounding on the motel room door at midnight while FedEx planes constantly took off overhead.

My wife and I left Memphis on Sept. 18 to survey the damage at our home and see what we could salvage before the looters had a field day. The curfew lifted at 6 a.m., and we drove in. Everything had a layer of gray dust, so the landscape resembled the remnants of a nuclear strike.

We gagged as we dumped our refrigerator's contents. Floodwater marks were five feet high, with another foot or so of mold on the walls. Our 2003 Toyota Camry was in the garage, ruined. No looters were in evidence except for a broken window and some orange spray-painted letters from rescuers looking for bodies. Because the house was under water for some time, I'm told the foundation is compromised and the building will have to be bulldozed. Unlike what the media have painted, this tragedy crossed all economic lines. It was not just the poor who were affected. The houses in our neighborhood were not cheap by any means.

Several of our employees would love to return to New Orleans, but none of us has a home to go to, and insurance adjustors can't find any place for us to live. We're told all hotel rooms in downtown New Orleans have been taken over by FEMA "fat cats."

Until these kinds of situations are resolved, Sen. Vitter and other politicians should realize they are not going to get much support in restarting business activity. I am really ashamed of the federal government and FEMA for causing so much unnecessary suffering and death by their inaction.

We're now operating from an associate's forwarding office on the north side of the Memphis airport. We have retrieved our server, several computers and pulled together some staff. But although Katrina is long gone, our difficulties continue. We are not getting any indications from Customs when New Orleans will be fully operational again. We also are being turned down in applications for temporary permits to operate from other ports, despite Customs' initial promise to be flexible. New Orleans's customs brokers and freight forwarders are an important part of the local economy and should be a priority and given some help - not hassles - from the federal government.

John T. Hyatt is vice president of Irwin Brown Co. of New Orleans, chair of the Latin America Committee of the International Freight Forwarders and Customs Brokers Association of New Orleans and secretary of the board of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America. He can be contacted at johnthyatt@ibrown.com.