It's Never Been This Hard

For a nimble diving company based in Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina posed enormous challenges—and offered huge opportunity.

Hell, Grant Gillespie mused. Hell. Maybe it was time to bail. It was August 30, a day after Hurricane Katrina had slammed into the Louisiana coast. He was crashing at a buddy's place in Lafayette, west of the storm's fury, with his wife, Colleen, and their two kids. The winds had died down, and the rain had passed. Everyone watched as apocalyptic images of New Orleans flooded across the TV.

Gillespie, 30, feared the worst. His house, after all, was in Westwego, just across the river from the besieged city. Was it gone? How would Colleen cope in someone else's home? What about school for the children? He couldn't help but wonder about two prized possessions: a rare 1977 Scout pickup he had been piecing together and his Fender bass guitar. Shoot, just losing that guitar would be like losing an arm.

Gillespie, a former iron worker, had been a commercial diver for five years, during which he had missed more time with his wife and family than he cared to think about. The pay, $80,000 a year and up, was great, Lord knows. But every job meant heading out to sea for grinding, dangerous work without knowing when he'd return—a couple of weeks at a stretch, a month, perhaps longer. It was a high price, the reason many divers were single, divorced, or perpetually ambivalent about their careers.

And now, this.

So, yeah, maybe he would hang up the wet suit. Find new work in a new town—on dry land this time, someplace far from the Gulf, the rigs, the hurricanes.

And yet. He needed that big paycheck. House or no house. And because of Katrina, there would be plenty of paychecks for a while. Plenty. So three days later, Gillespie was back aboard the Epic Seahorse, a 210-foot workboat, watching the shoreline recede as he headed back to the oil patch—back, as divers put it, to "blowing bubbles."

Gillespie works for Epic Divers & Marine, a Harvey, Louisiana-based company with 240 employees and $28 million in revenue. Normally, Epic's bread and butter is installing underwater oil and gas pipelines. But a big storm changes the game. Even before Katrina's winds had ebbed, Epic's customers, the big energy companies, were calling: They could assess damage to their rigs above the water by helicopter, but they had little idea what lay beneath. Powerful currents can bend and break oil and gas lines, flip 'em over like Tinkertoys. Divers were needed to go hundreds of feet beneath the surface, looking for damage and, eventually, making repairs.

It's an enormous opportunity for Epic, one of two dozen diving operations servicing the Gulf rigs that account for a third of the nation's oil production and a fifth of its natural gas. If this work is done well, it could lead to years of follow-on contracts. Before Katrina hit, after all, Epic's divers were still patching pipelines damaged by Hurricane Ivan a year earlier. And Ivan, he was a baby storm next to this mother.

But here's the problem: Katrina pummeled Epic and its people, too. The hurricane tossed bricks from the second floor of the company's headquarters just outside New Orleans and snaked under the roof, flooding carpets and leaving freckles of black mold on sheetrock. It left dozens of employees homeless, rebuilding, or taking in desperate relatives for who knows how long. A few lost everything.

"Our job is to look under the surface," says Julie Rodriguez, Epic's CEO. But even as divers look at (or sometimes, for) pipes on the Gulf floor, Epic's employees are doing damage assessment of their own, reckoning with their futures. What will become of their homes, their families, their communities? How will they rebuild their company—and how will they manage their upended lives in the meantime?

Everyone says they're fine. But they're not, not really. Not even the divers, the ultimate tough guys who are expert at compartmentalizing their lives onshore and off. When you're working 200 feet underwater with little visibility, operating heavy machinery while connected to the surface by a single air hose, you sort of have to focus on your work. "Normally it's okay," says Gillespie. "The rent's paid, you got money in the bank, and you call home every few days to make sure things are on the up and up. Now it's 'Aw, shit, what a mess.' "

The Friday before had been business as usual. Katrina was just another hurricane, one of many the divers monitor through the season. It looked bad, but not a sure cataclysm. "We said we'd watch it," says John Herren, director of diving operations.

Overnight, though, Katrina was upgraded to a category-three storm, bound for New Orleans. Saturday morning, Rodriguez raced to the Harvey office with her husband, Roger, Epic's chief operating officer. Nearly two dozen employees and relatives sealed computers in garbage bags with twist ties. Sharon Estopinal, director of business services, grabbed the "black beauty books," which contained corporation papers, and every ledger and checkbook she could find. IT manager Mike Simoneaux forwarded incoming calls to Epic's satellite office in Houston. Finally, they boarded up the windows.

Epic's employees have done this before, of course. They made the same preparations for Hurricane Cindy in July, only to watch with relief as it fizzled into a tropical depression. But Katrina wasn't fizzling. In fact, it was moving too fast. Ordinarily, there would be time for divers to come ashore to board up their homes; at least, Epic would send a crew to do the job. But not all the divers could beat this storm home, and New Orleans was shutting off incoming traffic to allow for evacuation.

So Herren did what little he could. He and John Lariviere, his counterpart in Houston, called Epic's boats and routed the divers (including his younger brother, Dennis) west, out of harm's way. Then he and his wife packed three days' worth of clothes, the photo album from their wedding last year, and one irreplaceable keepsake: the ashes of a beloved cat. And they fled to Baton Rouge, Florida, for the night. The Rodriguezes headed to a friend's place in Lafayette. Simoneaux drove to Houston.

Only Mike Brown stayed. Brown, Epic's vice president of diving operations, ignored the city's mandatory evacuation order, hunkering down instead at home with his girlfriend in Harvey. "I've never left," he says. "Andrew, George, Alison—I've stayed through all of 'em."

On Monday, August 29, the worst natural disaster in the nation's history hit the Gulf Coast with a wall of water and winds of 175 miles per hour. Simoneaux, who had barely slept in two days, walked into Epic's Houston office at 8 a.m.

He already understood that this was the Big One, a storm more destructive than any he had witnessed before. As a teenager, he had endured Hurricane Betsy, which devastated New Orleans in 1965. He was stricken to be reliving that 40 years later.

As Simoneaux described the mayhem back in Louisiana, his voice broke and his eyes welled up. "It's hard not to be emotional," he said, "when your home and your city are being torn up." He started to work, preparing for the Harvey employees who would arrive in a few days. He'd have to build a new server from scratch, a monumental task. But he couldn't focus. All he could think about was New Orleans, now the Big Uneasy. The two houses that he and his wife owned. His daughter, who was eight months pregnant.

When the levees broke, "we were beyond tears."

He went back to the Holiday Inn and joined his wife, Eva, in front of the TV. When the levees broke, he says, "we were beyond tears."

It was a good thing that Brown had stayed in Harvey. The day after the storm passed, he shrugged off the damage to his roof, hopped in his pickup, and rumbled over fallen branches and through front yards, past Epic's headquarters and a few colleagues' houses. Amazingly, his cell phone worked—so in those early days, he was more useful than CNN. On Tuesday, he got through to Rodriguez. When he described the sorry state of the Harvey office, it was an easy call: For the foreseeable future, Epic would operate out of Houston.

That first week, Brown assumed a new role as unofficial director of security. He continued patrolling for relatives, friends, and colleagues, and he kept an eye on

$10 million worth of diving equipment behind Epic's building. He had borrowed a double-barreled shotgun to deal with looters, a threat that wasn't so far-fetched. He met a well-armed neighbor who had made a citizen's arrest after teenagers broke into one diver's apartment.

As chaos gripped other parts of the city, local law enforcement encouraged residents to leave. There was no power, clean water, nearby food, newspaper, nothing. Not surprisingly, Brown wasn't going anywhere. He had plenty of canned goods. And his truck. And a job to do.

Julie Rodriguez, 47, is a blond, tanned woman with a N'Awlens accent and hot-pink manicured toenails. Her office back in Harvey had looked just as put together, with brown marble wallpaper and white wainscoting that belied the gritty work of connecting pipeline. When the time came to evacuate, she packed nine pairs of shoes, including her beloved Jimmy Choos.

Rodriguez grew up around Epic, which her father cofounded in 1972. She answered phones as a teenager, soaked up the business, and purchased it in 1991, becoming CEO. She has never dived, but she has a fiery, in-charge style that suggests she's not intimidated by the macho culture of her industry.

Epic's seven-person Houston office is now home to 19 employees and counting. The seating plan has already been redrawn three times. A Post-it Note on Rodriguez's desk reads, "From the penthouse to the outhouse." Still, she seems unruffled by the endless uncertainty. Whether or not the Harvey office will be torn down. When employees will be allowed back into Jefferson Parish. Where she'll be working next month. One minute she's talking to the landlord in Houston about expanding into the adjacent suite. The next, she's looking into a six-month lease for an empty building in Harvey.

"I had to say, 'These are your options: Come to Houston to work, or stay home and collect unemployment.'"

She's trying to strike a delicate balance between compassion and pragmatism. Her employees are worried about their homes and families. Indeed, some have yet to return to work, and some have quit. Rodriguez kept everyone on the payroll for two weeks following Katrina, whether they worked or not. After that, she says, "I had to say, 'These are your options: Come to Houston to work, or stay home and collect unemployment.' "

Epic's employees know they're lucky. Katrina destroyed other businesses. Still, they can't dodge the stress. For Simoneaux, home is the hotel room he shares with his pet bird, a Latino Cockatiel called Lady; his wife has relocated with her employer to Birmingham, Alabama. Herren, who carries three cell phones and whose eyes are bloodshot for lack of sleep, is a six-hour drive from his wife—and from the house they left behind with a tree on the new roof.

On September 13, two weeks after Katrina, Rodriguez called a staff meeting. "I know this has been hard for everybody, but we have a business to run," she said. "If you can just hang on a little longer, we're not going to be here forever." She has hired a contractor to repair the Harvey office, but moving back hinges on getting phone service, which could take until January.

Rodriguez herself is sleeping on an air mattress at her daughter's apartment, borrowing clothes and missing her husband. She hasn't seen her house since evacuating. Her dog, Jetta, is on Valium, apparently stressed out.

Rodriguez knows just how she feels.

"The deeper you get, the lonelier it is," says diver Grant Gillespie. "You start thinking, It's a long way back to the boat. I better watch my ass."

"Blowing bubbles" doesn't do justice to divers' actual work. Even the routine stuff, connecting new pipelines, is unimaginably difficult. In shallow water, less than 300 feet, the bottom is thick with mud from the Mississippi. You can't see anything, so your hands become your eyes. You actually train by making repairs while wearing a blindfold. The only sounds at 200 feet are the bubbles and a dive supervisor on your headset. "The deeper you get, the lonelier it is," says Gillespie. "You start thinking, It's a long way back to the boat. I better watch my ass."

Especially now. "After a storm, the biggest fear is the unknown," says Brown, a former diver. Usually, divers know the network of pipelines on the bottom, but a hurricane can obliterate the map. A loose pipe can suck a diver in or blindside him. Although the lines are equipped with shutoff valves to prevent spills, leaks are still a risk, so divers slather exposed skin with petroleum jelly to avoid oil and other rash-inducing contaminants.

A week after Katrina, Epic has 140 divers and offshore staff on the water, working on nine jobs, more than half related to Katrina. Already it has discovered two platforms toppled over. The pipeline below wasn't badly hurt, but Katrina was too powerful not to have done extensive underwater damage somewhere. "Ivan didn't seem bad at first, but there were pipelines that moved a mile, and some we never found again," says Herren.

Business is crazy good, really. Some energy companies are actually paying to keep divers on hold, to avoid losing them to another customer. But the rush to rebuild is causing bottlenecks, too. John Lariviere has been trying for days to get supplies to the Seahorse, the largest in Epic's six-boat fleet. As long as food arrives every 10 days, a diving boat can stay offshore for weeks or months. But there just aren't many boats available; Katrina destroyed thousands of vessels, and everyone in the Gulf is chasing a ride. "It's never been this hard," says

Lariviere. If the Seahorse has to leave the job site and make its own grocery run, Epic loses around $50,000 in revenue a day.

Lariviere is a former diver with a churlish, sarcastic demeanor. It's hard to tell when he's teasing and when he's pissed; if his pressed-lips expression is from the Skoal in his mouth or the intensity of his business. Diving, he says, "is a bunch of guys getting together to do something really complicated. And things usually go"—he pauses, censoring himself—"let's just say, a little rough."

The first week, Lariviere couldn't find the gas mixture that divers breathe underwater. He located a supplier in Texas, which meant trucking empty cylinders several hundred miles. And he couldn't use Epic's bottles, because they were stored in Harvey, which was off limits according to whichever official was in charge that day. Lariviere had to rent containers. That's the price of doing business in Katrina's wake.

The long and tortuous recovery from Katrina continues, with each day bringing small steps toward normalcy. Epic's Houston office has added two more phone lines. In Harvey a construction crew is tearing down the gap-toothed brick wall so it can erect a new one.

So much uncertainty remains—how long before employees can move home, how long it'll take to rebuild, the ultimate toll on families, the organization, the industry. As Epic tries to seize on the opportunity presented by the storm, it's like a builder trying to reach the ceiling of a house without floorboards, just balancing on the beams. Rodriguez hopes the tragedy will make her company stronger, fueling more collaboration and camaraderie. For now, though, modest and incomplete remedies must suffice. ("You need to put 'to be continued' at the end of this story," she says.)

It took three weeks, but Gillespie finally got some answers. His wife, Colleen, called the Seahorse out in the Gulf to tell him she had managed to see their house. "I figured we had a 50-50 shot," he says. "I found out yesterday we still have a house."

And his truck? His Fender? They were just fine, Colleen assured him. Just fine. "Yeah," he says, "it was a good day."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Chicago.

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