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Domino Sugar Plant Reopens After Rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina

March 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: For Shannon House and his family, life after Katrina has meant seven people sharing space in a tiny trailer, microwave dinners, six gallons of hot water at a time, and lots of fraying nerves.

But House thinks he’s among the luckier residents of St. Bernard Parish. That’s because he works at the Domino Sugar refinery that towers over the Mississippi River, east of New Orleans. When the plant was flooded, along with most of the rest of the parish, Domino’s executives created a 200-unit trailer park to house its workers and their families. At a time when most of his neighbors have nothing, House has his job, his family nearby, and a place to live.

SHANNON HOUSE, HURRICANE VICTIM: We, as employees, appreciate it because, if not, we would be in Slidell at my brother-in-law’s house with 15 people. You know, it would be really tight.

TOM BEARDEN: Not that any of this has been easy; floodwaters knocked out the equipment on the first floor of the 97-year-old plant and melted 6.5 million pounds of sugar, creating giant lakes of sugar syrup.

But with 19 percent of the nation’s cane sugar passing through this one refinery, Domino knew it had to get the plant back in operation quickly and they needed people to do that. Mickey Seither is Domino’s vice president for operations.

MICKEY SEITHER: We can fix anything; we can rebuild anything. If it’s broken beyond repair, we can buy another one and put it in its place. But if we don’t have employees, it’s for naught. So early on, we decided the one thing we have to really concentrate on is fixing the situation that our employees are in.

TOM BEARDEN: Domino was able to get trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency within two weeks, far faster than anybody else. But that was just the beginning. The plant controller, Allan Reichert, was drafted to manage the new park.

ALLAN REICHERT: We had to put sewer systems in here. We had to scrub the area. The area was inundated by water. We had to dry the area out, put shelves, grade it, cut the grass. We had to provide generators and the fuel for the generators.

Everything you can imagine to build a subdivision, we had to do. We came back on September 16th, three or four of us, and then, that afternoon, 75 trailers arrived. And we started setting up those trailers.

How far away do they have to be? We were naive, so when we set up the camp on the other side, they were too close. And now people can’t pull their slides out and have enough room. So we learned from that, and now these are set properly.

TOM BEARDEN: The streets were named for people who got the park going. Reichert is one of them. Another is named for this dog, Rex, who survived the flood only by swimming in his kennel for several days until he was rescued. He’s the only dog allowed to roam around without a leash.

Several other companies in the area housed employees in trailers, but Domino is the only one that housed their families, too. At $1,100 a month per trailer, it will cost the company approximately $6 million if the trailer park stays open for two years.

In the six months since the storm, the park has taken on some of the features of a real community, with personalized decor, kids on bikes, even an on-site laundromat. A playground is under construction, and there are plans for a basketball court, garden and a community center.

The company also loaned a trailer to the family that runs a nearby food market to ensure a reliable source of po’ boys for lunch.

MICKEY SEITHER: We have a small community of our employees alongside. And because those employees are here, we’ve had the school open up. We’ve had grocery stores start to open up. We’ve had gas stations start to open up. So it’s like a sped-up version of what happened when this plant first started.

TOM BEARDEN: For many Domino workers, it’s as close to normal as life has been lately. But even with the company picking up all the housing and utility costs, no one pretends it’s ideal.

While Shannon House works at the plant loading railroad cars with refined sugar, his wife, Amy, is in the trailer with five sons at the rambunctious age.

AMY HOUSE: On the weekends, if I want to go do something or whatever, he’s like, “Oh, you’re going to take the baby?” And I’m like, “I have the baby and I have the kids all the time.” There’s nothing to do around here; I’m stuck inside all the time with the baby. And it’s hard.

SHANNON HOUSE: You know, the kids have to sit on the floor to eat, because, you know, my wife sits on the bed, because the baby goes to sleep obviously earlier than anybody else. So we just can’t — I mean, we tried a playpen at first, but, you know, that didn’t work.

AMY HOUSE: It’s too tight, yes.

SHANNON HOUSE: So we had to put him to sleep in the room there, and I wind up sleeping in there with him, and she sleeps out here, so…

TOM BEARDEN: What’s it like for you guys to live here? What do you think about this place?

HOUSE CHILD: It’s good.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s good?

HOUSE CHILD: And I can fight.

TOM BEARDEN: You like to fight? OK.

The House family recently moved into a larger mobile home next to the Domino plant. But House says it took months of frustration before he could persuade FEMA to send it.

Marty Meyer, who works in the confectionery sugar department, lives with his wife, Shulond, and son, Brandon, in a regulation 28-foot trailer. Brandon was recently chosen king of the Mardi Gras parade at the only functioning public school in the parish. The festivities were a rare break for the whole family, as well as for the school, where 1,900 kids of all grades study side-by-side in the partly restored high school building and nearby portable classrooms.

For the Meyers, small pleasures help them deal with the day-to-day difficulties.

Is it a big change for you to live in that trailer park?



BRANDON MEYER: The trailer’s too small.

SHULOND MEYER: He would rather stay at after care, as opposed to coming home to the trailer. And after care is until, like, 6:00 in the evening, so he’d rather stay here just to play with the other kids.

TOM BEARDEN: Some Domino workers are trying to get out of the park and move on with their lives. Kenny Dessells goes to his former home practically every day after work. He’s now rewiring the place, but only after shoveling out three feet of mud laced with dissolved drywall and the occasional poisonous snake.

KENNY DESSELLS: We’re on eight-hour shifts now, which gives me the ability to, when I get off of work, I just come straight here. And I work until I’m tired, pretty much another 10 hours maybe, and go back to my trailer, and bathe up, eat, and do it again. And I’ve been doing this for about close to three months now.

TOM BEARDEN: Dessells had paid off the mortgage and spent $30,000 remodeling the place only nine months before the storm.

KENNY DESSELLS: I’m going to put bubble glass in here that’s going to overlook the garden tub.

TOM BEARDEN: He’s using the insurance money to remodel and improve again. But he doesn’t know whether he’ll be allowed to stay or whether the parish government will decide to bulldoze the entire subdivision.

KENNY DESSELLS: I’ve set my goals. I’m right on time with it, and I’m going to make it happen. So for the rest of the neighborhood, I really — it don’t look good.

There’s 850 homes in this particular neighborhood. There’s me and about three other people, maybe, that’s rebuilding, because there’s too many uncertainties.

TOM BEARDEN: The good news for the parish is that the sugar refinery is now operating at near-capacity. The nearly 300 well-paying jobs it provides establish at least some economic basis for the parish to begin to recover.

Shannon House and his wife aren’t sure they’ll stay here, but, for the foreseeable future, a trailer next door to a century-old sugar plant will have to serve as home sweet home.