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Katrina Survivor on Harvey: Encourage a Sense of Normalcy in Your Workforce After a Disaster

A New Orleans woman whose life was disrupted by Hurricane Katrina shares her story and advice for employers when a disaster occurs.

Daria Drury moved into her newly constructed house in September 2013, eight years after Hurricane Katrina flooded and destroyed her old home in New Orleans.

“I almost didn’t rebuild this house, but I felt like I needed emotional closure,” said Drury. “[My son] Evan and I grew up here; It was home. It felt like something I needed to close the loop on.”

When Katrina hit in August 2005, Drury was a business manager at a Valspar paint plant in Mississippi. She lived in New Orleans and commuted to Mississippi daily. Twelve years later, she’s the head of finance and administration at Blade Dynamics, part of GE Renewable Energy in New Orleans.

Drury spoke with Workforce about her experience with Hurricane Katrina, how she got back on her feet and her advice for employers as victims of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeast Texas and parts of Louisiana in late August, try to get their lives together again. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Workforce: What did you do and where did you go when Katrina hit?

Daria Drury: We decided Saturday to leave the next day. I packed my car with my son, three cats, and a trunk full of clothes and locked the door of the house. When I locked the door, I had this overwhelming sense that I would never unlock that door ever again. My son was looking at me. He said, “Mom, what’s wrong?” I said, “Oh, your mother’s just being silly, sweetheart,” thinking, We’re never going to come back. We walked out, got in the car, and drove to the Panhandle of Florida.

WF: When you left for Florida, how did you get news from your employer? How long was it until you went back to work?

Drury: We knew the storm was out there, of course. We had some upfront preparation. I brought my laptop and cords home from Valspar, so I was connected from the time I left. I was connected with everyone in the office via email and phone.

I was without a home, but I was not without work. I was lucky. I could keep working, and I got paid every two weeks like I was supposed to get paid every two weeks. Valspar was a spectacular employer during the entire episode.

Needless to say, during the storm there was no manufacturing going on, but the plant was up and running in about three weeks. They went back to cleaning up and doing what they needed to do fairly shortly. They were on the same section of the power grid as the hospital, so when the hospital got its power back, so did the plant. They were able to get everyone back to work pretty quickly.

WF: How did you balance rebuilding your life with managing responsibilities at your job again?

Drury: There was no concept of balance. I just put one foot in front of the other. I had to find a place to live and I had to go to work every day, once I could get physically back to work. While I was working remotely, I’d lay awake at night trying to figure out, how am I going to get home? How do I move forward in life? There’s no “Disaster Recovery for Dummies.”

You just lay awake thinking, what am I going to do? I’m here. I’m working. I have money. I’m lucky. But what do I do? My job is in Mississippi and I’m in Florida.

You just put your head down and figure out what the next step is because you have to keep all those balls in the air. I was a single parent at the time. I had a 12-year-old who had to try to get back to school. So balance? I’m not even sure that’s possible in a situation like this. Expecting there to be some even-keeled place in your head or your heart or your life — I wouldn’t know how to do that.

WF: As you watch coverage of Harvey, what are your reactions?

Drury: Over the weekend I really couldn’t watch. I posted on Facebook a picture of a pot of red beans on, I think, Sunday saying, “Can’t watch the coverage so I’m cooking red beans and gumbo.” I watched it for a little while and realized it was just too close to home. I had to turn it off.

WF: What advice would you offer employers in the wake of Harvey?

Drury: Understand the trauma your team is dealing with, probably silently and with difficulty. Give a wide range of time for rebuilding, restoring their life. Try to pay them their wages, even if the facility is closed temporarily.

I know for a lot of small businesses, that’s a really tough thing to do. But put everyone back to work, even cleaning up before you open up. You can pay them for tearing down walls and putting them back up. Try to keep your employees foremost in your mind. They can’t make it without a paycheck. As long as you can, try to make sure they get paid something.

Please also read: Hurricane Harvey Shows the Need for Employer Communication and Empathy

People can get food stamps or other government assistance. Encourage them to apply for any and all assistance that’s popped up locally, like a food bank, Red Cross cash assistance, medical/prescription help.

Understand that they’ll be going through some emotional times. They may behave differently or they have children who need help. It’s just a really rough ride. Employers can understand how hard that is, and some of them are probably going through it themselves. They may have a business that’s been destroyed.

The best thing that Valspar did for me was to keep paying me. For anyone who’s lost everything, they’re facing enormous financial hardship. Whatever you can do to bridge the gap between government financial assistance and their regular earnings would be a huge weight off everyone’s minds. That’s probably the number one thing, if possible. Having my job was a huge comfort.

If you are a business owner, try to get them back to work as soon as you can. If you need someone to help you, call them back in to do things other than what they normally did. You’d be amazed at what people can do that you never knew they could do. All you can do is get the ball rolling and get something in motion. Any step toward normalcy is important.

WF: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you think is valuable to this topic?

Drury: When you’re dealing with people who are in this situation, they’re traumatized. Most are in a very delicate state. Understand that the person you used to deal with before is not the same person you’re going to deal with when you see them next.

They’re going to be different people. A glazed look in the eye. A sense of being lost. A sense of not knowing what to do. There’s no “Disaster Relief for Dummies”; there’s no roadmap. They’re not going to know necessarily what to do, and they’re going to need support, like [being able to] take the afternoon off to apply for food stamps, for example.

Understand that your employee pool is radically different from before. Recovery is a lengthy process. Approach it for the extraordinary event that it is, and try to understand how rare it is in life and history.

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below, or email at editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.