Losing Everything: How Arabi Sling Began Again

Arabi Sling & Rigging Company, Inc. traces its beginnings to the garage behind the home of Louis H. Flores Jr. and Maxine Flores in Arabi, Louisiana. Arabi is situated on the East Bank of the Mississippi River in St. Bernard Parish, next to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans.

 

Louis had worked in the wire and rigging business since the age of fifteen, and when he started his company in 1972, he was already employed as a supervisor with a local firm. For the next six years he grew his business one client at a time, coming home from a long day’s work, sitting down for a meal and then excusing himself to the garage where he would fill the latest orders and working well into the night. With the help of his wife and kids, the work was finished on time each day and the company grew.

 

By 1978, Arabi Sling & Rigging was beginning to push beyond the confines of the Flores family’s overcrowded garage. A move needed to be made and the company found a new home when it opened for business at 6609 N. Robertson. This cavernous space was a far cry from the tiny garage and it was clear that Arabi Sling & Rigging had arrived. However, by 1985, the once-tiny company had outgrown that warehouse space and a second, connected building was added. The added structure brought the company’s workspace to nearly 9000 square feet. During this time the business continued to grow and the addition of a round sling machine kept Arabi Sling & Rigging moving forward and continuing to diversify the offerings it provided to its clientele.

 

When Louis H. Flores Jr. died in June of 2001, his wife Maxine and his children who had originally helped out in the old garage stepped forward to assume the reins of the company. Today, Louis’ son Louis H. Flores III is the company’s President, his daughter Nancy Guy is the Vice President and another daughter Holly Donnelly is the company’s Secretary.

 

Having kept their family company moving forward into the new millennium, the folks at Arabi Sling & Rigging had every reason to feel proud and to be optimistic about the future. But, like most of their neighbors, they didn’t know how badly they’d need both those personality traits in the days ahead of them. While residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are used to enduring the arrival of hurricane season, 2005 proved to be far more challenging than anyone could ever imagine.

 

On Tuesday, August 23 The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida reported a tropical storm system. The next day the storm’s winds reached 40 miles an hour and it was given the name Katrina. By Thursday, it had nearly doubled its velocity and Katrina was a classified a hurricane. After coming ashore on the southeastern coast of Florida, the storm moved into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico where it picked up strength. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency.

 

By the early morning of Saturday, August 27 Katrina had become a Category 3 hurricane with winds that reached 115 miles an hour. “It was certainly very strong and also very large,” remembers Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who flew into the hurricane to take readings of the storm. “When we were flying into it Saturday, its circulation covered the entire Gulf of Mexico.”

 

While many folks packed and left immediately, many others stayed behind. Some refused to leave for economic reasons, some were stranded without means of transportation to leave, while others chose to stay with their homes and possessions – feeling the threat of damage or loss to their property was worse than the threat of harm to themselves.

 

Nancy Guy and her family evacuated to Lake Charles. When they left they had no idea that they’d be gone for months on end, and a second storm – Hurricane Rita – would hit the gulf before Guy and her family would be allowed to return to New Orleans.

 

Holly Donnelly’s husband was out of country and she was at home with three high school and college-age kids. Like many people in her neighborhood, they had stayed until the last minute. “My neighbor called at six in the morning and said she was going to leave. We had some stuff packed, and when the boys got up we left. It was around noon on Sunday.” On the way out of town, Donnelly also picked up her 95-year-old aunt who was living in the same neighborhood.

 

By Sunday, August 28, Katrina’s winds were rotating near 150 miles an hour. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued an evacuation notice and tens of thousands of residents left the city, assuming they’d be back in a few days once the winds died and the skies cleared. By late Sunday evening, thousands of residents who could not or would not evacuate, sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome.

 

Many Americans went to bed on Sunday night assured that all would be relatively well in the Crescent City. The worst of the storm was projected to miss the city – and it did; first making landfall in Plaquemines Parish, but then bouncing past New Orleans to Slidell, Louisiana to the northeast. The worst of the storm slammed into Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, almost completely destroying both cities.

 

For New Orleans, what came next wasn’t a natural disaster, it was a man-made disaster. While studies at Louisiana State University predicted flooding in New Orleans, LSU’s storm-surge models assumed that the city’s defenses would remain intact, buffering it from the worst of the storm. Following this storm, flood researchers have suggested that as many as 30 breaches occurred in the levees on Monday, August 29, 2005.

 

By dawn the west side of the MR-GO levee in St. Bernard Parish began to crumble. When a surge of water reached the Industrial Canal at 6:50 A.M. it broke up and spilled over the levees and floodwalls on both sides, flooding into the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. In less than an hour, the I-wall and levee on the east side of the southern end of the Industrial Canal breached, sending a catastrophic wave of water into the Lower 9th Ward; flattening houses, tossing cars and killing people as it swept into neighborhoods in Arabi and the rest of St. Bernard Parish.

 

“Katrina was so bad the government wouldn’t let us back in. It was like a Third World country. There was no electricity. You couldn’t even hear birds chirping,” explains Guy through a sadness that is still palpable in her voice six years after the storm. “Personally, myself, I couldn’t believe it. When you saw it on TV you didn’t know how bad it was.”

 

Donnelly, her family and her aunt were staying with relatives in Baton Rouge when they saw the first images of the devastation on television. “Everybody was worried about the little things they’d lost. At the last minute before we left, my daughter had picked up a box of pictures off the wall.”

 

While the family’s homes and the business remained under water, they were all forced to keep their lives going as best they could. Guy’s husband worked for an oil company that kept their people working and provided transportation and assistance to their employees after the flood. Donnelly’s husband worked for a phone company.  “My husband was going back and forth from Baton rouge,” she explains, “but you still couldn’t go through the neighborhoods. You couldn’t just go in and out.”

 

Nancy Guy’s family eventually settled into a trailer on a friend’s property as they began the clean-up process on their home and business. Holly and her family and aunt moved from Baton Rouge to a friend’s house for one month before buying a new place to call home while they began to sift through what Katrina had left behind.

 

“It was like there had been a whirlpool in our house,” remembers Guy about seeing their home for the first time after the storm. A harrowing measure of what the house had gone through came with the discovery that the fall from a piano (the part that covers the keys) in their first floor living room had come to rest on the second floor at the opposite end of the house.

 

In addition to the water wreckage, the flood water itself was filled with other hazards. “It was a lot of water and a lot of chemicals too,” explains Guy. “Everybody’s gasoline spilled out of their garage; everybody’s cleaning chemicals from beneath their sink was added to the mix.” Donnelly’s home – near a refinery – had also been hit by more than just a wave of water. “Down by me is where the oil came in …. The oil went all over our area.”

 

When Donnelly first inspected her home she was shocked. “When we went into the house there was a foot of mud and water in the whole house – like paving cement before it gets hard,” she remembers.  Coming back to such devastation was an overwhelming prospect for all of New Orleans’ flood victims, but Guy and Donnelly both found strength in caring for those closest to them. “You start at the front door and you scoop and you wheelbarrow and you work it out,” explains Donnelly. “Thankfully, I still had my family with me. We had to deal with it.”

 

Louis and his family went from a 5000 plus square ft home to a 1900 square ft home.   His children were almost 7, 5 & 3 years old.  Louis states, “Getting the kids back in school was a top priority. Children have even a harder time understanding what is happening.”

 

Along with trying to clean and renovate their homes, there was still a lot of work to be done to get Arabi Sling & Rigging back on its feet. All of their employees were scattered in different parts of the country and they had also lost their homes.  Most employees were from St. Bernard Parish.  Only some of the employees were able to make it back to work at Arabi Sling and they are still with them today.  “We are grateful for them,” Donnelly said.

 

A shortage in manpower was not the only hurdle in getting the business up and running again, “Anything you needed was not easy to come by because everyone was in the same situation.”  Donnelly notes, “Even big chain stores like Wal-Mart had limited opening hours because of limited staff as well as limited items on the shelf.  Most of the time, to get something you needed, you had to wait in a long line – in the heat.  If you had a list of five things to do in a day, you might get two or three partially done.”  In this environment of need vs. shortage, Arabi Sling and Rigging realized they needed to keep their customers supplied.  Although it was very hard with only a handful of employees, the few they had were dedicated and worked extremely long hours to support their customers and bring the business back.

 

While the Flores extended family began the clean-up process, they weren’t left to fend for themselves. Offers from long-time clients and friends in the business found the company temporarily relocating to a different warehouse facility. The move was made possible when another company sent trucks, equipment and drivers to help the Arabi Sling and Rigging as they recovered from the disaster. As Guy recalls “We tried to set things up so we could at least function – even at a low level.”

 

What followed was months of hard work to make homes livable and make the company vital again. In addition to the water and mud, the rebuilding process involved a jungle of red tape and exacerbating creditors and insurance companies that Guy describes simply as a nightmare. “I would be on the phone daily. I was like ‘Can you understand the situation? Have you watched the TV?’”

 

However, along the way, joyous discoveries buoyed spirits and gave the entire family hope that all had not been lost to the storm. “My little girl had made a paper sign that says ‘God protects his people,’” remembers Guy through another surge of emotions. “That paper was miraculously still there right where we left it.” Donnelly was convinced that the pictures her daughter had grabbed before the evacuation were the only keepsakes she would still have. “Everybody has stories of weird things that happened,” she recalls. “I had this cabinet that all the pictures of my babies were in. Because it was so well made it floated! There was stuff in that cabinet that was still dry!”

 

Nancy Guy and her family were eventually able to buy a new home and Holly Donnelly’s recently married son is living in their re-built house while her aunt and mother are still living with her at the place they bought after returning for the clean up. Arabi Sling & Rigging is back in business in the same location where Louis H. Flores Jr. and Maxine Flores had achieved some of the company’s greatest successes.

 

A visit to the company’s web site finds Arabi’ to be a diverse supplier,  offering a wide variety of slings, nets, tiedowns and wire rope as well as specialty equipment for marine projects. Among recent clients, the company provided support for the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an Academy Award winning film that was shot in New Orleans. The movie ends with the rising waters Hurricane Katrina, but, for the family of Louis H. Flores Jr. and the company he founded, life goes on. “You just keep trying,” offers Guy. “You live somewhere your whole life and you know everyone around you and everything around you. You’re established somewhere and then someone pulls the rug out from under you.” Asked when she first felt that things were back to normal, she laughed saying “We’re still trying to get there.  It’s like we started all over again.”

 

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