As I look back over the last five years it is clear that technological advances have reframed the way in which we communicate with our employees, our customers, our communities and our shareholders. Five years ago this month disaster struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in the form of Hurricane Katrina. Today, as I watch a mammoth oil spill maim this same stretch of coastline, I cannot help but recall the days and weeks leading up to the devastating hurricane season of 2005.
It was May 24 of that year that I joined the staff at publicly traded Isle of Capri Casinos, headquartered in Biloxi, Miss., as director of corporate communication. At the time there were 12 casinos operating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, generating well more than $1 billion in annual gaming revenue.
It was going to be a very busy summer at Isle. The company was building a new casino barge on Biloxi’s Back Bay. When it was competed this replacement structure would be moved to the site of the existing casino at Point Cadet, the easternmost end of a casino district stretching along the coast all the way to Bay St. Louis near the Louisiana border. The entire industry was planning for continued growth. Life in the beach town of Biloxi could only be described as ideal. Within those first few weeks of employment I began a whirlwind tour of Isle’s properties - Black Hawk, Colo., the Quad Cities in Iowa, and one journey that would come in handy weeks later - flying to Memphis, renting a car and driving south along Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta to visit Lula, Vicksburg and Natchez.
I’ll never forget attending a construction meeting that summer concerning the new casino barge. The topic of discussion was how best to transport the structure from the Back Bay onto its moorings at the existing casino. The challenge was that the Highway 90 bridge connecting Biloxi to the town of Ocean Springs on the eastern side of Biloxi Bay, and to Alabama and Florida beyond, would need to remain open for what was then considered an extended period, disrupting traffic in the middle of the day.
Who knew that within days none of those plans would matter?
COMMUNICATING IN CRISISAnyone who lives or has lived along the Gulf of Mexico knows that when a hurricane enters the warm Gulf waters all eyes are on the weather forecast. That fateful Friday, August 26, 2005, I sat in my office, following the forecasts and thinking over a seemingly easy decision: Should I take my laptop home? … I really did not have any pressing work, but my home, outside Mobile, was more than 65 miles away. If the weather got really bad it wasn’t likely that I would be able to make the drive to the office. I made a last-minute phone call to the television network CNBC because our then-President and COO Timothy Hinkley was scheduled to appear on a news program on Monday the 29th. I let them know that the weather might be a factor in our schedules. Then I packed up, computer and all, and headed to my car, telling my boss to call me if he and his family needed to head east for shelter.
Over the next 36 hours life along the coast became frantic. Everyone was watching Hurricane Katrina get bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. I made the decision to stay in my home rather than evacuate since my home sat 200 feet above sea level, inviting those in need of shelter to stay with us. By the early morning hours of August 29 I had a co-worker in the guest room, a journalist on the living room floor, the windows boarded up, cars pressing against the garage door to protect it from high winds, and a fully functional generator.
It was a long night in the dark, secure house. By evening the storm had passed and we were busily trying to get any possible information we could from Mississippi. For our small group we were lucky. Although Mobile Bay had breached her banks, power had been restored by late Monday evening. The first images we were able to see were unedited television footage from a news helicopter flying over the coast from Mobile to Louisiana. The destruction was unbelievable. I could see our barge on the Back Bay, I could see Isle of Capri, the marina behind the property, and the Highway 90 bridge. The barge was broken, our casino was lopsided, the marina building was wrecked, the bridge had too many gaping holes to count.
Isle of Capri set up its command center at our hotel in Bossier City, La. Remember that journey through Mississippi I mentioned earlier? This is where that drive came in handy. I was in Alabama, the company needed me in Louisiana, and somehow I had to drive across Mississippi to get there. (The company’s crisis communication plan originally called for the command center to be set up in either Natchez or Vicksburg. However, the destruction was so severe inland that most roadways were impassable, and neither Natchez nor Vicksburg had power.) Back in those days, five long years ago, everyone did not have a GPS in the car or on their phone. I took out a trusty map, and that Wednesday left my house in the dark at 5 a.m. My plan: drive north to Montgomery and hope that by the time I got there Highway 20 would be open, allowing me safe travel across Mississippi. Thankfully, the plan worked. However, it took me 12 hours to make a six-hour trip because gas shortages had crippled the region. Once my gas gauge hit half a tank my priority became finding a gas station - and one with not only power but gasoline.
The command center in Bossier City was a whirlwind of activity. Tables were set up, phone service established and computers connected. For me that seemingly easy decision to bring home my laptop proved to be critical to our communication efforts.
We had several important objectives to accomplish: publicly establish our command center as the point of control; locate our Biloxi employees, many of whom had evacuated; communicate with our shareholders; and keep our customers and employees at other locations informed.
In those initial days, press releases were written and released, employee communications were delivered, including a video message from Tim Hinkley to our employees in Iowa, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, Florida and northern Mississippi. Plans were made to deliver paychecks to our Biloxi employees since September 2 was a scheduled payday.
I finally was able to return to the Gulf Coast on Sunday, September 5. I wanted to be present at our corporate offices for the distribution of paychecks. Coincidentally, that Monday was Labor Day. Over a two-day period more than 800 employees arrived to pick up their checks. But mostly they were there to see and reconnect with friends and co-workers. It was an emotional time. And I am proud to say it has become a fond memory. The TV networks captured plenty of tears, but for so many of us there was also the joy of being reunited. Sadly for our Isle family we lost two employees who we remember fondly.