A Storm of Change: Business Resilience, Rebuilding and Recovery

August 29, 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In many ways, Katrina was a blessing to New Orleans. How many times does a city get the chance to re-brand itself? In essence, New Orleans was given a blank slate. The result? New Orleans 2015 is very different from New Orleans 2005. In fact, for New Orleanians, time is characterized by either “pre- or post Katrina.”

While New Orleans is still rebuilding, perhaps it is time to say that we have recovered-at least from a business perspective. No longer does Louisiana occupy the space at the bottom of national business lists; rather, we find ourselves moving to the top of these “good” lists. Given our clouded past, some may be surprised to see that recent rankings, courtesy of GNO, Inc., include:

  • #1 Business Climate (Business Facilities)
  • #1 Brain Magnet in America (Forbes)
  • #1 Most Economical City-New Orleans (KPMG)
  • #2 State in the U.S. for Business Climate (Site Selection)
  • #3 Winning the IT Jobs Battle (Forbes)
  • #3 City in the World -New Orleans (Rough Guides)
  • #6 Overall Top State for Doing Business (Area Development)
  • #9 State for Business (Business Executive)
  • #14 Best City to Start a Business (WalletHub)

And the list goes on. This is just a sampling of pretty awesome results for a city that 10 years ago made national news for complete devastation causing businesses to either shut down or reinvent themselves.

New Orleans has long been known as a city that embraces diversity and fosters creativity, and it is a community that is both generous and resilient. Some say the city survived because of these attributes, in spite of the government. And perhaps it is these attributes that have enticed an estimated 10,000 young professionals to make New Orleans home after Katrina. And why it has come to be known as the city for entrepreneurs.

Having worked in public relations for more than 20 years, I had always dreamed of opening my own agency, yet I was happy working as part of a bigger team that large agencies afforded. Then Katrina hit. Tourism and hospitality came to a screeching halt. Agency leaders and employees lost their jobs or scattered to other cities. The outlook for a full service marketing agency was bleak. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” Charles Dickens said it best over 150 years ago in his opening line of
A Tale of Two Cities.

Because normal channels of communication were thwarted, public relations reigned. It was back to the basics of “front porch” and grassroots communication, yard signs and community relations. With every major national media outlet in town to cover the storm, PR professionals had the chance to work with media heroes like Anderson Cooper, and to carry the message of what was happening in New Orleans to the world.

This is where opportunity comes in. Working in concert with another communications firm and a coalition of business, political and community leaders, we took our story of recovery on the road. These Fleur de Lis Ambassadors traveled to major media markets across the United States telling firsthand stories of the storm while correcting misconceptions of the city’s recovery. No, we are not still underwater. Yes, we are open for business. We met with editorial boards, rocked the airwaves of radio and TV, created partnerships with community foundations and even met with professional sports teams, exploring how each could participate and support us as we recovered.
New Orleanians were rebuilding their lives. With a backdrop of a shifted population yielding separated families; physical destruction requiring rebuilding; distress and desperation begging for emotional support; and limited supplies and resources requiring financial assistance, to name a few hardships, New Orleanians were rewriting their “life scripts.” While local businesses identified new needs for rebuilding the city, companies outside of our footprint became a vital part of the city’s recovery. Now, 10 years later, the economic success New Orleans enjoys reflects its commitment to a stronger city.

To that end, two business development organizations have risen to prominence since Katrina: GNO, Inc. and JEDCO, both of which work strategically and cooperatively to bring businesses-both large and small-to the region. Homeruns have been the likes of GE Capital and Smoothie King, along with the return of Chiquita which has been on hiatus for four decades and International Shipholding which relocated to Mobile, Alabama, after Katrina.

The 10 year anniversary of one of the worst storms of the century is certainly a time to take stock-what has worked and what has not. The city has much to be proud of as evidenced by high rankings on various lists. As someone who began her business post Katrina, I offer these lessons of the storm:

Identify opportunities.

Is there a product or service that is not being fulfilled or can be provided in a new way? My dear friend Simone Bruni, who had been in the hospitality industry until Katrina, founded her company, Demo Diva, when she realized the city was in dire need of demolition and hauling services.

Be a part of your community.

Network; attend civic, business and social gatherings; get involved. Don’t think of these meetings as a “nice to do,” but rather as a necessity to grow your business. At these, you will discover what your competition is doing, best practices, new companies in town, potential partners and much more.

Sustain relationships.

Reconnect with your past contacts while developing and fostering new ones. Reaching out with a systematic approach will help you grow your business.

Market your business.

Be proactive in letting people know what your business is and what it does; use traditional and non- traditional marketing tools. From special events to speaking opportunities to leveraging a national or local trend, make it count.

Tell your story.

Potential clients and customers may not remember an ad, but they will remember your story; make who you are and what you do part of your brand. And show an interest in your client or customer’s story.

Help others.

Whether it is a courtesy interview, volunteering for a homeless shelter or assuming a leadership role in a professional organization, you will receive more than you give. Our city would not be where it is today had we not joined hands for the greater good.

Remember the basics.

It was never more evident than after Katrina, when technology was at a standstill, that we had to remember how we used to carry on business and resort to the roots of our profession. With unreliable internet capabilities, little broadcast or outdoor advertising, unpredictable phone service or faxes, we learned to communicate through yard signs, coffee shop meetings, fliers and personal visits– reminiscent of how the early PR professionals communicated.

Take risks.

The Chinese word for “crisis” is commonly referred to as “opportunity.” The lesson here is to do things differently in order to attain different results. I opened my public relations firm after Katrina, in the midst of a recession and as a cancer survivor, diagnosed shortly after Katrina. I have never looked back.

Be thankful.

New Orleans is a city filled with gratitude; on this 10th anniversary of Katrina, we say thank you to every person who helped us rebuild, housed us when we evacuated or lost our homes, visited us, told our story, bought our products, taught our children and even relocated here. The list is endless, and our cup runneth over. Do the same with your business. You can never say thank you enough.


New Orleans celebrates life through its fairs, festivals and parades, and even celebrates death with its jazz funerals. Take time to celebrate, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Whether you celebrate your company’s anniversary, employee milestones or some recognition of the company, shout it out!