By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006
A cap pulled over his blue eyes, David Bachemin crunches across the gravel toward his front door. Bachemin used to have a porch where he would take off his boots after a 12-hour shift at the Domino Sugar refinery. A brick house where his old black Lab could wander from room to room, and his wife of 38 years could make coffee in a kitchen with actual counters.
Now Bachemin and his family live in a trailer on the grounds of the refinery, surrounded by 210 other employees who also lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. In a grand social experiment, Domino is overseeing a village of 700 residents, evoking a an old-fashioned company town.
The encampment is Dickensian: rows of aluminum trailers dwarfed by a 13-story refinery blowing steam from boilers on the banks of the Mississippi River. Each morning at 5, Bachemin crawls out of his bunk and joins the other men on their 100-yard walk to work.
"We fish together, we hunt together, we drink together, and now out here in these trailers, we live together," says Bachemin, a 56-year-old mechanic supervisor.
With the gallows humor of the shipwrecked, they call this place "Chateau Domino."
The refinery is in St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white and working-class community of 65,000 east of New Orleans, which suffered the hurricane's most thorough destruction. Water swallowed nearly every home, business and government office. Five months later, marsh grass grows inside abandoned houses, and a shrimp trawler is still beached in a subdivision. One school is functioning, but no grocery store has reopened; only a couple of honky-tonk bars near the oil refineries and a handful of restaurants serving plate lunches in their parking lots.
Yet inside the gates of Domino, the amenities multiply: electricity, water and a laundromat. A school bus arrives each morning for the children. Last week, Domino started publishing a newsletter for its residents.
After the hurricane, Domino needed to keep its place as the nation's largest cane sugar refining company, and needed its workforce to do it. "We are back to the days when the little towns were built up around manufacturing," says Pete Maraia, Domino's plant manager. "This the nucleus of how you rebuild a community."
An oddity of the post-Katrina landscape in Louisiana is that thousands of workers displaced by the storm are living in trailer parks set up by their corporations. Union Carbide, Murphy Oil and Exxon Mobil have set up encampments to get their workforces going again. The Folgers roasting facility in New Orleans set up 150 trailers but only for employees. Domino decided to house both employees and families.
Bright curtains and statues of the Virgin Mary recovered from wrecked yards cheer up the surroundings, but there's no escape from waking up each morning in a 28-foot trailer surrounded by chain-link fence in the din of a sugar factory. About 240 of Domino's 326 employees lost everything in the storm.
"We're all walking on eggshells," Carol Bachemin says. "I am warm, so I am grateful. But I find myself so angry. This is what my life has become."'We Know How to Survive'
The rules of the trailer park are simple: all dogs on leashes, alcohol in moderation, no loud music and all firearms must be licensed. The trailers are parked atop a thousand tons of white gravel spread in a field next to the refinery. The air is dust-choked from a fleet of backhoes and Bobcats laying sewer lines. Kids pedal around the beeping vehicles. The monotony is sometimes broken by the occasional crab boil or fish fry if the weather is warm.
Residents have tried to personalize their territories with barbecue grills, and some have built little patios from wooden sugar pallets. Freddie Meyer has gone all out: hanging plants, lawn ornaments, twinkling lights and a pair of regal lion statues more fit for guarding an estate than a 30-foot Palomino camper.
"We know how to survive out here," says Meyer, a 41-year-old wiry, gregarious native of the St. Bernard Parish shrimping town of Violet.
Inside his trailer are his wife and three kids, ages 17, 14 and 11. The hours of greatest comfort are when everyone is lying down asleep. But Meyer is not complaining. "We needed our jobs," he says, while the kids stand four feet away in the living room and the television blares. "Without our jobs, we can't live. This is a company. They want the plant running. The only way they can get the plant working is workers."
The effects of Domino Sugar's comeback reach beyond its gates. The 700 living in trailers are helping St. Bernard Parish kick-start its economy again. The children -- about 35 -- allow the school system to hire back a teacher. The chain of revival even includes a small deli near the refinery. Domino lent the owners of the Arabi Food Store a trailer so they could renovate the flooded deli and get back to delivering po' boys to the factory gates. "Domino was our biggest customer," says owner Debbie Smith, readying her store for a grand reopening. "And they need us."
Still, Domino managers acknowledge the fragility of what they have created.
"We know how to make damn good sugar," says Mickey Seither, vice president of operations. "We don't know a whole lot about running a trailer park."'They are Fighters'
Built in 1909, the refinery is a red-brick colossus on the Mississippi, chugging and puffing 24 hours a day. Inside, the iron stairs are sticky from decades of sugar, sweat and steam. The oldest of Domino's four plants -- the others are in Baltimore, New York and California -- the refinery in St. Bernard Parish was processing 6.5 million pounds of sugar a day before the storm. About 75 different products were produced, packaged and shipped from the site. Domino pays an average wage of $17 an hour with benefits; most employees are men, and many have worked here for more than 20 years.
The bonds of loyalty to each other and to the company were tested with Katrina. Ten employees volunteered to stay inside the refinery to keep the electricity and pumps working during the storm, but they lost communication with the outside world. As St. Bernard Parish slipped underwater, the employees were trapped for several days.
When Maraia, the plant manager, returned, the refinery was in ruins. Motors and pumps were submerged, and water had flooded mammoth sugar sheds, one containing 32 million pounds of raw sugar that turned into a lake of syrup. Dozens of vehicles were buried under melting mountains of sugar. The wind had blown out 450 of the 2,200 refinery windows. Cleanup seemed impossible: There was no power to suction the water or lift the 10,000-pound motors from submersion, and most of Domino's workers had evacuated and were scattered across the country.
Domino's parent company is American Sugar Refining Inc., which is owned by Florida Crystals Corp., which has its headquarters near West Palm Beach, and a cooperative of sugar cane growers. The company leased a barge and docked it on the river behind the refinery. All Domino employees were kept on the payroll, but only 20 were brought back initially. Fighting mosquitoes and heat, the men worked 12-hour days using only diesel generators, brute strength and physics to hoist and lift submerged machinery. They slept and ate on the barge, earning time-and-a-half for every hour worked.
"They are fighters, in a good way," Maraia says. "I think they felt they were on a mission. They knew that if they wanted to live here again, they had to have a job here."
Maraia, a Brooklyn-born son of a spring maker who started with Domino in 1974, lived in another parish and says he felt guilty about not losing his own home. He tried to keep his workers focused on the task of rebuilding, but his wife warned him, "Watch what you say, Pete; don't give them too much hope."
Using its contacts in the Louisiana Department of Economic Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the company got 270 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The first question was whether to allow families or just employees to live in them. Some Domino managers questioned the wisdom of becoming a landlord, but the company decided the workers would be happier -- and more productive -- with their spouses and kids there.
By early December, Domino was producing a small daily run of 3 million pounds of sugar, less than half its normal production but still a comeback.
The strained labor relations that plagued Domino throughout the 1990s faded in the face of the crisis, says Milton J. Carr Jr., who represents the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1101. "I guess you could say we are in a honeymoon period right now," says Carr, who has worked at Domino for 33 years. "All honeymoons end, but right now we are lucky to have our jobs."
But the stress is catching up. Nearly two dozen employees and family members interviewed for this story see evidence of anxiety, depression, weight loss and abusive drinking. "I am filled with rage," says one wife, who was referred to a psychiatrist by a doctor working out of the temporary medical trailers in St. Bernard Parish. Another woman says her husband is drinking "real heavy."
Last week, Domino stepped up its employee assistance plan to provide counselors. "Our biggest challenges are ahead of us," Maraia says.'The Wives Lost All Their Stuff'
In the dark every morning, there is a quiet commute across the rocks to the refinery. Left behind in the trailers are the women, most of whom lost their jobs in the hurricane and now spend their days with cell phones pressed to their ears dealing with insurance adjustors, FEMA, the Small Business Administration and others. The nearest grocery store is an hour away, a trip necessitated every two or three days because the trailer refrigerators are so small.
"The men, the work was their life, they didn't lose that," says Carol Bachemin, smoking and drinking coffee in her trailer. "The wives lost all their stuff."
Inside another trailer, a woman uses a hair dryer on still-wet snapshots pulled from the wreckage of home.
And inside another: "I long for a bath, and a big bathtub," Kathy Sakowski says. "You miss all the little things in life. I miss washing my hair with real water pressure, fluffing it and drying it out. And where is my favorite pan? You think of things every day that you lost."
While their husbands work, some drive to their old neighborhoods 10 or 15 minutes away and gut their houses. Melissa Arbour has a red bleach burn on her arm from scrubbing walls. Sheri Meyer is sunburned from gutting hers. Wendy Miller bought rubber boots and cleared debris from her water-logged home. Then they come back to the trailers and make dinner.
"You are thankful you have a roof over your head," Lanette Labrosse says. "At the same time, you are cussing under your breath."
"Look at this," Labrosse says, pulling down the air filter in her trailer covered with gray silt. "We have to take this down and wash it all the time."
The air in St. Bernard Parish is an invisible galaxy of dust, spores and mold. Six out of 10 patients who visit the temporary medical trailers have respiratory problems, according to Paul Verrette, medical director of the Department of Homeland Security in the parish.
Nancy Bird, wife of a Domino worker, won't let her child live in the trailer park because of environmental concerns. Besides the air quality, Bird worries about soil contamination from an oil spill during the hurricane not far from the public school that has reopened.
"I don't understand the common sense of letting kids live here," says Bird, who lives elsewhere in Louisiana with her son while her husband stays in a Domino trailer.
But many have no choice.
One night after dinner, as a cold wind blows across the trailers, Freddie Meyer's daughter, Megan, 11, and Devin LaChapelle, 12, are kicking rocks with their sneakers. "I can describe this place in three words," Devin says. "Dusty, dirty and boring. It's not normal."
"It's not home," Megan says.
As the refinery's engines grind above them, Devin and Megan walk along the fence and across the street to the levee. The lights of New Orleans burn across the river. The kids trade evacuation stories. Megan says that when they got back to her house, her parakeet was dead and his head was sticking up through the top of the cage. "He was trying to breathe while the water came up," she says.
Devin evacuated to New Mexico. "The people gave us clothes," he says.
They shiver in silence, then turn back to the trailers.'We Are Close-Knit'
On the fourth floor of the refinery, the mechanics stand near the windows on a smoke break. Meyer and Wayne Dear glisten with sweat. Then it's back to the darkness of the machinery, where the No. 2 Syrup Pumping Pot and huge centrifuges that spin the water from the raw sugar groan and wheeze.
The sour smell of fermented sugar still lingers. Raw sugar is brought in from Texas or Louisiana and refined here: washed, purified, spun, dried and emerging in snowy crystals that fill 2,000-pound totes bound for Kellogg or 5-pound packages bound for Wal-Mart. With storm-damaged machinery, Domino is only able to produce half its product run. New mechanical palletizers have not come in yet, so sugar is loaded onto pallets by hand, slowly, rhythmically, in a pace the workers calibrate to help them last eight hours.
Meyer, Dear and another mechanic with "Catfish" on his hard hat spend the morning fixing a broken motor reducer. They kneel on greasy cardboard as they use two-foot wrenches and heavy mallets to take apart the reducer. Three of them work together, one heaving, the other turning, no one talking unless a direction is shouted above the noise of the machinery.
"We are close-knit," says Dear, as he walks down to the break room for lunch. "You gotta be to do this."
They are close even in the way they eat lunch, with Dear cutting up sausage and passing it down the long lunch table. Out of eight men in the room, seven lost their homes in the storm. Gerald Banks, who oils machinery, watched his 81-year-old father drown and spent three hours next to the body as he clung to a concrete stairway of a house that had washed away.
On break, the men talk about levees and corrupt politicians or what they found in their homes -- fish, dead dogs, car tires. Most had no flood insurance. Some of their homes were in the path of a 25,000-barrel oil spill from Murphy Oil that contaminated 1,800 homes. One man has received a $20,000 settlement; others are waiting to hear. But for most, there will be no windfall of insurance or oil money. Domino Sugar is the surest thing in their lives.
"It's rough," Meyer says. "I ain't gonna tell you no lie."
Their shift is from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but most work overtime because there's nothing else to do. The one exception is when a warm front passes through, and the marshes call.
On a sunny January afternoon, Meyer and David Bachemin clock off at 2:30 p.m., and by 2:37 they are hitching their boat trailers to trucks and headed for Delacroix Island. A two-lane road leads into the otherworldly devastation of fishing communities where trawlers are flipped over and branches are twisted in horrific sculptures.
They put in their boats and throttle out toward the horizon. These are the same waters that ruined their lives, but no one mentions the hurricane. The trout start piling up in the ice coolers. "I like to see that, my baby," Meyer shouts, as someone hauls in another.
Bachemin's cell phone echoes. It's his wife calling from the trailer, stressed out and fighting with their son. Bachemin tells her he'll be there soon.
In darkness, they drive back. Meyer pulls up to the fence surrounding the trailers. The white aluminum boxes are blasted by industrial lights and the refinery's glare. "Home, sweet home," Meyer says.