How a remarkable team came together to help the post-Katrina recovery of New Orleans Country Club-and the city itself.
With a golf course full of water (and golf carts floating on top), thousands of feet of collapsed fencing lying around the edges of the property, massive piles of downed trees and other debris everywhere, and none of his own machines in operating order, Neil Mayberry began to make calls to equipment vendors and cleanup services, to try to start the process of putting everything back together again.
New Orleans CC AT A GLANCE
• Founded: 1914
Problem was, Mayberry, then an assistant golf course superintendent, was trying to do this for the New Orleans Country Club (NOCC) in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005—and thousands of other managers from damaged businesses within a 100-mile radius of the city were also attempting to make the same calls. On the rare occasions when he could get through to a supplier that was back open for business, Mayberry soon discovered that just presenting himself as a prospective customer wasn’t going to be enough.
“The vendor attitude was often, ‘Why should we help you out—there are a lot of other things in New Orleans that need to get fixed before a country club,’” Mayberry recalls. “I learned pretty quickly that I needed to be forceful about making it clear that our members were people who were going to help rebuild the city, and they needed to have the club operating again, as an important part of starting to do that work.”
Four years later, New Orleans still has a way to go before being fully restored—if indeed that will ever be possible—after getting hit by what proved to be the costliest ($80-plus billion) and one of the deadliest (over 1,800 deaths) tropical storms ever to make U.S. landfall. But giant strides have been made toward returning a sense of normalcy to the city and reviving its unique spirit. Much of this progress came through the efforts of the many business and civic leaders who are NOCC members and quickly came to rely on the club as the recovery began, not only as a convenient and reliable place to host social events, but also to get their personal batteries recharged as they tackled the daunting challenges of helping to make New Orleans not only viable, but vibrant, again.
Just as importantly, getting the New Orleans Country Club itself to stand proud again helped to provide a much-needed psychological boost for the people of New Orleans as they coped with the post-Katrina trauma. Even in a city of such rich tradition, few places capture its history and essence as well as NOCC, which was founded in 1914 and has since literally been at the center (it is located just a few miles from the French Quarter) of not only New Orleans’ golf life, but also its social world.
In addition to its tight, demanding, well-bunkered golf course, NOCC has a classic, 60,000-sq. ft. clubhouse that had just been restored (as had the course) through a major renovation in 2003. And the property’s most well-known feature is the sprawling, 320-year-old oak tree, located just behind the clubhouse (see photo, pg. 14), that inspired the club’s logo and has been the backdrop for thousands of photos capturing important people and events in New Orleans history.
The tree is legendary for how it has endured the many traumas, natural and man-made, that have threatened to uproot it from the spot it has occupied for over three centuries. In addition to surviving the many storms that preceded Katrina, it was also saved when the clubhouse caught fire on Halloween night in 1922 and the club’s President, still in costume, met the fire company as it arrived and ordered it to save the tree first.
After Katrina delivered blows unlike any the city had seen before, however, the news traveled that not only had NOCC’s golf course been swamped, but the lower floor of its clubhouse was filled with four feet of water. It became more important than ever to show that not only the iconic oak tree, but the club itself, still stood as important symbols of the city’s indomitable spirit and history.
And today, while recovery remains challenging for many businesses in the area (including other clubs and courses), New Orleans can draw strength and inspiration from the fact that NOCC is now operating again, in all departments, at levels that either already equal, or are very close to, pre-Katrina activity. Things have come back strongly and quickly enough, in fact, that the club is on track to resume the next phases of improvements in a master plan designed to get it in even better shape, in time for its 100th birthday celebration in 2014.
“This fall we saw our fitness center get back to pre-Katrina levels, and golf, tennis, food and beverage, and catering are all back very close as well,” reports General Manager Bobby Crifasi. “We’ve held on to the same level of membership as before [Katrina].
“Many of our members had the opportunity to relocate after the storm to Houston or Dallas or Atlanta,” Crifasi adds. “But because we were able to get the club to come back so fast and make it part of their lives again, I don’t think there’s any question that’s one of the reasons they’re still here.”
When Crifasi first saw what Katrina had done to the place where he’d worked since coming to NOCC as its Controller in 1988, questions were pretty much the only thing that he had. It’s one thing, after all, to look at all that needs to be done to clean up from a major disaster. It’s quite another to wonder if you’ll have to do it all yourself.
“The National Guard was already on site and using the property as a staging area,” Crifasi recalls about the day in early September 2005, a week or so after the storm, when he was finally able to make his way back to the club. ‘‘I got a special pass for 10 minutes, so I could go in and take pictures for insurance purposes.”
After getting the go-ahead from Board members to commence immediately with full recovery efforts, plus assurance that everyone who had been on the payroll before the storm would still have jobs if they returned, Crifasi then began the hardest task of all—finding the people who went with the jobs.
Another week later, a total of five managers from the pre-Katrina staff were on site to help. Others had told Crifasi they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, come back; still others had yet to be heard from. But Crifasi had no more time to wait. He had already been able to pound the phones—again at a time when countless other businesses were desperately searching for the same services—to secure a contracting crew with expertise in cleaning up from floods that was on its way from Houston (the contractor’s 75 people would show up just three weeks after Katrina hit and work for 30 days straight, and were even able to save the men’s grill). Until the crew arrived, however, anyone who was on hand had to get busy—and until further notice, everyone would have the same job levels and descriptions.
And so it came to be that Fitness Director Billy Heslin could be found furiously removing wet carpet from the building, and running a backhoe to clear debris from the property. Head Golf Professional J. T. Crawford, meanwhile, began cutting grass with any working mower he could find.
Eventually in some cases, an assistant manager like Neil Mayberry had to be put in charge of running a key department like golf course maintenance—and also serving, until more help could arrive, as pretty much the entire staff as well.
“Neil was a young kid just three years out of college, but I had no choice—he was the only one who came back, so he was now my guy,” Crifasi says. The promotion soon became official, as Mayberry showed just how well he could respond to the challenge. “By January 1, I’d seen all I needed to see; Neil was our new Superintendent,” Crifasi says.
Other employees who returned showed similar dedication and resolve, as they willingly plunged in—despite the many disruptions the storm had created in their own lives—to put in the time and exhausting effort needed to get the club up and running again.
“As word spread of how we were coming back to life, we’d start to get more people back,” Crifasi reports. “It took two months to get power restored, we had to rent a house [in a suburb] to use for offices, and we set up a tent in the parking lot and rented kitchen equipment to be able to make lunch [for the employees}.
“But we kept at it, and by December 1, we were able to open the golf course again, as well as a room upstairs in the clubhouse that could be used for member dining and parties. And then members started coming back almost immediately to eat or play golf on a daily basis—you could tell it was important for them to have things to do as part of a regular routine again.”
Back in Shape
Thanks to solid insurance coverage that covered 100% of claimed damage, NOCC was soon back to looking, and operating, as well as it ever had before—and the club can now point to some positives that came out of all the upheaval.
For example, Katrina forced the club’s previous Executive Chef to have to relocate his family, and it took a year before Chris Tefarikis, a sous chef from New Orleans’ popular Commander’s Palace restaurant, could be found to fill the void. But Crifasi says Tefarikis has proved to be “a wonderful fit.”
“New Orleans is a tough city for a club, with so many great restaurants,” he adds. “But our members are saying the food has never been better, and they’re bringing more guests, too. Getting someone with Chris’ background, from a restaurant that is a great training ground, has certainly proved to bring some valuable new resources to the club.”
It was also not by chance that fitness proved to be the first department at the club to return to pre-Katrina activity levels. “Life [during the early months of recovery] was just not normal, and we saw members come back who had gained 50 pounds and now had serious health issues,” reports Heslin. “It was rewarding to be able to help them start to get their lives back in order from a physical standpoint.”
Most of the momentum, though, for bringing NOCC back so quickly (to what Human Resources Director Jennie G’Sell now calls “the new normal”) came from not only how the recovery effort brought the staff together, but also because of the staff’s huge gratitude to the club and its members.
“I don’t begrudge the people who chose not to come back; it was a hectic time and everyone had to make the decisions that were right for themselves and their families,” says Crifasi. “But for those of us who stayed and worked together, there’s no question we’ve formed a stronger bond and also have even greater loyalty to our members, because of the care and concern they showed for us. Now that we’re back to ‘regular’ operations, we’ll never forget that.”