Neutral Ground

Sweet Recovery

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How to (re)start a sugar refinery

Truck tracks in the sugar at the Louisiana refinery (Photo by Wayne Curtis)

By Wayne Curtis

June 18, 2015


 

 

“I had a really bad feeling about it,” said Mickey Seither, senior vice president of operations at American Sugar Refining, Inc. It was the weekend before Hurricane Katrina made its early Monday landfall on August 29, 2005. Seither was then the manager of a riverside plant that processes sugar for Domino and other companies in Arabi, just a few miles from New Orleans. He made a quick call to his insurance company, told them to be prepared, and hunkered down at his home in Mandeville.

Eight employees stayed behind to watch over the plant during the storm. After Katrina passed by, Seither couldn’t reach anyone by phone for more than a week, and it was nearly two weeks before he could get back to the plant. By that time, everyone had been evacuated—including the 150 neighbors and community members who had sought refuge from rising water on upper floors of the plant’s 11-story building.

When he arrived, the place was empty and deathly quiet, like a ruin. “It’s never silent,” he said. “There’s always some kind of noise going on.” The refinery had been inundated with between four and nine feet of flood water, and many of the pumps and motors had been submerged and would have to be replaced or sent out for repairs. The 25 million pounds of raw sugar stored in the hangar-sized shed had started to dissolve into a slurry, and was sloughing and fermenting in the 90-plus degree heat.

The plant was built in 1909. It was then and remains the largest plant of its kind in the western hemisphere. It processes about eight million pounds of sugar a day; roughly 20 percent of the cane sugar consumed in America passes through here, including virtually all the cane grown in Texas and half that in Louisiana.

Getting the plant up and running again would require a major effort, starting with a shift in job descriptions. Seither essentially would need to go from being a site manager to a city manager.

Seither and Peter Maraia, then his right-hand man and the current plant manager, first tracked down their 325 employees, almost every one of whom had lost their homes and now were scattered around the country. (None died in the flood.) Seither sourced a dormitory barge that could sleep 50 people, and had it brought in and tied up at the refinery’s dock. Then he and Maraia began piecing together a recovery team.

The Arabi plant is nearly self-sufficient. It makes its own electricity (using piped-in natural gas), purifies its own water from the river, and operates its own wastewater treatment plant. All those systems had to be restarted before anything else could happen. “The first guy I called was my safety and fire marshall guy—he was in Georgia,” said Maraia. “Then, what mechanics do I want? What electricians do I want? We had to evaluate and target what kind of help we would need.” They started the recovery with about 25 mechanics and electricians on site.

Early on, Seither got a call from the state asking if some FEMA trailers would help. Yes, he said. They started with 25 and ended up with 250, which covered the employee parking lot and spilled into the unused lot next door. All this activity required the hasty building of an infrastructure for a village—roads, sewage, plumbing, electricity, laundromat. “Then we had to set up a cantina,” Maraia said.

Once essential systems were up and running, the clean-up and restoration began. They brought in about 70 outside contractors—millwrights, electricians, roofers. “They all wanted to know, ‘What are you going to pay me? What’s my per diem? Where am I going to sleep? Who is going to wash my clothes?’” A whole support operation was fabricated from scratch.

Employees set about the slow process of bringing back the plant. The damaged raw sugar was disposed of (much of it went to an ethanol refinery), and all the finished product in the warehouse went to landfills—in total, about 30 million pounds of sugar. To make the job more manageable, Maraia would take a picture of a ruined space, post it on a board, and tell a crew it was their job to clean and paint what they could see. “All the focus was there,” he said. After two weeks or so, they’d take a picture of it all spic and span, and then move on to a photo of the next spot.

“Getting the plant up and running was a no-brainer,” Maraia said. “The unknown was knowing how people were going to handle it.” They hired professional counselors to be on call whenever anyone needed one. “They were coping with their own issues—families were separated, they had insurance hassles, their houses were destroyed.” In some ways, the hard work of getting the refinery back up and running offered a break from a more pervasive anxiety.

Bit by bit, the refinery came back. Walking through the main building where some 200 sugar products are made today—everything from sugar packets to one-ton bags—I asked Maraia when the plant became operational again. “We started up at 6:54 a.m. on December fifth,” he said without breaking stride, “and the first sugar was sent to customers at 4:02 a.m. on December 8 by railcar to one of our locations in Cleveland, Tennessee. Some people said a year, two years, to get going again. We got it up and running in 98 days.”

Maraia’s office is like a small museum of the recovery, with more than 100 pictures, a flag that flew over the refinery during Katrina, and letters from well-wishers. Maraia is a staccato talker who somehow has the knack of equally emphasizing every word he utters. But his rat-a-tat-tat stops and he has to compose himself briefly when he reads me a letter from a woman in New York who read about the recovery effort and sent him a check to pay for an Easter party for the children at their FEMA village.

Katrina produced tens of thousands of stories of people striving to overcome obstacles—physical, emotional, personal, bureaucratic. Most overcame them; many didn’t. Bringing back a plant that produces one in five tablespoons of cane sugar in America was just one of the stories, albeit on a scale akin to the ancient Egyptian.

“You win first, and then you go into battle,” Maraia said. “That wasn’t me. That’s Sun Tzu in The Art of War. And this was a highlight of my career, to be part of that plan, to be part of that success story.”


Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails and The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and Garden & Gun, among other publications.


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