After the hurricane, my own firm—Perez, APC—lost 23 of the 25 projects we were working on. I continued to pay all of my staff for approximately eight weeks, until one by one they found jobs in Texas. Eventually I lost all but one of my employees (my part-time bookkeeper stayed on). I worked out of my two clients' offices, using their files of the projects. They were most gracious, advancing fees before the projects' completion. When I wasn't in their offices, I was in another sister's New Orleans house, working on the laptop AIA National had given me. (My own home was too damaged for me to live in, and my office downtown remained closed for more than 90 days.) My cell phone finally worked again after a month of only text messaging.
In October 2005, my firm got a commission doing FEMA house inspections as a subcontractor to another firm. The work was depressing, but I was glad to get it. Tulane University hired me to design trailer villages (housing for staff, students, and classrooms), and that kept me going for a while. The most difficult thing at this time was hiring people and getting them to show up. Roads were clogged with commuters and contractors, so a one-hour commute became three hours. Also, everyone had so many personal problems with lost homes and sick family members. Many were suffering from depression and other stress-related illnesses. I could understand the plight of those who were quitting and of those new ones who just couldn't show up. I called two old friends and asked them to come help me. One flew in from California and stayed for more than a month. The other ended up staying on full time. The company would not have survived without these women.
Cash flow was really tough in the first six months after the storm. The FEMA subcontract and the Tulane trailer villages were very slow to pay. All the departments at Tulane were decimated, and I'm sure accounting wasn't spared. I had applied for a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan that seemed to never come. Out of desperation, my bookkeeper and I called the SBA every day in January 2006. I finally got a phone call from them, offering $5,000. I blew my cool and started screaming at the poor woman on the phone. The next day, the same woman called and offered $250,000. I finally closed on the loan—three times, as the SBA kept losing the loan papers. In their defense, they were working out of temporary quarters with four other federal agencies and with very few resources. Also, the turnover in their staff was unbelievable, just like FEMA.
By some miracle, at the end of January, the $250,000 loan dropped into my business checking account. My bank, to which I owed $110,000 from my pre-Katrina line of credit, promptly took that much from the loan and paid off the line of credit plus all of the interest I had not paid since the storm.
It appeared that between the FEMA subcontract, the Tulane trailer villages, and the SBA loan, we would survive. Based mostly on my optimism for the future of New Orleans, I started hiring people. I was certain we would soon be slammed with new work. I hired Steve Braquet plus six other architects and interior designers I had met doing volunteer work. I call them the “hardy pioneer” types, as they stuck around and really worked hard (often pro bono) to rebuild New Orleans.
Unfortunately, new work did not come. During the spring of 2006, my new staff and I would prepare hundreds of proposals and win none. Even my most loyal clients were not awarding us any work. They were affiicted by the same problems everyone else was having; I didn't recognize anyone at their offices. Furthermore, much of the work appeared to be going to out-of-state firms. I was so disappointed and began wondering why I had bothered coming back to New Orleans.
We toiled away at proposals and volunteer work. It was exhilarating, exciting, depressing, and therapeutic all at the same time. The new staff was wonderful—a real team that hung together through some dark days. By June 2006, we had enough cash left for one more payroll. Miraculously, both my cell phone and Steve's began ringing during the AIA national convention with client calls awarding us new contracts! There were so many new jobs that week, we couldn't schedule all of the kickoff meetings.
We have continued to win work and are the busiest we've been since I joined the company in 1998. Our staff is now at 20, and we are adding an average of one new person per week. Half the projects are hurricane repair work and the other half are exciting new-construction projects, including a high-tech public high school. We continue to help indigent homeowners, whether they can pay anything or not.
If anyone is interested in coming to New Orleans for any reason—to work, to vacation, or to volunteer—they are most welcome. There is plenty to be done, and we appreciate all the help we can get.
"My own firm lost 23 of the 25 projects we were working on," says Angela O'Byrne, president of Perez, APC in New Orleans.
Credit: Perez, APC
Angela O'Byrne, AIA, is president of Perez, APC in New Orleans. For information on donating to or volunteering for the organizations she mentions, please visit www.aianeworleans.org or www.city-works.org.