Hurricane Katrina: New York Restaurant Manager Recalls Evacuation

NYC Restaurant Manager Recalls Hurricane Katrina Experience

In an economy that's seeing more and more people shy away from expensive extras like dining out, restaurant manager Robert Mullen knows how to keep the crowds coming.

"Placing people in the right areas, making adjustments according to the weather, not being narrow-minded and thinking outside the box -- that's made management pretty fun for me," said Mullen, who works at Los Dados, a Mexican restaurant in New York City. "I'm a pretty adventurous person, period. And with business, I don't mind taking risks, within reason."

Mullen's adventures haven't been limited to the restaurant industry. Born and raised in New Orleans, Mullen was one of 800,000 residents forced to evacuate the city when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August 2005.

Today, as New Orleans and the country prepare to mark Saturday's anniversary of the hurricane's landfall, Mullen, 34, stands as an example of success born out of the tragedy. In leaving his home, Mullen found a career.

While some hurricane evacuees went back to New Orleans -- a recent report by the Brookings Institute found the city has regained 75 percent of its pre-Katrina population -- for many victims, returning home meant increasing home prices, a search for a new job and a wait for permanent housing and restored infrastructure.

Mullen, who previously worked as a waiter in New Orleans, decided to start fresh.

"Even when it's bad, you should just have a spirit that cannot be dominated," he said.

Surviving the Storm

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. The storm, the costliest hurricane in the country's history, left more than 1,800 people dead and lingering questions surrounding the delayed response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But initial reports of a Category 5 storm did not faze Mullen, who decided to stay put in his mother's third floor condominium in the city's east side.

The evening of the storm, Mullen and friends watched MTV's video music awards on television. By 3 a.m., power in Mullen's neighborhood, located about seven minutes' drive from the Superdome, went out.

It was not until approximately 8:45 a.m. that he learned the city's levees had been breached in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was an engineering failure that would leave 80 percent of New Orleans flooded.

"You could gauge how high the water was because of an SUV that was parked outside of my mom's condo," said Mullen, whose neighborhood was flooded by 5 p.m. "At around 5 o'clock, the water had reached maybe the bottom door seal. By Tuesday morning, it looked like [the movie] 'The Day After Tomorrow.' There was water everywhere."

While Mullen's third floor condo remained dry, the water outside the building was nearly chest-high and rising. From the window, Mullen said he could see neighbors floating on air mattresses and families in boats.

Before the storm, Mullen had invited his former girlfriend to bring their daughter and her other two sons to stay with him in his brick condominium. Amid news of the chaos and damage in the city's Superdome, where many residents had retreated, Mullen and his family instead waited in his condo, stocking up on nonperishables from a nearby gas station.

"I would sit on the roof and just chill," he said. "I was in amazement at how the houses looked. From the roof, you could see a fire three blocks from our house. Every other house was either partially destroyed or looked like a dollhouse with the whole back stripped."

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