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."

By Thursday morning, the water had not receded. Mullen pulled a boat carrying his family through neck-high water to a local hospital, where the group was transported to another part of Louisiana. They later boarded FEMA buses, eventually arriving in a church shelter in Tyler, Texas.

"For me, personally, I was not used to this," he said. "I was waiting tables in New Orleans. This was surreal. I felt like I just came from a nuclear battle."

For a couple of days, Mullen and his family slept on cots in the church shelter and received food from volunteers, one of whom, Fred Haberle, offered to pay for a new apartment for Mullen and his family in town. Haberle even lent Mullen his truck to help him get his driver's license and find a job.

"We saw with Katrina, big time, that people wanted to help and open up their homes," said Joel Lesser, the president and owner of Hurricane Housing Search, a private, not-for-profit Web site that helps hurricane evacuees find temporary housing across the country by searching through a database of volunteer listings.

Of his site's approximate 10,000 listings, between 20 and 30 percent of the host listings also offer employment for evacuees, he said.

Lesser said he did not know of any similar government-operated Web sites, though FEMA provided many victims with trailers as temporary housing.

For Mullen, however, finding a job in Texas proved to be a tough task. Using the now-defunct HurricaneHousing.org, a service operated by MoveOn.org, Mullen inquired about relocating to Brewster, N.Y., north of New York City. He believed Brewster was the home of his father, who he hadn't seen in 16 years.

From there, Mullen was connected with the owner of a software company, Eric Gewirtz, who offered to let him stay in his pool house.

Leaving his daughter with her mother in Texas, Mullen flew to New York Oct. 3, 2005, with less than $250 in his pockets.

"That night, I said, 'I'm ready to work,'" Mullen remembered, adding that he typed up a resume his first night in New York. "If I don't work, then I'm going to go nuts."

Finding Work

After three days of walking door-to-door to "the nicest restaurants in Manhattan," Mullen landed a job as a food runner at V Steakhouse. After the restaurant closed in December 2005, Mullen found a string of jobs at restaurants, starting first with seasonal work as a waiter at the Oyster Bar, then at the Ono restaurant in the Gansevoort Hotel, and eventually at a newly opened restaurant, Pier 2110, in Harlem, where, after one and a half months, he was promoted to manager.

"I had to learn to curb my arrogance," Mullen said of his managerial experience. "I had been trained to be a good server from bad experiences. I had been trained to come to work 30 minutes early before my actual call time. I had trained myself to be faster, and more accurate, and more precise, and a better salesperson than anyone that I worked with."

When the Harlem restaurant closed after eight months, Mullen found himself working odd jobs in public relations.

"It was a horrible winter. Sometimes money would get really low and run out," he said. "Sometimes, I felt like giving up and going back to New Orleans. I would say, 'I don't know why I'm doing this to myself. I don't have to live like that.'"

Mullen soon found employment as a waiter at Josie's organic restaurant, where he stayed for about five months, earning up to $1,000 a week. But Mullen, who once aspired to be a women's fashion designer, was interested in finding a restaurant gig in the Meatpacking District, a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood.

While applying for a job at a popular New York City club, Lotus, Mullen's style caught the attention of the restaurant's managers, who were about to open a new restaurant in the neighborhood.

Mullen was hired as a waiter when Los Dados opened in the summer of 2007, earning only $150 a night, at first.

"I started coming to work really early," he said. "People thought I was crazy when I'd pick up everybody's shifts, work seven days a week. But at the same time, I was shopping and I was having fun."

In May, Mullen was offered a position as the restaurant's manager. To be a good manager, Mullen said he hired a new slate of servers, played to the strengths of individual workers and created "a new positive energy" among his staff.

"I've just been mixing the elements and making sure I come up with the right equation and treat people the way I want to be treated, especially guests," Mullen said. "I feel like you should go all out for the customer, treat them as if they're in your home."

As hard economic times have forced many Americans to cut back on eating out, Los Dados was worst hit by the recession this past winter.

"It was bad. Everyone was scrambling for shifts. We had only a skeleton staff," said Mullen, then a waiter.

When business was good, Mullen earned between $900 and $1,000 a week as a waiter. As one of six servers, Mullen earned between $400 and $500 a week during the restaurant's lowest point in February, though he said business began to pick up in March.

Business really took off in the summer after the opening of the nearby High Line, an elevated strip in the neighborhood that has been converted into a park. Since its opening, business at Los Dados has tripled, he said.

"We have regular clientele from Columbia University, neighborhood people, movie producers. The whole set of 'Gossip Girls' came in once. There are people like myself," Mullen said of the restaurant's customers. "It's a place where everyone comes to relax, to have a great Los Dados hibiscus blueberry margarita."

Mullen now plans to one day open his own Cajun-style restaurant in the city. He said the menu would include a Cajun-crusted sea bass dish, jambalaya, an entree-sized bowl of Creole gumbo and other New Orleans staples.

"I want to see my vision unfold," he said. "I want to make one, write it down, plan it out and see it implemented."

Life After Katrina

Mullen's post-Katrina experience is different from that of many evacuees, many of whom have returned to New Orleans.

Four years after the storm, remnants of Katrina's damage still can be seen along the Gulf Coast and in the lives of hurricane evacuees.

"Recovery takes a long time," said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Association. "We're four years into what will ultimately take 10 to 15 years to do correctly. Every day, it gets a little easier. Every year we have more things to point to, but we still have challenges."

As of June 2009, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had provided $4.4 million in relocation assistance to 5,050 displaced families living in public housing.

"Our commitment to the Gulf Coast remains unwavering and our determination to bring to completion many of the projects is still underway," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a visit to the region in March 2009. "My goal is to eliminate the red tape, help rebuild now and rebuild the region stronger than ever."

The Obama administration has put $863 million toward 816 Louisiana recovery projects. More than 89,000 Louisiana households displaced by Katrina and 2005's Hurricane Rita, have found permanent housing. But as of early August, 1,768 of the state's households displaced by Katrina and Rita were still living in temporary housing, with 826 living there pending the purchase of a home or hoping to receive a donated unit.

The city also has embarked on the largest home elevation project in the country's history, spending $830 million this year, Stephens said, adding that New Orleans has an unemployment rate lower than the national average.

But whether a hurricane victim decides to return to New Orleans after the storm is an "extremely personal decision," she said.

For Mullen, he said he has "no regrets" starting over in New York.

"I'm hungry," he said. "Every time I wake up, I'm happy, I'm excited. I just can't wait to get out of bed, out of the apartment, and just get to work straight up and accomplish my goals."

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