If only FEMA prepared for a disaster as well as The Mitchell Co. While confusion and inactivity plagued the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, this diversified Gulf Coast multifamily company mobilized almost immediately to help its properties and communities. In the fishing and shipbuilding village of Bayou La Batre, Ala., Mitchell Co. employees scrambled almost 2,000 eggs and fed approximately 1,500 people. Company staffers delivered vegetables to six Mitchell Co. complexes in Biloxi, Miss., and Gulfport, Miss., sharing the extras with Old Pass Road Baptist Church in Gulfport. The company also prepared 500 survival kits for people who were returning to their homes after the hurricane and installed roofs on single-family homes in Mobile that were damaged by the storm.

How can this multifamily, commercial, and single-family builder do so much so quickly? Just look at the parking lot at its Mobile, Ala., headquarters, where two large trucks that resemble RVs sit on the asphalt. The black one contains three bathrooms with showers. The red one essentially operates as a rolling kitchen, complete with dishes, pots, pans, silverware, cabinets, refrigerators, and a freezer. When a storm hits, The Mitchell Co. sends these trucks, staffers, and SUVs with "Disaster Relief Team" signs into hurricane-scarred areas to help residents and employees alike.

CEO John Saint's focus on disaster readiness means The Mitchell Co. can quickly respond when a hurricane rumbles up the Gulf Coast. The company stands ready to provide food, supplies, and comfort after storms.
Lee Celano CEO John Saint's focus on disaster readiness means The Mitchell Co. can quickly respond when a hurricane rumbles up the Gulf Coast. The company stands ready to provide food, supplies, and comfort after storms.

"We will load up the red wagon and black shower truck and will take it to wherever our people are," says John Saint, Mitchell's president and CEO. "We'll feed them and do whatever we have to do keep that operation going."

With properties all up and down the Gulf Coast, The Mitchell Co. (which also manages commercial properties) knows it's not a question of if a hurricane will affect the company–it's a question of when. According to Chuck Stefan, senior executive vice president for apartment development, 60 percent to 70 percent of the properties that Mitchell has built or manages sit in a hurricane zone. So, when a storm hits, the company has to be prepared to take care of its people. And in recent years, the company has put its disaster response plan into action more times than it would care to remember.

"They've seen a lot of hurricanes," says Jane Z. Harrison, a former Mitchell employee and vice president of Collateral Real Estate Capital, a lender based in Birmingham, Ala. "They have their systems in place. They ... ascertain what the damage is and what needs to be done. They immediately start working."

Military Precision

Mitchell stores both food and gas locally so it's ready to go in a post-storm emergency.
Lee Celano Mitchell stores both food and gas locally so it's ready to go in a post-storm emergency.

It really should come as no surprise that Mitchell is so prepared to respond to a hurricane. After all, three Vietnam vets–Saint, Stefan, and Donald P. Kelly Jr., the senior executive vice president for commercial development–run the company, and their military experience taught them to be ready for any natural catastrophe. "We have a very sophisticated disaster plan," Saint says. "The minute we have a storm in the Gulf, it activates. We have to take care of our people first. If we do that, the rest of the plan works like clockwork."

The company opens its offices to employees who live in areas at risk for flooding, and it stocks its headquarters with disaster-friendly supplies such as Heater Meals. These red-packaged, self-heating entrees provide nourishment for workers when food can't be cooked or groceries are in short supply. "One of the biggest mistakes we made the first time was that we didn't have food here because nothing was open," Saint says. "Now, we have the food to be able to feed our people for a short period of time."

With gas also often in short supply during a crisis, transportation can become an issue as well. "They have gas available for their employees that is stored at the airport hanger where they keep their aircraft," marvels Mike Granger, president of Compass Bank's Mobile market. After a hurricane hits, "obviously, when you burn up the tank of gas you filled up before the storm, you're in dire straits, and you can't get to work or do recovery work."

Communication also becomes difficult, as telephone lines go down and cellular circuits get overloaded. So Mitchell provides all of its seven main offices with at least one satellite phone. For those employees who must leave before a storm hits, the company establishes a toll-free number. "If they're going to evacuate, our employees call and tell us where they're going and how we can reach them," Saint says.

Money also can get scarce when power outages shut down ATMs and banks. So Mitchell withdraws enough money to pay subcontractors and cashing employees' checks. The company also does what it can to keep its workers solvent. "No matter where our employees are, they will get paid for 60 days," Saint says.

Mitchell doesn't require its property-level employees to evacuate or remain near their properties. But some will stay on-site. That's what Troy Whaley and Patrick Steenkamp did. The two current Mitchell maintenance workers and former military men decided to hunker down in Biloxi and wait out Katrina at Oak Grove Apartments and Grandview Apartments, respectively.

"They barricaded the job with personal vehicles," Stefan says. "They armed themselves and organized to keep the vandals out. They had locked the gate and had an SUV blocking the front gate. They were carrying firearms and had gotten the residents to patrol."

The company's high-rise corporate headquarters don't have quite so much drama–the building sits 30 minutes from the Gulf. But after a storm passes, the office becomes a picture of activity. "The team reports here, and we start taking assessments," Saint says. "The managers call in on the satellite system and on the 800 number, and we take assessment of where our people are. Once you determine that, you start looking at how bad the buildings are."