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One year later, Cloeren looks back on Rita

By 1:00 p.m. on Sept. 24, 2005, Gary Oliver and his colleagues had secured an Orange, TX Cloeren facility, boarding up windows, moving computers, and wrapping CNC machining centers, laser cutters, and other equipment in plastic.
Driving the largely abandoned streets of Orange, TX, Oliver next headed to his apartment to gather food for himself and five colleagues who planned to ride out the approaching storm in Peter Cloeren’s house. Occasionally passing meteorological trucks measuring atmospheric changes as the “boomer” in the Gulf of Mexico loomed, Oliver distinctly remembers the eerie calm of an abandoned town and clear skies, although hurricane landfall was only hours away. “There was no one in town,” Oliver says. “I mean there were very, very few people that didn’t evacuate. It was deathly still.”
At 2:38 p.m., Hurricane Rita would make landfall at the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 storm, arriving with winds of 115 mph and a 20-ft storm surge. The barometric pressure reading of 897 millibars made it the third most powerful hurricane ever measured, and by the time it tore through the “Golden Triangle” of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, TX, it had left $10 billion in damage in its wake, killing seven people directly, and forcing the evacuation of more than one million.
Cloeren (pronounced clare-en)—a global leader in the manufacture of feedblocks and dies for cast film—and its three Orange, TX facilities and 270 employees lay directly in Rita’s path, but two groups of workers who stayed behind, others who navigated the devastation to come back, and the generosity of suppliers and customers, would ultimately see the company through the near-crippling event.
Waiting, watching
Two weeks before Rita arrived, and with Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force still fresh in people’s minds, residents of Orange, TX realized they could be in trouble as then-tropical storm Rita gathered strength. By Sept. 19, predictions placed landfall southeast of Orange in Galveston, meaning the town of 18,000 could expect a deluge, but not as much wind and less overall damage. Three days later, however, the 270-mile-wide storm turned eastward, placing Orange directly in its sites and leading to a mandatory evacuation.
At Cloeren, employees split time between securing the business and tending to their homes. Once finished, the vast majority joined the exodus of evacuees that clogged Interstate 10 headed west toward Houston.
In the interest of securing the operation and getting Cloeren back on its feet as soon as possible, 12 employees stayed behind, with six digging in at plant number two—an elevated facility in a clearing, where the threat of tree or water damage was reduced—and the remaining six staying with Cloeren owner and founder, Peter Cloeren, at his home. In the weeks to come, those who stayed became known as the Band of Brothers.
Following its hurricane plan, this group included key operational heads like the manufacturing manager, the facilities manager, and Oliver, the self-described “gadget/electronics/computer guy.” One late addition outside the plan was an evacuating employee turned back in the face of traffic jams.
Some 900 miles away in Charlotte, NC, Bill Rice, president of Pinnacle Films, a maker of seven-layer metallocene-based stretch films and a Cloeren customer, watched the storm’s approach with great interest, contacting Peter Cloeren, whom he had gotten to know outside of work, a day before the storm arrived.
“I was able to get [Peter] at his house and just let him know if there was anything I could do afterwards, I would certainly be more than willing to help out in any way,” Rice remembers. At the time, a die and feedblock destined to run in Pinnacle’s third stretch-film line sat abandoned on Cloeren’s shop floor, but that was the least of Rice’s concerns.
Riding out the storm
When the power went out at 4:00 p.m., Oliver and his colleagues knew they might be in for a long evening. As the night progressed, the winds and flying debris increased, eventually building to eight straight hours of 135-mph winds. The rear of Cloeren’s house provided a relatively protected bank of glass creating a window onto the violence outside. With sleep out of the question—Oliver estimates he laid down for a fitful 45 minutes—the six gathered for the show.
“The wind was howling,” Oliver recalls. “It was just this mournful cry, like a wounded animal. There were things flying everywhere…trees flying everywhere…and this went on a good part of the night.”
Although the center of the hurricane’s eye passed some 10 miles to the east, the group did get a 30-minute respite from the wind in the middle of the night. Cloeren used the break to pick up the manager of the local radio station, whom he knew, and in his truck they documented the damage in the neighborhood, although fallen debris kept them hemmed to within 50 yards of the house.
Digging out
At dawn, as the storm passed, the sun rose on a scene of devastation. Water, trees, roofs, power lines, telephone poles, and transformers clogged streets. Cloeren had a Bobcat on hand, and along with several chainsaws, the group clawed its way out of the neighborhood, occasionally backtracking as the path they cleared crossed with a downed power line.
After three-and-a-half hours, they reached the main road, and headed to the Cloeren site to survey the damage. A portion of the roof had been shorn off, with rain ruining Oliver’s desk, and all the roll-up doors had come down, but other than some relatively minor damage and water, the plant was relatively unscathed.
The phone lines went out that day along with the power—which stayed down for a month in some part. With no water, and deserted stores, the group found itself struggling to get along.
Helping hands
Getting word of its travails, supplier Battenfeld Gloucester, and customer Nike both loaded trucks with generators and sent them to Orange. Cloeren’s Wisconsin facility loaded a truck with food and shipped it to its sister plant in Texas. Eventually at plant two, the company set up a dorm of sorts, with showers, army cots, and a full kitchen to accommodate the workers that began to trickle back only to find their houses buried by fallen trees.
The greatest show of generosity was yet to come. Pinnacle’s Rice, whose own experience with power outages in Charlotte due to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and an ice storm a few years back gave him great sympathy for Cloeren’s plight, soon took matters into his own hands.
Heading to his local warehouse retailer, Costco, Rice walked the aisles with a store manager selecting pallet loads of essentials he would purchase and ship to Orange. Two pallets of toilet paper; five pallets of bottled water; clean socks and underwear; food; and all the essentials were staged by Costco and loaded onto a trailer. Spending in excess of $40,000, Rice and his 57 Pinnacle employees would have to reorganize the shipment into two 40-ft trailers, which went to Cloeren, no strings attached.
“[Rice] said, ‘I don’t want money, I don’t want anything,’” Oliver recalls. “He said, ‘I knew you guys needed things; I just wanted to help out.’ It was just terrific.” For Rice, the decision to directly help people he knew were struggling but were being largely ignored by mainstream media and the federal government, was an easy one. “There was no CNN crew around, there was very little FEMA,” Rice says, “and they were basically on their own. Everything was down; all the trees, all the phone lines, no gas, no nothing, and it was an awfully, awfully bad situation.”
Oliver estimates Cloeren was ultimately only down two weeks, in spite of the circumstances, and Pinnacle’s feedblock and die arrived in early November. Speaking to MPW nearly a year after the fact, and following participation in Chicago’s NPE in spite of the calamities only nine months earlier, Oliver says Cloeren’s doing just fine, and, in fact, is on pace for a record year. Still as hurricane season arrives once again, Rita and storms like it aren’t far from memory. “It was an experience,” Oliver says. “We’re watching the gulf with great anticipation that everything will go the other way.”
Tony Deligio | [email protected]
Contact information
Cloeren Inc. www.cloeren.com
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