For 48 hours, the 20 employees of injection molder Precision Manufacturing Inc. had no idea how badly Hurricane Katrina had damaged the Pass Christian, Miss., company.
They already knew the Aug. 29 storm had devastated the town, as an estimated 30-foot storm surge swept through from the Gulf of Mexico. A second surge came at the backside of the town from St. Louis Bay and its bayous.
It took two days just to reach the building, said Scott Long, who was operations manager for the company. Once there, it was clear the firm was hit bad.
About 14 feet of water invaded the facility, staying for three to four hours at the height of the storm. The building was structurally sound, and even the cooling tower survived. But everything inside was ruined: the 11 presses, the computer numerically controlled equipment for the mold-building shop, electrical equipment, even forklifts and auxiliary items.
``It was pretty heartbreaking,'' Long said. ``I walked out of that place with tears in my eyes. You dedicate years of your life to a place, and then it's gone. It was a disaster.''
But Long now is seeing the storm as an opportunity. He has started his own business, Coastal Manufacturing Inc., with some of the same employees, working temporarily in the former Precision Manufacturing home. He has three new injection presses up and running and four former Precision employees on the job.
``Sometimes you've got to think that things happen for a reason,'' he said.
Pass Christian twice has taken the brunt of the worst hurricanes coming off the Gulf. So has the building that housed Precision for the past nine years and injection molder Custom Manufacturing before it.
When Hurricane Camille hit Mississippi in 1969, it damaged much of the town and sent 8 feet of water through the 55,000-square-foot industrial building.
Precision, owned by Rick Robinson - who opted to retire after Katrina - had worked steadily to build up a strong base as a custom molder. It had 20 employees making items for a variety of manufacturers, including parts for vacuum maker Oreck Manufacturing Co. in neighboring Long Beach, Miss., and specialty coffee business America's Cup Cappuccino LLC in Slidell, La.
In the days after the storm, Precision employees helped Oreck retrieve molds so the company could launch its own production again, then rented tractors with buckets and hauled the ruined equipment to landfills.
The workers stood by the firm throughout the process, Long said, many of them turning up to help even when their own homes were gone. Katrina destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the houses in Pass Christian.
``It was amazing to see the people come in, just pitch in and help,'' he said.
As Long and his family decided to take the plunge and launch their own company to take over from Precision, those people were at the heart of his plans.
``That was one of my main goals,'' he said. ``We had a lot of key employees, and we've been able to keep some of them.''
The new Coastal Manufacturing also has picked up some business that Precision once had, including America's Cup Cappuccino, and is pursuing a similar custom molding strategy.
``The customers have been very understanding,'' he said. ``They've worked really well with us.''
Its three presses have clamping forces of 9, 33 and 320 tons - and Long looks forward to adding a 500-tonner.
Coastal will be making a break with Pass Christian, however. Long plans to open a permanent location in Wiggins, Miss., about 30 miles north of the Gulf Coast.
``There are some pretty tough people down here, and opening [Coastal] pretty much seemed like the right decision to make,'' Long said. ``Sometimes you just buckle down and make the best of it.''