Begin with the obvious: The destruction, the devastation and the disruptions across the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina are worse than you probably have imagined.
Nearly every building along 70 miles of coastline stretching from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., was stripped from its foundation in a swath of land ranging from two to six blocks wide.
Houses for blocks beyond that were damaged by flood waters that were a story high.
In Long Beach, the storm surge swept across the four lanes of U.S. 90 and through a parking lot to blow out the walls of the town's Wal-Mart. No one knows what happened to the merchandise inside.
For the next several blocks beyond it, the wind tore off roofs and toppled trees. Street signs are gone, replaced by handmade signs in a few neighborhoods.
But despite all the damage - even nearly eight months after the Aug. 28 storm - something more incredible has taken place along the coast. Businesses are up and running.
Injection molding presses shut down before the storm were back in full operation within weeks. People with no place to call home turned up day after day at their jobs, finding some sense of stability at work they lacked outside the gates.
United States Marine Inc. had a 14-foot wall of water rip through its New Orleans business the morning Katrina came ashore. Three weeks later, the composite boat manufacturer had a new location in Gulfport, Miss., helped relocate workers and was back in production.
``I had cancer a few years back, and I saw this as being the same issue that I faced back then,'' said USMI President and Chief Executive Officer Barry Dreyfus Jr. ``You either keep going, or you don't survive. It's very simple. Do you want to live or die? Same thing here. Either we go forward, or we don't survive.''
And the vast majority of plastics businesses near the Gulf did survive.
So far, members of the Mississippi Polymer Institute - which has helped create the growing plastics industry in southern Mississippi - know of only one company Katrina forced to shut down. Injection molder Precision Manufacturing Inc. of Pass Christian, Miss., was destroyed by the storm, which sent water into the town from both the Gulf and the nearby St. Louis Bay.
But the story still has not ended even for Precision. Scott Long, former operations manager, has started a new injection molding business called Coastal Manufacturing Inc., taking over where Precision left off, with some of the same employees and contracts.
Although it is easy to get lost looking at the mounds of debris that were once houses and neighborhoods, the region is rebuilding steadily, with businesses helping to provide the stable base residents need as they recover.
``Three months ago, it was horrible,'' said Mike Ross, director of molding operations for Oreck Manufacturing Co., whose site, in Long Beach, is less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. ``Two months ago, it wasn't as bad. It's getting better and better every day, but it's still hard.''
Hurricanes are nothing new along the Gulf, and residents and businesses alike are familiar with the steps needed to prepare for the start of each storm season.
It was a hurricane that helped launch Mississippi's moves to bring the plastics industry to its state. In the 1960s, the state was home to a thriving tung oil industry, with tung trees throughout the southern area of the state.
But in 1969, Hurricane Camille came on shore, at nearly the same area Katrina would find, with winds of 200 mph that knocked down the trees.
Shelby Thames was then a professor at Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg, leading research into tung oil usage. With the tung crop wiped out, he landed on plastics as a strong alternative industry to bank on. Thames is now president of SMU, and the building housing its polymer science department - with 17 faculty members and 200 students in undergraduate and graduate programs - is named for him.
The Mississippi Polymer Institute, based at SMU, provides support to plastics companies and oversees a high school polymer science program to provide a head start to the next generation of engineers, mold makers and press operators.
Starting with one high school in Petal, Miss., the program has expanded to Corinth, Moss Point and Columbia.
In all, the plastics industry employs nearly 18,000 people in Mississippi, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington, and Mississippi reported $4.8 billion in plastics shipments in 2004.
Plastics firms in the state include auto suppliers making parts for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s assembly plant in Canton, Miss., resin manufacturers along the Gulf, bottle makers near Hattiesburg, and composites specialists serving the aerospace industry.
Those companies know that doing business along the Gulf Coast makes hurricanes a fact of life. Each firm has its hurricane plan - just as each family is told to prepare.
Before the storm
``We had an emergency action plan. That was a huge benefit in preparing for the storm and helping us recover from the event as well as we did,'' said Jesse Hearin, business operations manager for what was then Mississippi Polymer Technologies Inc.
The small company makes a proprietary thermoplastic called Parmax from its base in the low-lying Port Bienville Industrial Park. At the time Katrina hit, MPT was in the midst of buyout talks with Brussels, Belgium-based Solvay SA.
``We had a firm hand on everything leading up to the storm,'' Hearin said. ``At 72 hours before the storm, you make sure this is done; at 48 hours, you have that done.''
At Oreck, Ross and his team got their first warning about Katrina a full week before landfall. The preparedness team, which includes all directors, goes into action if a storm is predicted to land within 100 miles of Long Beach.
Throughout the week, the team met - first once a day, then twice a day as it became clear Katrina was moving toward the plant. On Friday the team made the call to shut everything down and clear out the factory.
Getting out in time
In New Orleans, Dreyfus toured USMI with a video camera, making sure he got the pre-storm condition on tape just in case anything happened. The employees had been told to go home, but in one building, Arturo Mejia, head of lamination, was directing a crew to finish installing the structural support for a hull in progress.
If anything happened, Mejia told Dreyfus, the company still would have a usable hull. Without the support, everything could delaminate.
In nearby Harahan, La., Intralox LLC shut down Saturday morning, telling workers at its 100-press injection molding and extrusion plant to evacuate the city. Their own evacuation order came 24 hours before official government warnings to clear out.
By the time the storm hit on the morning of Aug. 29, the companies were as ready as they could be. The problem was that the storm was bigger than anything residents along the Gulf had ever experienced.
Camille had stronger winds but was more contained. Katrina covered a swath stretching all the way from New Orleans, across Mississippi's southern edge and across state lines into Mobile, Ala., 120 miles to the east, where the storm surge was still estimated at nearly 12 feet.
It came on shore first in southern Louisiana, blew through New Orleans and into Mississippi near the cluster of small towns of Waveland, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian.
Intralox - sitting just two blocks from the Mississippi River - stayed dry with its levee system intact.
USMI was outside the levees but next to Lake Borgne. A storm surge 14 feet high wiped out three of its buildings and scattered its equipment.
As much as 6 feet of water covered nearly all of the Port Bienville Industrial Park outside Bay St. Louis, home to GE Plastics, Wellman Inc. and MPT.
The water eroded the soil under foundations and floated a pipe at Wellman off its supports. While there was minimal structural damage, Wellman estimates it suffered $40 million worth of damage, including damage to its electrical and control systems.
The National Weather Service estimates the storm surge was as high as 30 feet in some areas of Mississippi.
The storm destroyed Southern Mississippi University's Gulf Coast campus in Gulfport along with stores, casinos, hotels, apartments and restaurants along the strip of beach. One of the few remaining houses in Long Beach's waterfront district was built to the highest hurricane standards by a structural engineer. It remains intact, sitting high on concrete piers, its exterior fascia peeled away to reveal the concrete block structure that stood firm.
Oreck's 500-employee manufacturing facility sits on the north side of the railroad tracks that mark the extent of the water damage in town, but winds of 115 mph - with gusts of up to 155 mph - continued the storm's damage. The wind curled back a portion of the roof at Oreck, allowing some minor water damage inside.
To the east in Ocean Springs, Miss., injection molder First American Plastic Molding Enterprise was lucky, with a few trees down on its property but no major damage.
But Katrina wasn't finished yet. It was still a hurricane when it hit Hattiesburg, nearly 70 miles north of the Gulf. Winds clocked at more than 100 mph pulled up part of the roof at molder Dickten & Masch LLC. The storm tore off the door of a rooftop air conditioner, and the door left behind a series of holes in the roof as it cartwheeled across the building.
That afternoon, Charles Phillips, general manager for the Hattiesburg site, made it to the D&M plant and up on the roof to inspect the damage. Beyond the company's own building, it was clear it would not be easy to recover from Katrina. Power was out throughout the region, he said. Neither land-line phones nor cell phones worked, and downed trees blocked all four lanes of the highway leading into Hattiesburg.
For days, neither residents nor companies could get a clear picture of just what had happened. While viewers from around the world saw the devastation on their televisions, those closest to it had no power and almost no means of communication.
Even firms with facilities outside the disaster zone had no way of getting in touch with those sites, while executives there had no way to tell what was going on back at the Gulf.
``I couldn't get in touch with anybody from the company,'' said Paul Horton, plant manager for Intralox. From his evacuation site in Baton Rouge, La., Horton had no idea if Intralox survived or if his home in Metairie, La., was still standing. Being unable to do anything, with the entire situation in Harahan out of his hands, was almost a relief.
``For maybe 12 or 15 hours there was almost this sense of tranquility,'' he said.