As a business that has survived Tropical Storm Allison, the devastation of Hurricane Ike and the recent May floods, giving back to others is at the core of our business. In fact, being able to survive these disasters has enabled us to thrive and grow, right alongside our community.

Three Brothers Bakery Damage From Memorial Day Floods 2015
Memorial Day Flood Damage 2015

So it is only natural that at this 10 year anniversary of Katrina, we think about our “sister city, ” New Orleans. New Orleans is home to a diverse food scene, where we’ve continued our baking education. Our last trip to New Orleans involved researching (yes, this means taste testing) some of the city’s most famous King Cakes, in order to refine and perfect the recipe for our own King Cake.

So when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast ten years ago, our community wanted to help. And it is because of Katrina that Janice came to work full time in the bakery.

Ten years ago, this evening, the city of Houston began receiving the largest migration in American history. Tens of thousands of Katrina victims began arriving at the Astrodome. On August 31, 2005, Janice, who was working for technology company, Avaya, at the time, had the idea for an Interactive Voice Response application that would help those in the Astrodome find their families. Additionally, Janice’s team at Avaya began working on creating a phone bank to assist in the efforts. While Janice and the team at Avaya were hard at work on their projects, they were also incredibly involved in the initial coordination of the technology and communication efforts of partners like AT&T, IBM, SBC, Cisco, and more, in coordination with the Red Cross.

Cots in Astrodome Housing Katrina Evacuees – Photo Credit: KHOU

Together, with each of these partners, Janice and the Avaya team were able to get hundreds of phones (and phone lines, voice mail boxes and phone books) in the Astrodome. Next came the creation of the Astrodome Computer Technology Center, where guests were able to dial out and search for their families. When a family found a match, a cowbell was rung to make the announcement! That cowbell sound will always be a happy one for Janice. Without all of this technology, it would have been years, if ever, before people were reunited with their families. Can you imagine not knowing where your friends and family were, let alone, if they even survived?

Janice’s experience bringing this technology to Katrina’s victims was about much more than the technology Avaya provided. She e-mailed the following note to her colleagues after her third full day working in the Astrodome:

I was with the Red Cross at Reliant Park today, and they were walking me through all the different technology stops for the “clients” that are there to help them find their friends, families and loved ones. A man came up to me and asked me to help him find his family.  He was from New Orleans and left for the hurricane, but his grandmother was stubborn and stayed.  He had a 504 area code. Somehow the cellular provider had reestablished service and yesterday his phone came on and there was a voice mail from his grandmother saying she was at a shelter in Houston, TX. This man had gone to Mississippi to ride out the storm. He hopped in his car and drove to Houston (which is now not as direct a route as previously). He had been wandering the Reliant complex trying to figure out where she might be when he found us.

Getting in the shelter to pick someone up has some controls, so we took him in with us as Red Cross team members. Within 20 minutes of getting in the building he had found his grandmother and another family member. Watching his reunion with his family brought tears to my eyes. I had never seen such joy in someone’s eyes. He’s now on his way to Baton Rouge to pick up another family member.  

What brought him together with his family was a phone call with services that have been provided by an incredible team of technology vendors. I just wanted everyone who has spent time on this project to know how important our work is to reunite these people with their families. Please feel proud of the investment and effort Avaya is making to this effort. This man’s story is just one of hundreds that are happening. Technology is helping to make it happen. I would just like to thank everyone who has helped with this project.  It would not have happened without your support and hard work. 

As you can see, Janice was incredibly proud to have partaken in these efforts and to have helped Houston’s neighbors in this way. As she shared with her team so eloquently ten years ago:

“I just would like everyone to know how proud I am of Avaya for helping the Red Cross and our effected neighbors to the extent that we did. When I saw the clients using our phones, it brought tears to my eyes, for I knew in my heart we helped many people find their families. Seeing these reunifications made me know that Avaya’s money was well spent and well appreciated – yes, by the Red Cross, but most importantly by those using our technology – the clients.

As someone from the Red Cross told me yesterday, ‘during a disaster you see either the good or bad.’ In Houston, we only saw the good.”

While this experience was an incredible one for Janice as a member of the Avaya team, it also was an incredible one for our bakery, as after her work with the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Janice became a full-time member of the Three Brothers team, where she continues to help us make a difference in the lives of our community and those in need. This experience is one that will always be with Janice – it changed her life, and it’s exactly why, when our doors closed after Hurricane Ike, we made sure that our entire staff, who chose to stay with us, was paid during the nine months when the bakery was closed.

While Hurricane Katrina was ten years ago, we are forever grateful to the organizations and people who made such an impact during this time, especially then Mayor Bill White and County Judge Robert Eckols who made the decision to welcome our neighbors to our community, some of those neighbors who even have worked at Three Brothers Bakery. You can learn more about Avaya’s work during Hurricane Katrina by watching the following video. (This video was actually created at Bobby and Janice’s house – Press Play to move beyond the black box.)