A struggle to locate lost workers

Domino seeks to learn fate of sugar refinery staff

Scores still missing after storm

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The telephones don't work in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish. In any case, there's no one to answer them. Nobody - not even business executives desperate to learn the fate of their employees - is allowed into the washed-out community.

Domino Sugar is frantically battling against this information blackout to find the 332 people who until last week worked at its refinery there in Chalmette, southeast of New Orleans.

Domino's owners, who also operate the landmark Baltimore factory, have paid for airtime on cable news channels to broadcast a toll-free number for people to call. They've scoured the Internet for familiar names on message boards. They've posted a list of the people they have yet to find.

As many as 87 employees still have not been accounted for, said Barbara Miedema, a spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, the minority owner of Domino Sugar. Workers at the Baltimore plant are among those coordinating the search.

"We just are very concerned about the welfare of our employees, and our primary goal is to make sure they and their families are safe and secure," Miedema said. "The communications are very, very poor."

Like Domino, businesses across the Gulf Coast are in disarray, dealing with damage, homeless workers, broken transportation networks and other wrecked necessities of daily operations. But 10 days after Hurricane Katrina walloped the Gulf Coast, the key goal for companies in the most-affected areas is simply figuring out whether employees survived - and where they are. Domino would also like to know the extent of the damage to its refinery, but that's a question to be answered later, after the floodwaters recede.

Until those answers come, Domino will have no idea when it can reopen the plant, which refines 900,000 tons of sugar annually. The company has four refineries, but Chalmette accounts for nearly a third of its capacity.

Neither Florida Crystals Corp., Domino's majority owner, nor the American Sugar Refining Co., the subsidiary that runs Domino, could be reached for comment yesterday. But Miedema said that Domino will pay its Chalmette employees and continue their health coverage while the plant is shut down.

She said the company heard from the refinery manager that there is significant flood damage - 6 feet of water remains on the first floor.

"But structurally we think the plant is sound," she said.

Refinery evacuated

Because it withstood past hurricanes, workers and other local residents - apparently more than 100 - gathered in the refinery to ride out Katrina. They were evacuated Monday, Miedema said.

The hurricane forced another sugar refinery in Louisiana to close, but it reopened Friday, the American Sugar Alliance said. Domino seems to have taken the brunt of the damage in the industry, said alliance spokesman Phillip Hayes.

"They're saying it could be months and months and months before they can start the plant up," said Mark Folderauer, president of Local 392 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents Domino workers in Baltimore.

He said the company is discussing the possibility of bringing some of the Chalmette staff to work in the Baltimore plant.

"They want to do something to help," he said.

Al Vincent, a United Food union official who heads the region that includes Louisiana, is also on the hunt for Domino's hurricane-stricken workers - along with the rest of the 2,500 to 3,000 union members who live in Louisiana's affected areas.

At last count, about 40 people from the Domino plant had called the union's Katrina hot line number, which union officials are passing out in Baton Rouge and other places where displaced residents have congregated. Vincent, who flew to Houston yesterday to try the Astrodome, said Domino employees had scattered to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and California.

"We'll have to help these people rebuild their lives," he said. "There's no place to go back to."

Many of the Domino workers lived in St. Bernard Parish, which was devastated by the storm. Craig Taffaro, a Chalmette resident who is superintendent of Buck Kreihs Marine Repair LLC, a contractor that counts Domino as a major client, evacuated to northeast Texas and said he has lost everything.

`The worst hit'

"The whole parish of St. Bernard was completely flooded - anywhere from 4 feet to 20 feet," he said. "Per capita, it probably got the worst hit of anyone in this storm. There's 65,000 people down there, and 65,000 people were flooded out."

Taffaro is trying to organize residents, Domino workers and others with connections to the area so that when it is safe to go back in, they can rebuild the town and its businesses.

Vincent, still searching for the people who worked at the refinery, said he has never had a challenge like this.

"Any hardship we've had before, we've known where to find people," he said. "We're trying to get the message out, but it's so hard because it's spread out so far across the country."

Domino's hot line for employees: 800-558-8836. The United Food and Commercial Workers' hot line: 866-820-6141.

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