Scott Ferguson, our company’s financial officer, was sitting behind a desk in a small room located toward the back of a Port Allen printing company office. In those early days after Hurricane Katrina, while New Orleans was still legally off limits, the West Baton Rouge Parish town was the headquarters of our operations. As we exchanged horror stories, I kept waiting for Scott to show us our workspaces, so finally I asked. “This is it,” he answered. A company that only weeks earlier had occupied the entire top floor of Heritage Plaza in Metairie was now limited to one desk, with one working computer, in Port Allen. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Everyone who experienced Katrina has a story, each filled with uncertainty, challenges and drama worthy of a movie. Our company’s saga was that of yet another business trying to stay alive at a time when there was no commerce in the city whose name our magazine carried, and during a period when practically all of our readers had relocated.
Our September issue had arrived at local homes two days before Katrina, destined to be a soggy lump at the places where the occupants had already evacuated or a keepsake for those who had time to pack it. For the first time, the magazine skipped an issue – the October 2005 edition would be as non-existent as life in the city. We were determined, though, to publish a November issue even if we were uncertain about advertisers and readers.
For most editions the wording on the cover is usually one of the last factors to be considered; for the November 2005 issue, it was the first. I knew what I wanted the cover to say even before we had any content or art: “And Now the Renaissance.” We had no doubt either about what the cover image should be. Art Director Eric Gernhauser, who was able to secure a work spot on the one desk, arranged for a photograph of the Joan of Arc statue in the French Quarter. The stirring photo showed the Maid d’Orleans’ determined face and her right arm extended lifting a flag, as though to defy all obstacles. This was the image for a city facing its own personal combat.
St. Joan might have been flattered by the gesture, and in return worked a miracle for us. Since there was no business in New Orleans, there were no advertisers. One of our company’s co-owners, Alan Campell, had the ambitious idea that we send a letter to Fortune 500 companies asking them if they would buy a full-page ad to help us get back in business. (In return, we promised to never ask again.) To my astonishment, the suggestion worked and, thanks to the generosity of corporate America, the November issue appeared, with Joan on the cover and filled with what any magazine would covet: pages of full-page national ads.
By December we were back in Heritage Plaza, though the business had been reduced from 85 to 15 people and a remediation company had required that all the walls should be torn down and the furniture gotten rid of because of what, to me, was mold hysteria.
We were nevertheless slowly rebuilding until Jan. 16, 2006, when there was another blow. The company, I was told, was shutting down. We were all going to be out of a job. That same day the mayor of New Orleans was being ridiculed in the national media for making his now infamous “Chocolate City” speech and for saying that Katrina was God’s punishment for the war in Iraq. That night, while living temporarily on Julia Street, I had my first “Why Me, Lord?” moment. At 4 that morning I stood on a deck outside the third floor apartment staring at the flickering lights of a city on life support.
Joan may have intervened again. Later that morning when I got to work, I was called to a meeting. Company CEO Todd Matherne was forming an employee buyout. He would ask sales manager Kelley Faucheux and Campell to join in. Did I want to be a part?
We scraped up the money and within days the paperwork was on the way. Naming a company is sometimes a long and difficult process. In our case the exercise took maybe four seconds. We would call it Renaissance Publishing and its symbol would be Joan.
I haven’t been back to Port Allen since, though I think about the industrial town every time I cross the Interstate 10 Bridge at Baton Rouge. There were some good memories, particularly a sandwich shop called “The River Queen Drive In” that served hamburgers as fine as any place in New Orleans. The employees of the printing shop were supportive, and I regret that I never had a chance to say goodbye. Nevertheless, the name Port Allen would, from then on, have a sad connotation to me – until the evening of Feb. 7, 2010:
Late in the fourth quarter Peyton Manning faded back and launched a third-down pass in pursuit of a touchdown.
There would indeed be a score, but it went in the other direction when Saints cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in and ran the interception 74 yards. After that the Saints never looked back. A native of Port Allen who had played high school football there iced the game. Three weeks later the folks of Port Allen honored Porter with a huge parade and even named a street after him.
Once again, in a moment of concern, Port Allen would become part of the story – and a Saint would provide a miracle.