GPO hires Katrina survivors

Huddled under a wet mattress, Terry Robinson and his 4-year-old son took shelter in a closet at his home just outside of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast.

Now on solid ground in Washington, D.C., Robinson and Bob Coakley recounted their escape from the broken levees that flooded the Big Easy. They are just two of the four survivors the Government Printing Office’s (GPO’s) building-services department hired in the wake of the storm, a silver lining both men never expected.

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The GPO is the federal government’s publisher.

In the wake of such a devastating natural disaster, Bruce James, who serves as the public printer of the United States, the top position at the GPO, said he felt compelled to try to reach out and hire Katrina evacuees.

“Everyone who saw the pictures of the devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama was moved by the plight of the victims, and I felt we had an obligation to help in whatever small way we could.”

As the water began to rise and the heat became too stifling to bear, Robinson put his son on his back and with a friend swam to his car submerged a few yards away.

“We put the fan in the car and dozed off for a while,” he said. A Coast Guardsman in a boat eventually woke him and informed them that the levees had collapsed and that they had an hour before the neighborhood was submerged.

“The Coast Guard boat was full. There was no room for me son and my friend, so I said a quick prayer and got back into the car,” Robinson said.

When his car sputtered to a start, he began to head toward Washington, where his wife and several other relatives live. When he arrived here, Robinson, who worked as a Postal Service supervisor in Louisiana, began to look for a job. After several unsuccessful attempts at chain stores and restaurants he went to the D.C. Armory job fair and was hired by the GPO.

Since he arrived at the GPO, Robinson said, several co-workers have offered their support to help deal with the immense sense of loss that the hurricane inflicted.

“The GPO welcomed me with open arms,” he said.

Coakley, who worked in marketing and ran a small computer-software company, said heading to D.C. was not part of a grand master plan.

 “I didn’t know were I was going until I hit the airplane,” he said. 

Once here, he joined hundreds of other evacuees at the Armory and soon the Department of Housing and Urban Development helped him find an apartment.

“I think I hit the lottery,” he said of arriving in Washington and being hired by the GPO. “People here are so wonderful.”

Coakley also chose to weather the storm at his condo on higher ground in Bywater, La., a historic neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter. During the days after the storm, he and his neighbors chased away looters because the police did not know they had stayed in their homes.

“We were high and dry. Only about half of the people [in the building] had evacuated, and most of them were at the Convention Center,” Coakley said.

He only left after the National Guard forced him and his neighbors to evacuate his building.

Both men plan to make a trip to Louisiana to try to salvage what is left of their homes but will return to Washington shortly thereafter.

“Just because of the people, the beauty of the city and the Metro, which I love, I’m going to stay,” Coakley said, adding that he could return to New Orleans for a vacation in the future.

Two other survivors at the GPO, Dean Ellis and Stephen Jones, were not available for comment.

At least one other legislative-branch agency also reached out to help Katrina survivors. On Sept. 25, the Capitol Police sent 11 officers and four civilian support units to Gulfport, Miss., to assist the U.S. Marshals Service with law enforcement and security efforts in the region.