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(The nation has sustained a one-two punch of hurricane disasters in the past few weeks, from Katrina and Rita. The following interview took place between the two, when we were still struggling to fully absorb and assess the first event. A follow-up interview took place on Friday, Sept. 23, as Rita gathered strength and we once again held our breath.)

Michael Siegel considers himself one of the lucky ones. A New Orleans resident for three decades, he tells GlobeSt.com that he never had to leave because of a hurricane threat or warning. Until Aug. 29, that is. That was when Hurricane Katrina hit, and by that time, Siegel, who is executive vice president of Corporate Realty Inc. in New Orleans, had packed his family and his laptop and taken up temporary quarters in Austin, TX. He’s lucky, he says, because his losses amounted to little more than a magnolia tree that once graced his front yard. His business, on the 44th floor of a CBD office building, also sustained minimal damage. As we’ve seen in the coverage that has rolled out daily from the Crescent City, other homes, other individuals, other businesses, fared far worse. What is the view of government from our new Ground Zero? How do people in the trenches look at the prospect of recreating a city? How do you rebuild a business when your total portfolio is shut down? In this exclusive interview, which took place a day after the President’s address from Jackson Square, Siegel tells us.

GlobeSt.com: When did you think there was a problem beyond every other hurricane you’ve experienced?

Siegel: We always watch hurricanes down here. It’s almost a sport. We left work on Friday, the 26th, as if it were a normal day, and that night we went to dinner. On Saturday, the exodus started. We waited to see what would happen. When it was clear that this one was coming right at us we packed up and left. That was 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. I’ve lived in New Orleans for 30 years, and I never left for a threat or warning before this.

GlobeSt.com: So it was Sunday when you knew what you would be in for?

Siegel: Actually, no. I took only a suitcase, a couple changes of clothes and my laptop. We planned for two or three days away. We didn’t pack to move to another city, and I don’t think anyone did. Major corporations with back-up systems may have taken some sort of precautionary measures, but as a whole, no one packed up not to come back. Even on Monday we weren’t fully sure. We awoke at the crack of dawn to see what was happening, and there was actually a feeling of celebration because the direct path missed New Orleans. Late Monday, Lake Pontchartrain started backing up and the levee broke. After that, it got worse by the hour.

GlobeSt.com: How did your home make out?

Siegel: We were very lucky. We live in uptown New Orleans near Audubon Park and Tulane University. We’re a few feet above sea level there. Those few feet and the distance from the lake made all the difference in the world. We had a huge magnolia tree that fell, but it didn’t hit the house, and we had two broken windows. So we have a home and a neighborhood and a business to go back to.

GlobeSt.com: You were one of the lucky ones.

Siegel: People look at New Orleans and think it’s all the same scenario. But there are a lot of different communities and areas and big differences in how they were impacted. Within a couple of blocks of each other, there are houses with little or no damage and houses that are several feet underwater. In our office we had at least a half dozen people who lost their homes, regardless of whether they were $100,000 homes or $1-million-plus homes. The president of our company lives uptown on a great street. He got a couple feet of water.

GlobeSt.com: What did you think of President Bush’s speech last night?

Siegel: I thought it was a good sentiment, but a little late in coming. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region are going to need a lot of attention, so I hope it isn’t lip service. They need to continue to provide the city and the region with money and personnel, and it needs to be done post haste. I’ve been on the ground in New Orleans several times in the past few weeks, and what they’re doing now helps. The amount of change is almost hour-to-hour.

GlobeSt.com: What is the general reaction to the federal government’s response?

Siegel: Disappointment. You have to be here in the middle of it. People have huge problems here and they needed attention more quickly. I ask myself if that’s realistic, since the nation has never seen a disaster of this breadth and depth before. Still, with FEMA and all the threats around the country, you’d expect that we’d be geared up and ready to go. For three or four days there was anarchy in New Orleans. That’s not what this city is like, and if the National Guard and FEMA acted faster we would have been better off.

GlobeSt.com: What about the city and state governments?

Siegel: I think the mayor did all he could with his resources. The city government was inundated. As much as you see on TV, going into the city gives you a very different picture. You see it and you smell it on every street corner. I’m less enamored of the state’s response.

GlobeSt.com: What about the business side of it? What does your portfolio look like?

Siegel: We’re a commercial brokerage and management company with about three million sf in our portfolio. It’s primarily office and retail, virtually all of it is in or around New Orleans and virtually all of it is shut down. But as I said, there are different degrees. We have three major office buildings in the central business district. One of them is One Canal Place, which is 650,000 sf. It just got power, HVAC and water this week. Four blocks away, there’s another one-million-sf building that doesn’t have power yet. We’ve gone in and done a few things, but without power you can’t do a lot of repairs. Even then, it doesn’t matter. Since the city still doesn’t have sewers, neither can function like a normal office building.

GlobeSt.com: How about your own office operation?

Siegel: In all, the central business district did reasonably well. Our business is in Place St. Charles, one of the premier office buildings Downtown, and it’s up on the 44th floor. Our building got no flood waters. We had two broken windows and very little other damage. I’ve made two trips back to the office, walking up 44 flights of stairs, to get our hard drives and some critical files. So our office is in tact, and our building and two others we’re involved in should have power soon. But again, that doesn’t mean it’s time to go back.

GlobeSt.com: How can you possibly function effectively?

Siegel: We’ve set up temporary operations in Baton Rouge, which is about 60 miles away. Our people–we have about 60 in our office–are scattered to the wind. They’re in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Baltimore, wherever they have relationships. But most of our people are getting to the office as best they can. I’m commuting weekly from Austin. Our website is up and running and we’ve started assembling cell-phone numbers.

GlobeSt.com: But how can you service your clients?

Siegel: It’s difficult. They have a lot of needs and we have limited services. The most difficult part has been the lack of communication. The circuits are all overloaded and it’s tough to get through, especially from the Houston and Baton Rouge area codes. The good news is that in the past 10 days we’ve seen a lot of progress. On our management accounts we’ve been able to get the buildings secured, and we’ve had engineers working every day since the storm. While servicing the clients has been a challenge, everyone is patient and understands. But it’s one thing to get your businesses up and running. So what? The big question is, where is everyone going to live?

GlobeSt.com: Do you think most people want to return?

Siegel: Yes. By and large, the people I’ve talked to can’t wait to come home. You’ll have those people who want to throw in the towel for whatever reason, right or wrong, people who think this will be the demise of New Orleans. That’s not the case. And if everyone does things right, this could be the chance to rebuild the city better than it was before. There’s obviously some truth to all of the pictures of looting and destruction, but there are bad guys in every city. That’s not what New Orleans is. It’s a lot of hardworking people who want to get back to work and rebuild.

GlobeSt.com: And now we’re looking at Rita. What’s your outlook?Siegel: Optimistic, and still looking to being back in New Orleans on the same time schedule. That assumes of course that Rita stays its present course and that New Orleans doesn’t suffer any additional damage and flooding. If there is, then all bets are off and we have to reassess. But that’s just the nature of what we’re dealing with.

GlobeSt.com: Is there any way you would reassess moving back?

Siegel: No. No way.

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