A New War:
Andras in the Hurricane's Aftermath
BY JIM BELSHAW
VVA member Dennis Andras found it
strange that a hurricane in Louisiana should send him back to
roots he put down in Vietnam. But the hurricane’s aftermath felt
like war. He found himself fighting for survival. The hurricane’s
destruction surpassed anything he’d seen in Vietnam. It felt like
war and it looked like war. So the 57-year-old businessman found
himself thinking like the 19-year-old “shake ’n’ bake” infantry
NCO who went to Vietnam in 1969.
The 33-year-old family business,
Deltone Electric, had been passed on to him when his father died.
He’s worked in it for twenty years. It serviced the marine and
oilfield industries along the Gulf Coast. The hurricane did not
destroy the business but battered it badly, leaving behind a trail
of devastation that left his employees homeless and in desperate
He housed 23 of them and their
families in a hotel, vowing to keep them there as long as the
money held out. The DAV chapter in Gonzales, La., rented its hall
to him for only $300, saying him he could use it as his business
headquarters for as long as he needed. VVA members from Texas
loaded up supplies and headed to Louisiana, where Dennis Andras
had gone to war.
“You’re going to love this,” he
said. “I’m using training I had in the military to set up forward
observation bases. I was able to draw on my skills in the military
to keep things going, and I’m amazed at how well I can remember
what I used to do.”
He moved his company 150 miles. He moved half his equipment the
same distance. He moved his personnel out, housed them,
re-established his office, re-established his lines of
communication, and got people back out in the field. He lives in a
“fifth-wheel” RV. He calls it his “mobile command center.”
“Everything I learned in the Army, everything I learned in
Vietnam, I’m putting to use,” he said. “And it’s working.
Mentally, this is a war. I’m fighting a war right now. I’m back in
Vietnam. I’m in my element. That’s what’s strange. It’s like I
used to say back then: I can shoot, move, and communicate.”
There is tension in his voice when he speaks. The words rush out
as if in competition for a limited amount of oxygen that the lungs
insist on rationing.
“One wrong decision, one wrong
move, and 80 people [his employees and their families] are worse
off than they are now,” he said. “If I mess up, they’re on the
street. I gotta take care of my people. I can’t let them get on
the street. That’s all I’m trying to do, you know? All I want to
do is take care of my people.”
Three of his employees are missing. He doesn’t know where they are
or if they’re safe. “One of the best marine electricians you’ll
ever see” calls from Mississippi. His house has been destroyed. He
needs money and asks for a loan. Andras tells him to get to
Louisiana and he’ll put him to work, but he can’t afford to loan
him any money. Another young man calls from a shelter and says he
can’t make it to work because his wife is pregnant and he won’t
leave her. A 22-year veteran employee has to be told three times
how to do his job because he goes through the day in a daze, like
so many people in the Gulf Coast do now, disconnected from the
reality they once knew.
After the hurricane hit, Andras
told his employees that the lives they all knew were over. He
said: “Let me explain something to y’all. The life we had does not
exist anymore. We all have to start from scratch.”
He reminisces on the “very nice existence” he used to have, a time
when everything he needed was at his disposal—telephones,
computers, offices, suppliers. Anything he needed, all he had to
do was pick up the phone.
That was the old life, the one that
doesn’t exist anymore.
An old friend, a Marine veteran of
Vietnam, is feared dead somewhere in the wreck of his shrimp boat.
Andras figures he ignored the storm warnings. He’d ridden out
other hurricanes on his shrimp boats, and he probably tried to
ride this one out as well. He was that kind of man.
“Three Purple Hearts, PTSD. If he
rode out this storm, he’s dead,” Dennis said. “I haven’t heard
anything from him. He’s a very close friend. When I first met him,
he didn’t want to talk to anybody. He was very hostile. I got him
to get 70 percent disability on PTSD. Whenever he saw my truck
somewhere, he’d stop to talk and talk and talk because I was
somebody he could talk to, somebody he could relate to. He’d
always talk to my wife. I think he’s gone. It’s just . . . the
It’s morning when he speaks of these things and he apologizes for
“getting emotional.” Mornings for him are tough.
The people who worked for him lost
everything but the clothes they wore the day the storm hit. His
son, Scott, a staff sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard, came
home from Iraq a few days after the storm. He lost everything he
owned. Another son at home lost everything. Dennis Andras counts
himself fortunate. His home was damaged, but it survived.
“My day is trying to solve problems
all day long, thinking you have them solved, only to find out
there’s a hundred more waiting for you,” he said. “That’s my day.
My stomach’s always in knots.”
Later in the day in another conversation, his voice changes, the
morning’s tension and exhaustion gone. It seems a pattern, he
says. The mornings are always hard, but if he can get some things
done in the course of a day—if he can take a few steps back toward
approaching normalcy—the day looks different.
“If I can accomplish the goals I
set in the morning, by the end of the day everything changes,” he
said. “If I can last three more weeks, that’s all I need and I’ll
have won the battle. Call me then and I’ll let you know if I won.”