It was a nice fall Friday at the corporate office. This was Red Friday for the upcoming NFL game on Sunday, and there was a cookout in the company parking lot. That’s when the company president came over to where I was eating my hamburger and asked when I was leaving for Rocky Mount, NC. I must have looked at him with a questioning face because he next said, “You don’t know what I am talking about, do you?” “No sir, I do not,” I responded. Then, quite literally, the floodgates opened.

Hurricane Floyd was storming the East Coast. Its winds and water backed up the Tar River and broke a dike above our bakery at Rocky Mount. The whole building flooded. Water came up so quickly that the last people out of the bakery — the plant manager and plant engineer who turned off the power — carried two small women out on their backs. They swam out.

To make matters worse, the bakery was downstream from a large hog operation. We were not just dealing with dirty floodwaters, but we also had to be concerned about what else could be in the water due to runoff from the hog pens.

First on the scene from the corporate office was the vice-president of engineering. Thank goodness for pictures because you would never believe the devastation unless you could see it yourself. Dough troughs full of sponges were now topped with floodwater. Bread was left in the proof box and the oven when the power was turned off. Now those systems were full of floodwater, too. As the wait began for the water to recede, we had to figure out how to clean up a waterlogged bakery likely contaminated with e. coli. Needless to say, this is not a skill learned in college.

First: Find expert help.

I remembered that several area flour mills located along the same river had flooded years previously. They were the first calls we made. One miller volunteered his sanitation manager, who had flood experience, to help us. What a blessing!

Second: Rally your troops.

We pulled together the best sanitation staffers from throughout our company bakeries and got them involved. We needed “all qualified hands on deck” to get this bakery ready to make bread again.

Much to my surprise when I arrived at the bakery, it looked nothing like the photos I saw the week before. It appeared clean, amazingly clean. That was when I learned about disaster recovery teams that follow storms. They hired displaced workers — our bakery workers, in fact — to temporarily work for them to clean up businesses. I was speechless. Could it really be clean? How were we going to define “clean?”

We inspected the bakery equipment: the equipment legs, the rollers on the feeder to the slicers and anything with hollow areas. They were clean on the outside, but when taken apart, floodwater poured out. I described this as the saltshaker principle: If a saltshaker drops into bucket of water, you can clean the outside of the shaker, but water still gets inside. Like that saltshaker, the bakery’s equipment was internally full of filthy floodwater.

Third: Enlist allies who support the final goal of baked goods safe for the consumer to eat.

We had to fully sanitize the bakery while the engineers worked to get equipment running again. Many times in crisis situations, you find help in unique places. Several insurance companies held the policies on the bakery, but thankfully, they all hired the same consultant to oversee the cleanup and ultimate startup of the bakery.

During that time, I would often dream about missing a key area of the bakery or not having all the equipment “clean enough.” Those were nightmares indeed because we were working so hard to protect our brand and get the bakery back up and running. In the morning meetings, the engineers were very vocal about how “that lady from the lab” was slowing them down. I even got a multiple-pass voicemail from my boss stating, “If you want this bakery open, call the [vulgarity deleted] off.”

We used a well-established test routine to determine if any organic material remained on equipment surfaces after cleaning. This gave us a definition for clean, and it was measurable. The method was slow and tedious, but it provided a rational and hard number for when clean was “clean.”

The insurance consultant saved my sanity by providing the voice of reason. He told the support/cleanup team working to get the bakery up and running again that the analysis must show no organic material before the bakery could reopen. There were no more issues about slowing down rebuilding equipment or getting in the way of engineering. The insurance company had spoken.

Looking back, this care — and the teamwork it required from outside and in, from sanitation, quality assurance, engineering and operations alike — assured management and our customers that every precaution had been taken to ensure food safety standards and that the equipment of the “new” bakery was in top-notch condition. The bakery reopened and was producing bread just 41 days after Floyd blew through it.

What a relief! I had no more worries about starting up the bakery only to have a consumer get sick from our product. I could sleep again without flooded bakery nightmares. All this was thanks to finding the right help, the right staff and the right expert insurance consultant.