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Taking stock of gulf ports

With the ports getting back to business, managers talk about Katrina's lessons.

By KRIS HUNDLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2005

TAMPA - In the days after Hurricane Katrina, Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the port of New Orleans, had generators but no diesel fuel.

Meanwhile, about 9 miles downriver, the port of St. Bernard had an enormous tank of diesel fuel. But executive director Robert Scafidel couldn't get it to New Orleans because the roads were impassable.

"I could have picked it up by barge," LaGrange suggested, during a panel on Gulf Coast ports' hurricane recovery on Thursday.

"I didn't know you needed it," Scafidel replied.

Lesson No. 1 from four port officials who experienced Katrina: Most lines of communications will fail. The exceptions: 800-megahertz radios, Nextel walkie-talkies and cell phone text-messaging services.

"I had four cell phones from four states and three of them didn't work," LaGrange said from New Orleans. "And we spent $5,000 on a satellite phone which never did work."

Other lessons learned by these Katrina veterans and shared during the annual meeting of the American Association of Port Authorities at Tampa's Convention Center:

Put your office or safe house in an area that is well above any previous floodline. And put generators higher.

Encourage local governments to evacuate earlier and make it mandatory.

Pressure federal officials relentlessly until they make critical improvements to locks, levees and roads.

And be prepared to house the workers you'll need to rebuild. In New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and Pascagoula, Miss., the speedy arrival of cruise ships for use as living quarters was critical for recovery work.

"We'd never had a cruise ship at our dock before," said Scafidel, whose port in St. Bernard Parish usually handles bulk materials like rubber, iron, metal and aluminum. "But Katrina destroyed 27,000 homes and businesses in our parish and left 70,000 homeless in the blink of an eye.

The port of St. Bernard lost two major oil refineries, two gas processing plants and a sugar refinery in the hurricane. Scafidel expects the port to be at about 50 percent capacity within two weeks.

At the southernmost port in Louisiana, Port Fourchon, operations are nearly 80 percent back to normal, said executive director Ted M. Falgout. The Fourchon facility handles foreign oil imports and supports offshore drilling rigs responsible for as much as 18 percent of the nation's domestic oil supply.

Falgout, port director since 1978, said hurricane evacuations are nearly routine for his terminal, with workers removed from oil platforms several days before general evacuations occur.

"This is not our first rodeo," he said. But Katrina left the only access road to the port, Highway 1, under water, piled up 7-foot-high mountains of marsh grass on the property and sank 25 vessels in the waterway. Though Falgout said his terminal has rebounded quickly, the storm made him acutely aware of the vulnerability of the port's only roadway, which normally handles 1,000 trucks a day.

"We have a world-class port, with a Third World highway system," he said.

Mark McAndrews from Pascagoula represented the only Mississippi port on Thursday's panel. He said he started recovery planning for his port, which handles goods such as lumber, frozen poultry and machinery parts, "with a cell phone, a Big Chief tablet and a No. 2 pencil."

Among his lessons: Make sure you know how to contact port commissioners after a storm. "Because you can't get a quorum if you don't know where they are," he said.

McAndrews said the hurricane scattered 30,000 tons of cargo across his county, with wallboard floating 5 miles north to Moss Point and shipping containers ending up in yards nearly a mile away. One pungent reminder of Katrina: a smashed freezer and 6,500 tons of chicken rotting in the sun.

By Sept. 9, a gas tanker, hospital vessel and cruise ship had arrived in Pascagoula. McAndrews said the port is operating at about 25 percent its normal rate, with its channel navigable only during daylight hours. "But we should be 80 percent operational by mid November," he said.

New Orleans, the largest port affected by Katrina, won't reach the 80 percent benchmark for six months, according to its director. The city's port, which has terminals on the river and industrial canal, handles more than 11-million tons of cargo annually, including steel, rubber, coffee and poultry.

"We lost 30 percent of the port," said LaGrange, who estimated port damages at $1-billion. "We saved 70 percent. If the water, wind and fire didn't get you, the looters sure as hell did."

LaGrange credited a quick response by the Coast Guard, NOAA, Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Maritime Administration for helping his port recover to about 35 percent of capacity.

This week, New Orleans' will handle 18 ships, compared with nearly 50 a week before Katrina. Truck and rail transport are returning, though LaGrange said there's a severe shortage of drivers because they are taking more lucrative debris-removal jobs.

LaGrange said his No. 1 priority is to work with Congress and the Corps to ensure the levees surrounding New Orleans are rebuilt to protect the city from a Category 5 storm, a project that could cost $30-billion.

"The floodwater caused the most horrific of all damage to the port," LaGrange said. "It was the inability of Congress to recognize its true priorities to keep folks out of harm's way that was the cause of the wrath of this storm."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

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