- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

NEW ORLEANS

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed about one-third of the Port of New Orleans, the port’s chief executive turned an offhand remark into a challenge to restart a vital part of the city’s storm-ravaged economy.

“It all came out as kind of a joke when someone told me: ‘You won’t have a ship in this port for six months,’” port chief Gary LaGrange said. “My response, with a lot of bravado, was: ‘We’ll be back at 70 percent within six months.’”

So far, so good.

The port, a major entry point for imported steel, natural rubber and coffee, received its first post-storm ship Sept. 12, two weeks after Katrina hit. Just over three months later, the port is running at about half-capacity, Mr. LaGrange said. Before Katrina hit Aug. 29, the port was getting 36-to-40 ship calls per week. Now, the count is 18 to 20.

By March or April, the goal is to reach 70 percent of pre-Katrina calls.

But many hurdles remain, including finding enough truck drivers to haul and deliver containerized cargo, and enough longshoremen to handle bulk loads; getting cruise ships that handled 700,000 passengers annually back on schedule; and keeping finances in line with diminished business.

In 2003, New Orleans ranked fifth among U.S. ports in tons of cargo handled, and 12th in total foreign trade, according to the latest figures available from the American Association of Port Authorities.

Mr. LaGrange estimated the port sustained $100 million in damage, while port-dependent businesses suffered another $280 million to $300 million in damage. The portion of the port nearest the Industrial Canal, the site of devastating flooding, was wiped out.

“Thirty percent of the port is no longer in existence as we knew it August 28,” Mr. LaGrange said.

One of the businesses that depends on the port is Cold Storage and Warehousing Ltd., which exports frozen chickens. The company was stuck with 52 million pounds of rotting chicken after Katrina knocked out its power.

“The port’s success has allowed us to grow our business a lot in the last 10 years,” said Mark Blanchard, the company’s executive vice president. “Without the port, we wouldn’t have a customer base to fill three cold-storage warehouses.”

Cold Storage hopes to reopen with half its capacity early this year.

The storm also has created difficulties for port businesses because of their dependence on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile man-made channel from the Gulf of Mexico that allows ocean-going ships access to the port’s Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. Most deep-draft ships can’t get to the inner harbor from the Mississippi River because they can’t fit through the lock on the Industrial Canal.

Now, with that outlet blamed by some for helping to flood St. Bernard Parish during Katrina, calls are rising for its closure. If that occurs, lock improvements will have to be hastened, businesses moved to other sections of the port or goods trucked to ships along the river, Mr. LaGrange said. A source of funding for such a move has not been secured, but one possibility could be federal money now earmarked to keep the outlet dredged.

Last year, 1,904 ships loaded and unloaded cargo at the port, a series of terminals and wharves on the Mississippi River. The port handled 10.4 million tons of general cargo and 169,304 freight containers at a site that included 22 million square feet of cargo handling areas.

One group watching the comeback bid with keen interest is union longshoremen, who have seen their ranks trimmed from roughly 5,000 in the 1950s to 460 today as automation and container cargo have sharply reduced the amount of heavy labor needed.

Jim Campbell, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association local at the port, said about 220 of his members have returned to the area, and more are ready to come back if the work picks up.

“We’ve got enough people to handle the work we have,” Mr. Campbell said. “But we’re begging for work. If we can get more work, we can get more people.”

For now, some longshoremen are staying on cargo ships at the port. Mr. Campbell said his members need emergency trailers for their families and schools for their children.

“We’re not asking for anyone to come help us out of this,” he said. “We’re asking to be able to help ourselves.”

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