- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Port of New Orleans, a crucial transport link for the nation’s farmers and manufacturers, re-opened to military vessels yesterday but remained closed to commercial traffic.

It may take one or two weeks until the port, which handles more tonnage than any other in the United States, will again be able to load and unload the rubber, chicken, soybeans, coffee, plywood, steel rods and other commodities that companies ship around the world.

Buildings and cranes need repairs. More electricity, staff and temporary housing for 1,000 essential personnel are needed. Port personnel also have been fighting fires at wharves along an industrial canal.

In the meantime, shippers are working to untangle their shipments by bypassing New Orleans to unload cargo in Baton Rouge and the Port of South Louisiana, and rerouting to other ports along the Gulf or Atlantic coasts.

Hurricane Katrina last week battered a 90,000-square-mile region along the Gulf Coast, killing an unknown number of people, stranding tens of thousands in a flooded New Orleans and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

The Mississippi River opened to commercial traffic Thursday, and as of yesterday could handle vessels with 39-foot drafts — smaller than the 45 feet below the waterline that allows more efficient transport. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been clearing the debris-choked river, but yesterday the Mississippi had not returned to pre-storm status.

And the port is still lacking electricity and staffers, many of whom saw homes wiped out and were forced to flee.

“We are working to figure out how can we re-power, where we will get manpower and where we will house workers,” said Chris Bonura, a port spokesman.

Port and federal officials are working on a plan to house as many as 1,000 essential personnel on U.S. Maritime Administration vessels, he said.

Gary LaGrange, port president and chief executive officer, on Sunday said the port’s riverfront terminals survived the storm “in fairly decent shape” and that other critical components, such as cranes, remained workable with some repairs.

The re-opening cannot come soon enough for some farmers, whose peak harvest time starts next month. The New Orleans Port facility is tied by waterways, roads and rail lines to farms and businesses throughout the South and Midwest. It is the top port for some commodities, such as exported soybeans, corn and rice.

“The port is coming back to normal. The problem is where barges are. We expect traffic will be snarled for a few weeks,” said Deb Seidel, spokeswoman for Bunge North America, a St. Louis company that buys, sells, stores and processes grain.

Bunge operates an export elevator and soybean processing facility at Destrehan, just west of downtown New Orleans. The elevator is operating part time and the processing facility is closed, Ms. Seidel said.

Tyson Foods, a Springdale, Ark., meat processor, said New Orleans is one of five Gulf Coast ports the company uses.

“While Gulfport and Pascagoula [Miss.] are also down, we’re able to continue to use Mobile, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla. We also started using Pensacola and are looking into using Houston,” said spokesman Gary Mickelson.

Importers also are re-routing or planning to reroute shipments.

“We have diverted ships that would have gone into New Orleans en route to Morehead City, [N.C.],” said Keith Price, spokesman for Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Akron, Ohio. “Our logistics people have been working to make the necessary adjustments.”

The New Orleans port is a leading handler of natural rubber, steel, plywood and coffee imports.

Even with quick adjustments, experts foresee some disruptions.

“Railroads are going to need to divert around the New Orleans area for a significant period. That could result in a shortage of railroad cars and longer transit time for trains hauling merchandise away from other ports, particularly on the West Coast,” said Erik Autor, international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation.

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