By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT

While the top official at the Port of New Orleans is hopeful that the Big Easy’s port could resume operations within three to six weeks following Hurricane Katrina, the shipping industry is likely to feel the impacts of the devastating storm for months.

From vessel diversions to further rises in already-record fuel prices, the ramifications of Katrina are apt to be far-reaching.

As horrific as the effects on New Orleans have been, it is becoming apparent that Gulfport, MS, some 70 miles to the east-northeast, has seen its port facilities suffer virtual annihilation from winds and storm surge. By comparison, damage at the Port of New Orleans pales.

In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation two days after Katrina made its Aug. 29 landfall in Louisiana, and later Mississippi, Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive officer of the Port of New Orleans, said, “If we had labor and power, we could work a ship tomorrow.”

LaGrange added, “Those are two huge ‘ifs.’”

With most residents (including port workers) having evacuated the flooded city and electric utility restoration not likely anytime soon, LaGrange’s initial statement would have to be viewed as ultimate optimism. US Army Corps of Engineers officials were concentrating on trying to stave off further flooding rather than on navigation channel surveying,

Indeed, LaGrange made his comment from a temporary, one-day base at the Port of West St. Mary in Franklin, more than 100 miles West of New Orleans. LaGrange fled to the Port of West St. Mary after authorities told him late on Aug. 30 that he would have to evacuate New Orleans port offices as additional flood waters rushed into the city through breaks in levees.

The Port of West St. Mary escaped Katrina unscathed, according to A. Philip Prejean, executive director of that shallow-draft general cargo port. LaGrange knocked on the front door of Prejean’s home at 1 o’clock the morning of Aug. 31, after fleeing New Orleans, and asked for a place to get a bit of sleep. Hours later, he temporarily set up shop at port offices.

LaGrange said he was hoping, within a day or so, to have established a Port of New Orleans emergency operations center on one of a pair of Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force vessels, the Cape Knox and Cape Kennedy, berthed at the port’s Poland Street Wharf.

When asked his realistic projection as to when the Port of New Orleans could return to operation, LaGrange said, “Three to six weeks is my guess.”

LaGrange hesitated to offer a dollar estimate for damages to port infrastructure, but noted that his initial assessment, based upon two days of landside and waterside inspections, pointed up extensive damage to roofs, roller doors and other parts of transit sheds along 4 to 5 miles of waterfront. Other damage also was noted.

At the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, a state-of-the-industry facility that opened early last year, the four gantry cranes remained intact, although two had lost computer hardware housings. LaGrange also reported that more than 100 cargo containers, mostly empties, had been scattered in disarray about the terminal, “like Lego on a child’s floor.”

Substantial impact on US cargo movements

The relatively favorable condition of the new Napoleon terminal was confirmed by Rick Cormier, assistant vice president of Lake Charles Stevedores Inc., a sister P&O Ports company to P&O Ports of Louisiana, which shares operation of the Napoleon terminal with Ceres Gulf. Cormier said an air survey by a pair of P&O Ports officials revealed that the facilities “appear to be intact.”

Speaking in his role as this year’s chairman of the board of the American Association of Port Authorities, LaGrange said he anticipates substantial impact on US cargo movements, with ships that were scheduled to call at New Orleans and other mid-Gulf ports not only being diverted to Houston, but also to ports on the East Coast, including Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk.