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Sagging power lines in New Orleans a contributing factor for move

Carnival Conquest, other ships might call Coast new home

Carnival Cruise Line’s newest and largest “fun ship,” the Conquest, may dock in Gulfport for 18 months — or permanently — while deciding whether to accept Entergy’s solutions for sagging high-voltage transmission power lines that have become an issue for navigating the ship on the Mississippi River.

Trouble first brewed on Nov. 12, when the 208-foot-tall passenger ship sailed its maiden voyage to the Port of New Orleans and was forced to hug one side of the river near the Chalmette ferry to avoid drooping Entergy power lines. The lines cross 300-foot towers on either side of the river, but sag to 176 feet in the middle.

On Dec. 3, Entergy submitted short-term and long-term solutions to Carnival, which included a $15-million, 18-month project to bury the lines 95 feet beneath the river bottom. More than 50 pipelines carrying natural gas and oil already cross the Mississippi River between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Carnival said it might not wait.

“We’ve had some preliminary conversations and at this point, our number one fallback scenario is Gulfport,” said Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz. “However, we still have some analyzing to do.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Carnival’s request to enforce a permit that says Entergy must be able to raise the power lines to 213 feet with 24 hours notice. Corps spokesperson Jim Addision said Entergy is not in violation of the conditions of the permit. “Bottom line, we don’t think it is in the public’s interest at this point to require Entergy to raise the lines,” he said.

Carnival president Bob Dickson said he is not happy about having to steer his 110,000-ton ship around the lines. For now, Entergy must de-energize the lowest lines each time the Conquest passes under them to prevent the electrical current from jumping from the lines to the ship, and all river traffic must cease for at least one hour twice a week to accommodate the ship’s close-to-shore track. However, the river rises normally in January, February and March, and Carnival may not be able to maneuver the ship safely.

“We’d like to keep the ship in New Orleans year round, but safety is going to play the first and foremost role,” said Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz. “We’re not 100% certain we’re going to be able to get under the lines comfortably once the river rises as winter comes.”

Entergy spokesperson Cyril Guerrera said: “Our people have worked very hard to arrive at both short- and long-term solutions to the problem. We were just asked in April to do a height survey of the lines and we moved expeditiously to get that done. We met with different parties and understood that everyone was in agreement on a short-term solution until a long-term solution could be determined and implemented. We’ve gotten to the point where the long-term solution has been decided and we’ve already started work on the engineering designs. We’ll be moving as quickly as we can to put this in place.”

Entergy will seek economic development grant money from the State of Louisiana to offset some of the costs. Entergy customers who use the power that flows across the lines may pay a “minimal” cost for the remainder of the work, said Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman.

“The cost would be similar whether we bury the lines or raise them higher,” said Guerrera. “By going under the river, there’s less impact as far as the amount of time those lines will be out of service.”

If Mississippi gains the 2,974-passenger ship, which operates seven-day western Caribbean cruises year-round, it would be a boon to the Gulf Coast economy, which has been transformed since gambling was legalized on Mississippi ports in 1992. The Conquest, Carnival’s largest of 18 vessels and one of the largest in the world, is the first in a new series for the line. Carnival currently has three other 110,000-ton vessels on order or under construction. The Holiday, which made news when it drifted over a sand bar and became lodged for days near Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on a Thanksgiving holiday cruise, and its passengers were flown home, will be replaced with a bigger ship next spring.

With the success of the 1,452-passenger Carnival Holiday, and the advent of the Conquest, the Port of New Orleans is becoming a major cruise hub, and is expected to surpass New York as the No. 4 U.S. cruise port next year. The Mississippi Gulf Coast could capture a share of that market. Based in Miami, Carnival is considered the world’s largest cruise line and controls 39% of the North American market. Carnival has expanded six times since it tested New Orleans as a port of call in 1994. That year, 40,000 ocean-bound cruise ship passengers embarked in New Orleans. In 2003, the number is expected to reach 450,000. With two ships docked, New Orleans has become the company’s second-largest domestic port, capable of transporting 5,000 passengers a week.

Royal Caribbean International now operates the 1,950-passenger Grandeur of the Seas six months a year from New Orleans. Last month, Norwegian Cruise Line announced it would dock its 1,748-passenger ship Norwegian Dream in the Crescent City beginning November 2003. Carnival has discussed the possibility of putting a ship from the Holland America Line, one of its newest acquisitions, in New Orleans in 2005. Holland operated a ship from New Orleans in 1997, but left because of strategic restructuring.

Gulfport does not have a cruise terminal, but has a standing agreement with Carnival to dock ships that can’t return to their regular ports because of an emergency or inclement weather. During the Y2K scare, Carnival docked a ship in Gulfport for about a day because of concerns about computer problems.

“There are no issues concerning Carnival’s ability to get here,” said Mark Schloegel, director of Trade Development for the Mississippi State Port Authority at Gulfport.

For two years, the Coast Cruise Industry Task Force, co-chaired by Coast Tourism Commissioner Al Hopkins and Gulfport Mayor Ken Combs, have been aggressively recruiting cruise industry decision makers to consider Gulfport as a port or for port-of-call activities. In March, representatives of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Princess Cruises, and Florida Caribbean Cruise Association toured the area.

“We clearly have strength on this matter through our unified community,” said Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our intent is for this strength to result in new cruise business in the very near future.”

Darienne Wilson, tourism division director for the Mississippi Development Authority, said MDA “would be thrilled for the Coast to add a Carnival Cruise ship to its outstanding tourism product.”

“The Coast has been working together on this for a long time and we have been most supportive of their efforts,” she said. “We are getting more and more recognition for being a great tourism destination in Mississippi and that is what we all want.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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