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State Port, Gulfport making strides in Katrina recovery

At the 20-month mark since Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi State Port Authority (MSPA) and the city where it’s located, Gulfport, are recovering slowly but surely.

“The port has made tremendous strides in recovering when you take into account the level of destruction we experienced,” said executive director Don Allee. “Debris removal alone was a six-month project. Of the nearly 400,000 square feet of dry storage shed space we had before the storm, we have restored nearly 60% and by year end should have the remaining 40% in service. We have dedicated over $67 million to recovery projects and that is only the beginning.”

The rail system inside the port has been repaired and is again serving the East and West piers. DuPont is again using the port’s wharves thanks to temporary repairs. Liner services Dole and Chiquita have been back in business at the port for more than a year. Another carrier, Crowley, is rapidly approaching pre-Katrina levels. Container numbers still put the port as the number-three busiest container port in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

“From a volume standpoint, Dole and Chiquita are now exceeding pre-Katrina levels,” Allee said. “We expect that Crowley will be back to three ships per week in May.”

Long haul

Mayor Brent Warr says Gulfport’s recovery is a long haul but is having successes in things that must happen to build back properly for the long term.

“We’re not striving to just replace what was here on August 29, 2005, but to do it right so that our children and grandchildren will be proud of our efforts and love Gulfport enough to want to raise their own families here,” he said. “We have done a great deal of planning to get there and are beginning to see the implementation.”

He lists the re-built Island View Casino & Hotel as an example of new birth among businesses. The replacement of water and sewer in the southern part of the city along with work on Jones Park, the harbor and downtown are set to begin soon. The mayor believes these projects will generate more movement on beachfront properties.

There hasn’t been much re-building of businesses along U.S. 90 on the beach. Warr says that’s due to uncertainty, insurance costs, elevation requirements, cost of construction, unstable property prices and the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s proposed elevated connector road over parts of the city to the port, creating an undesirable area in its path.

“All of these things together make it very difficult for a business owner to make an investment,” he said. “We have adopted the framework for Smart Code and are in the process of creating plans for communities, including property owners, to have some reassurance that the development next door to their property will not negatively impact theirs.”

Warr praises the Orange Grove area for continuing to be a strong, productive part of Gulfport with high quality developments and commercial activities popping up daily.

Updating master plan

At the state port, the master plan is being updated to give guidance as to how and under what timeline the facility continues the recovery process while accelerating its plan for growth.

“Our plan is to grow the port’s ability to handle containerized cargo, non-containerized cargo and project-type cargo,” Allee said. “We see the port emerging as a major load center in the Gulf of Mexico and drive home the fact that our location allows us to serve no less than two-thirds of the U.S. market.”

Allee expects destroyed freezer and chiller facilities to be restored, thus returning the port’s poultry-exporting business, but he did not give a timeline. The warehousing of chilled fruits and vegetables also depends on the return of these facilities.

In 2006, the port handled more than 170,000 containers. DuPont is expected to move 300,000 tons of ore through the port in 2007. Job wise, the commercial maritime sector of the port is between 35% and 40% below where it was before the hurricane. Allee predicts those numbers will climb as the cargo numbers continue to climb. The West Pier expansion project — adding 60 acres — is back on track and is being accelerated.

The city reports that building permits are continuing to increase, including those for commercial, residential repairs and new residential units. In 2006, sales tax revenues were up more than 40%. This year’s receipts are expected to be lower but a double-digit increase is still anticipated.

As for needs, Warr says the city needs comfortable, safe and affordable housing; workers; investors; and property owners who will clean and repair their property or sell it.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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