An eagerness to shorten the time frame for upgrading the Port of Gulfport led port commissioners Tuesday to scale back plans to elevate the West Pier to 25 feet as part of a $500 million-plus restoration and expansion of Mississippi’s main seaport.
The choice ahead is whether to elevate to 12 feet or 15 feet. That decision will be made at a port commission meeting on Nov. 8 that will include release of an analysis that recommends specific improvements, their costs and the time to complete them, said Lenny Sawyer, commission chair, in a interview after Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think something really major was solved today,” Sawyer said.
Commissioners previously settled on the 25-foot elevation as protection against a storm surge like that of 2005’s deadly hurricane Katrina, which knocked out 80 percent of the operational capacity of the port, which is situated directly on the gulf. Tuesday’s decision marked a rethinking of that position, with commissioners agreeing that a lower elevation – whether 12 feet or 15 feet – would afford adequate protection to port facilities.
A desire to put a revamped port back into operation sooner rather than later also drove the decision. The idea, Sawyer said, “was to move faster for jobs.”
Staff has been told “let’s get off that 25 feet and start looking at 12 to 15 feet and bring us a cost estimate back,” he added.
“The quicker we get the elevation completed we can go after these jobs.”
Tenants at the port, including Dole and Chiquita, have been pressing for the scale back to 15 feet elevation and are eager to regain full operational capacity, according to Sawyer.
The chairman and longtime port commission member said that while the governing board has not specifically settled on 15 feet of elevation, he personally wants the 15. That elevation should be adequate to draw exporters who feel their freight will be safe from storm damage while awaiting shipment, he said.
At 15 feet, Gulfport’s port will be close to having the most elevation of all of the gulf coast ports, he said.
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