Repairs needed, but State Port back in business

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Published: February 27,2006

Gulfport — Things are getting back to normal at the Mississippi State Port during these post-Katrina days. The channel has been cleared, ships are coming and going and most of the debris has been removed.

“Stay tuned. We’re rebuilding at a rapid pace,” said port director Don Allee. “It’s been a team effort. We have a lot of support from the state, cities, counties and the port board. Everyone played a part in the recovery.”

Things were bleak immediately following August 29, 2005. Of the port’s 700,000 square feet of covered storage space — some climate-controlled — much was demolished. The cleared, rehabilitated space consists of 105,000 to 160,000 square feet, but Allee says more will be added as the recovery continues.

The biggest loss was the lack of carriers arriving at the port. As soon as the channel was cleared of silt and debris, a Dole vessel berthed at the State Port. That was only three weeks after the storm. Dole, Chiquita and Crowley are the weekly carriers that use the port. The loss each day the port was shut down amounted to $200,000 per week at a minimum.

“We had zero revenue coming in. Any revenue stream is good so it was crucial to get up and running again,” Allee said. “We were happy that we could get a ship back in here within a month of the storm.”

All docks and facilities had to be checked and cleared of debris before vessels could return. The assessment indicated it would take longer to get the port going again.

“We were delighted that we could service a ship in three weeks after the storm,” Allee said. “It was a container ship that generates its own cooler and is not that demanding. A week later, Chiquita was able to come in and then Crowley.”

At first the container count was only 150 per week for Dole and Chiquita. The container count keeps going up and will soon reach the 300 containers per week pre-Katrina volume. Dole is back to its pre-Katrina volume and Chiquita is almost there, too. Before the storm, Crowley planned to add a fourth ship to its weekly run. The carrier is now back to three ships per week and will add the fourth soon.

“The good news is that we’re handling pre-Katrina container volumes,” Allee said. “We’re hurting with ships that don’t carry containers such as the poultry ships. We have no facility for them now.”

Officials at the port are still identifying damages and settling on various layers of insurance. It’s estimated that $350 to $500 million of repairs would put the port back to pre-Katrina level. The port had business interruption insurance and is looking at various forms of federal assistance including a Community Development Block Grant to cover the costs of repair. Allee will travel to Washington next week to meet with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

He has also met with Gov. Haley Barbour. “The governor monitors our progress and I understand he is looking for some additional port funds,” Allee said. “I’m content with what he’s doing. He’s been very available to us.”

The Mississippi State Port is methodically doing what must be done to locate resources. Allee and board members are in touch with the American Association of Port Authorities and talk to other port managers.

“It’s a good clearing house. I’ve talked to some around the country and a lot of good, non-competitive information is passing around,” he said. “We’re open to all advice.”

The port’s west terminal expansion that was under construction when the hurricane struck fared well. The expansion is off track by 150-160 days. The space is being used for unitized debris cleanup, a job that is almost complete. Much of the environmentally separated debris is scrap steel that can be recycled.

The port’s administrative offices were located in the Hancock Bank building in downtown Gulfport. With the building closed for repairs, the port offices are scattered around town in temporary offices but hope to be back to normal by summer. Some trailer offices for security and maintenance are located at the port.

The port was able to keep all of its 41 employees in tact without laying off anyone. Allee said about 25% of the employees lost their homes or had serious damage. Still, everyone shows up for work each day and the mood is optimistic.

Just 10 days before the storm, port authorities cut the ribbon for a new roll-on/roll-off ramp. This state-of-the-art concrete ramp doesn’t lift off the cargo with a crane but is a rapid, efficient way to unload. Although it was covered with silt and heavy debris, the ramp was not destroyed and February 9 received its first cargo when a Crowley ship unloaded there.

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

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