By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT
When 120-mile-an-hour winds strike leading port facilities, sighs of relief might not be expected as a typical response. But, while Hurricane Rita hit a few significant Gulf ports with such winds early on Sept. 24, the impact paled in comparison with those exacted less than a month earlier by Hurricane Katrina.
Top officials of major southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana ports most heavily pounded by Rita told the American Journal of Transportation that infrastructure damages were relatively minor.
Meanwhile, Texas port officials to the west and southwest of “ground zero,” including the Port of Houston, are glad they did not get the direct Rita hit originally projected. They are preparing for a heightened influx of hurricane relief and rebuilding goods that already had begun flowing after Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall in a Gulf Coast stretch East of where Rita struck. Also, Rita-related flooding in New Orleans reportedly will not delay the rebound of the Crescent City’s port.
Due to fears of Rita, followed in some cases by channel disruptions, several ports along hundreds of miles of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf region did have to temporarily close to traffic, some for as few as three days. Others were awaiting utility restoration several days after the storm’s landfall.
Although Rita barely brushed the Port of Houston, ranked No. 1 among US ports in international cargo tonnage handled last year, it did knock out operations at three of the nation’s 15 busiest foreign commerce ports. They include, as ranked by US Maritime Administration (MARAD) figures, No. 8 Beaumont, No. 12 Lake Charles and No. 14 Port Arthur.
“All thing considered, we fared pretty well,” said David C. “Chris” Fisher, executive port director at the Port of Beaumont. “Structurally, the port is very sound. Our deal is just getting the power back.”
Fisher was hoping that electrical power would be restored within a week of Rita’s strike. He also hoped that federal officials would deem the port’s channel fully passageworthy in a similarly speedy time frame.
Damage to Beaumont’s port was limited to a few blown-in transit shed doors and minor roof damage, according to Fisher.
The Port of Beaumont, about 20 miles up the Neches River from Port Arthur, became a haven during Rita. More than 200 boats, including those from shrimper fleets, waited out Rita there, and, according to Fisher, the only loss was one small sailboat that sank. Also, two Ready Reserve Force vessels activated by the US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) stayed at the Port of Beaumont and were loaded with hundreds of fire engines, ambulances and other emergency vehicles to ride out the storm.
Floyd J. Gaspard, port director of the Port of Port Arthur, also reported no major structural damage, only minor harm to some roofs and awnings.
“The port is in excellent shape,” Gaspard said. “We are all very fortunate at Port Arthur, and we’re very grateful.”
Although the city of Port Arthur suffered flooding, no water got into port transit sheds and thus there was no cargo damage, according to Gaspard.
“Our pier is atop a 15-foot flood wall,” he said. “Fortunately for us, the storm surge never reached that level.”
Until restoration of electricity service, the port was relying on shipboard gear for loading and unloading cargoes.
Of greater concern to Gaspard was the outage of rail service along the main line of the Kansas City Southern Railway between Port Arthur and Shreveport, LA, which he said was strewn with thousands of broken trees and poles.
About 60 miles East-Northeast of Port Arthur, the Port of Lake Charles was returning to operation on a limited basis. R.A. “Adam” McBride, the southwest Louisiana port’s executive director, said receipt and delivery of goods by truck was taking place within four days following Rita. Goods included forest products to be used for post-Katrina reconstruction that had arrived at Lake Charles via Gearbulk vessel prior to Rita hitting the area.