Yet eight days after Hurricane Katrina's rampage, Gary LaGrange, president of the Port of New Orleans, is talking about the return of the ships so important to this area's economy.And it is vital to get in back in full operation as soon as possible.
While his port remains essentially closed, he expects commercial ships to begin calling next week. And as he toured his battered wharves Tuesday, he pointed at vessels lumbering up the Mississippi River, heading for grain terminals in Louisiana ports above New Orleans. More are coming every day, he said.
It's a good sign, but the current silence raises a difficult question. All the cargo that normally flows to his port--steel, rubber, coffee and so on--must be temporarily moving through other harbors. What if it doesn't all return?
While competitors might not talk about it in the face of the tragedy of Katrina, they certainly will welcome displaced shippers, because it's the nature of business to exploit opportunities.
Indeed, port directors across the country said they'd received calls from shippers attempting to find ways around the situation in New Orleans. "We're getting a lot of inquiry calls. ... They're all trying to figure out what to do," said Felicia Griffin, spokeswoman for the Port of Houston.
But LaGrange argues that shippers choose New Orleans because it is the most cost-efficient way to reach certain markets, and that isn't likely to change.
For example, it costs less to ship coffee to Chicago through New Orleans than through New York, the nation's other major coffee port.
"There are reasons people come to New Orleans, and those reasons will continue," he said.
But when they will be able to return in full force, LaGrange doesn't know.
New Orleans' economy is often said to pivot on tourism, and while that may be true, the city's port is not far behind as an economic force. About 2,500 people work directly on the docks, LaGrange said, but the port estimates that with the full legion of workers that keep a port running, from freight forwarders to truck drivers, the actual number is 10 to 20 times higher.
New Orleans is actually part of a string of ports in south Louisiana, stretching from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi.
Together, they made up the largest U.S. port in 2003 and the fifth-biggest global port, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005