When Hurricane Katrina barreled into Gulfport in August 2005, the 24-foot surge all but destroyed the Mississippi port’s container and bulk terminals, decimating 700,000 square feet of warehouse space and two primary piers.
Six years later, the equally massive recovery effort is giving the port a jumpstart on plans to expand for a future that could include new container services from Africa, Asia and Europe as well as the existing north-south services that provide the lion’s share of international container volume.
Those container volumes are growing again at the Gulf’s third-largest container port, and, with the help of some $700 million in emergency federal and state funding, Gulfport is building infrastructure to handle more boxes on bigger container ships, rebuilding the rail line to a developing inland distribution facility and starting construction of a four-lane road link from the port to a nearby interstate highway.
“In 2005, all our indicators were pointing upward, but on Aug. 29, Katrina basically wiped our port out for a period of time,” said Don Allee, executive director and CEO of the Mississippi State Port Authority. “We put it back together with glue and Band-Aids in pretty rapid fashion.”
The port, which had been routinely handling 200,000 20-foot equivalent container units annually before Katrina, saw its volume grow 5 percent in 2010 from the year before to more than 208,000 TEUs. Allee said the port handled a “conservative” 46,000 TEUs in the first quarter, a pace he expects to pick up as the year progresses and boost it above last year’s record.
In the wake of the hurricane, with help from Gov. Haley Barbour, the port secured more than $100 million in insurance and FEMA funds and $600 million in community bloc development grants administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that enabled it to start work on a master plan called “Port of the Future.”
The main element of the port reconstruction plan is a project to convert the mixed-use west terminal to a pure intermodal berth and raise its level to 25 feet above mean low water, from 10 feet now. The expansion, created on landfill it completed building up in March on 60 water-covered acres, eventually will reach 80 acres.
“We’re slowly raising it to the 25-foot level and creating a platform for a new high-density carrier,” Allee said.
Such a platform would enable Gulfport to handle calls by container ships of 6,000 TEUs or more that will be able to pass through the Panama Canal after its third set of locks are completed in 2014. Gulfport is one of many U.S. ports to sign memorandums of understanding with the Panama Canal Authority, committing the two entities to share information of trade flows and jointly market services.
Gulfport is talking with container lines that could start calling at the port after 2014. “Operators aren’t necessarily thinking Asia. North-south grows and grows, and we’re fortunate that our carriers Dole, Chiquita and Crowley are already in that north-south trade,” Allee said. “Another opportunity is the Atlantic side of South America, and another we are focusing on is the west coast of Africa.”
The port is preparing for the day when it might attract calls by higher-density carriers. Upon completion of the west berth expansion, Gulfport is considering ordering as many as three new ship-to-shore container cranes to handle bigger ships. The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a study that would provide a cost-benefit analysis of deepening the existing 36-foot channel to 42 feet or deeper.
And, with the help of a $20 million federal TIGER grant, Gulfport is working with Kansas City Southern Railway, which has on-dock rail ramps on the west and east berths, to rebuild the 70-mile track from Gulfport to Hattiesburg to handle stacktrains serving a proposed inland distribution facility.
Gulfport also is working with the state Department of Transportation to build a seven-mile port connector road over the next eight years. The “interstate-quality” highway would carry trucks carrying containers between Interstate 10 and the port, where they will pass through electronic-screening portals at new gates. “We’re paying a lot of attention to our future security needs,” Allee said.
Gulfport is the third-largest container port in the Gulf, thanks to the volume generated largely by its three core carriers. Dole and Chiquita carry green fruit imports on the northbound leg and general cargo southbound. Crowley carries mixed cargoes and refrigerated goods. All three lines carry bolts of U.S.-made cotton fabric to Central American apparel plants on their southbound legs and import finished apparel made from those textiles back to the U.S. under reduced duties under Public Law 807.
The U.S. is the world’s largest banana market, importing $1.67 billion worth of the fruit in 2010, up 15 percent from 2009 and more than twice as many bananas by value as Germany, the next largest market. Gulfport is the second-largest U.S. banana port behind Wilmington, Del.
Gulfport’s banana imports come mainly from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras. Dole owns banana plantations in Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras; Chiquita produces bananas in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras.