The road back

The road back

Twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I paid $30,000 for our first house, a two-story structure on a narrow lot in an old New Orleans neighborhood that survived Hurricane Katrina in good shape. Watching CNN the other night, we wondered what it would be worth now.

Probably a bundle, though we're glad we weren't around for Katrina and its aftermath. As New Orleans limps toward an uncertain future, replacing thousands of destroyed or irreparably damaged homes is only one of many problems that the city and its region must solve.

Nobody knows that better than Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive of the Port of New Orleans. He said that of the port's 325-member staff, 50 to 60 percent lost their homes. So did innumerable longshoremen, forwarders, truck drivers and others in the port community. Several hundred workers are being temporarily housed and fed on two Maritime Administration Ready Reserve ships.

Since Aug. 29, LaGrange and his team have been working to return the port to something approaching normal operation. "Right now, we're probably at 25 to 30 percent," he said. "Our goal from day one has been to be at 80 percent or higher by the fourth to sixth month - the first quarter of 2006."

LaGrange said he believes that goal can be met. The port's main riverfront terminals reopened quickly. From a single ship call during the week after the storm, traffic has increased to an expected 14 ships last week, compared with a weekly norm of 40 to 50. Progress, however, is limited by things beyond the port's control. Besides housing, Katrina wrecked highways, railroads and utilities, and disrupted services and institutions that will take time to rebuild.

"Right now, everything we've got is strictly stopgap," LaGrange said. "If you're going to rebuild the fabric of a community like New Orleans, you've got to bring families back. You've got to have schools, places to worship, stores and all the rest, and the sooner the better."

Post-hurricane chaos, and the urgent need for cleanup and rebuilding, have turned the region's labor market upside down and inside out. Burger King is offering $6,000 bonuses to new workers. LaGrange said that the other day he saw another business with a sign offering $10,000.

For the port, the labor shortage is most acute in trucking. Because of low pay and high fuel prices, port drivers were in short supply before Katrina. Since the storm, many drivers have discovered they can earn twice as much hauling hurricane debris as hauling containers.

The port also faces additional challenges, such as arranging payment for its $110 million in bond debt. But LaGrange is an optimist. His message to customers: "Hang in there. Stay with us. We're in business. We're not at 100 percent, but we're certainly at a level where our footing is pretty sound. We're going in the right direction."

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7139, or at jbonney@joc.com.