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New Orleans' port faces $1 billion tag

| Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005

Estimates of more than $1 billion are what it will take to repair damage at the Port of New Orleans after two devastating hurricanes, said Gary LaGrange, the port's chief executive, on Wednesday.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said LaGrange, mixing talk on the impact of the storm with personal experiences before and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita wrecked Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states.

"The spirit of people will bring New Orleans back," he said in a speech yesterday to members of the American Association of Port Authorities at a seminar at the Sheraton Hotel at Station Square. People associated with the Louisiana port, the nation's fifth largest, and the people of New Orleans, have much to be thankful for, he said.

One of his most stirring experiences after Katrina, he said, was catching sight of a New York City fire truck bearing the words "Spirit of Louisiana." The vehicle had been purchased with funds raised by volunteers in his state and donated to New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

One reason to be optimistic, LaGrange said, is that the most severe damage to the New Orleans port affected only about 30 percent of its facilities.

"The good news is that 70 percent is still there," he said of the port, which handles an estimated 90 to 100 million tons of products annually.

"It's already coming back," he said, noting that nine ships have docked at the port this week, about one-third of the port's normal weekly traffic of 25 to 30 ships. "In three months, I believe we can be back up to 70 percent, and in four to six months will be at 80 percent plus."

Normally, anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people work at port's facilities, including dock workers, truckers, crane operators and others, LaGrange said.

Currently, about 1,000 of those workers have returned, living aboard ships that serve as temporary "dormitories."

LaGrange said he expects New Orleans will come back "better than ever," thanks to billions in expected government aid, tax breaks and other incentives. But he expects public officials will partner with private companies to rebuild facilities.

Most of the rebuilding effort likely will be concentrated in the area least damaged by the storm, the section of the port on the Mississippi River upstream of the Crescent City Connection, the major bridge that carries U.S. Highway 90 over the Mississippi.

Lessons learned in the Gulf Coast states can prove valuable in planning for future disasters, said David B. Sanford II, director of navigation policy and legislation of the American Association of Port Authorities.

Officials attending yesterday's seminar already have adopted recommendations for federal agencies dealing with disasters, such as having additional large generators in place in safe places so that power can be restored more quickly after storms.

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