Let It Flow

Safety is paramount in keeping the ports and waterways open, and the economy churning.
Photo courtesy of the Port of South Louisiana
Shown here are two of the Port of South Louisiana’s rescue vessels, the Responder (front) and the Accardo (back).

A little less than two decades ago, the eyes of the country focused on New Orleans and an unfolding disaster. With just 10 days left in the bustling Christmas shopping season, a 700-foot freighter lost power under the Crescent City Connection, careened into the east bank wharf, and crashed through the Riverwalk Marketplace, packed with holiday shoppers. In the initial moments after, authorities reported bodies floating in the water. It was a nightmare come to life.

There were no deaths. The bodies turned out to be store mannequins, but the crash awakened government authorities and the public to the potential dangers of life on the Mississippi. What if the ship had hit a chemical plant or oil and gas facility, and toxins were spewed into the air and water supply?

On any given day, hundreds of ships, boats, and barges, carrying people and cargoes of bulk agriculture, including more than half of the country’s grain exports, oil, gas and petroleum products, coal, chemicals, phosphate, and frozen poultry, traverse Louisiana’s lower Mississippi River.

Each vessel on the river has the ability to have a major, even crippling, impact that ripples outward to the state, national and international levels, should an accident happen. As expected, safety on our local waterways is of paramount concern. In order to keep river traffic and cash flowing, several risk management protocols and practices and constant technological upgrades are used in combination to prevent economic rough waters.
 

Closing Costs

It is rare for traffic to stop on the Mississippi, but accidents have forced it to close in the past.

In 2005, an oilrig supply boat collided with a ship on the lower Mississippi River. The ferry sank, causing several crew deaths, and blocked the main shipping channel. For several days river traffic came to a standstill, preventing more than 100 commercial vessels and cruise ships from reaching their ports of call on time and causing a domino effect of delivery delays and cost increases.

When the river stops, the meter starts for stakeholders in shipping-related businesses and industries.

“Each day the Mississippi River is closed costs the nation’s economy an estimated $300 million a day with those figures growing exponentially after the third day due to supply and demand,” said Port of New Orleans President and CEO Gary LaGrange. “The Mississippi River is America’s gateway to the world. It serves 33 states and three Canadian provinces — 14,500 miles of inland navigable waterways. The lower Mississippi River is responsible for moving more than 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 20 percent of its coal and 20 percent of its petroleum products.”

The 230 miles of the meandering Mississippi River on either side of New Orleans are home to the world’s largest port system. Collectively, the five deep-water ports on the lower Mississippi River — New Orleans, South Louisiana, Baton Rouge, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines – handle more tonnage than any other port in the world, providing billions of dollars in annual economic impact and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. Nearly 12,000 ships, including 6,000 oceangoing vessels, travel the lower river corridor annually, carrying 500 million tons of cargo and 700,000 cruise passengers.
 



Louisiana’s port system — primarily centered in the lower Mississippi River corridor — supports almost 73,000 jobs. 
Photo Cheryl Gerber


In a 2012 paper prepared for The Ports Association of Louisiana, The Economic Impact of the Ports of Louisiana, LSU economist James A. Richardson said the combined economic impact of the state’s ports, providers of port and vessel services, businesses operating within the ports, and cruise ship operations, most of it centered in the lower Mississippi River corridor, includes almost 73,000 jobs created and supported, personal earnings of $3.96 billion, and state and local tax collections of $517 million per year with approximately $289 million going to the state government and $228 million going to local governments.

When connected industries are included — agriculture, oil and gas, petrochemical and coal products, chemicals and related products, food and related products, paper, wood, and fabricated metals — which rely on the ports to assist in moving their goods, Richardson said the figures jump to almost 400,000 jobs and personal earnings of close to $20 billion.
 

Insurance Issues

Companies try to manage their risks as best they can on a normal basis but can struggle in a crisis. A river closure could drive businesses without proper coverage into dire straits, said Jerry W. Lowrimore, a producer for First Insurance.

“They have to start with coverage for loss of life and property and environmental damage, but they also need to look at whether they want burden insurance coverage or will self-insure in the case of a closing. In that case, there are extra expenses for fuel, the crew, dock workers. And if they’re moving perishable items, they need spoilage insurance. Those costs can add up quick.”
 

River Pilots

The three state and federal river pilot organizations that guide ships on the river are important insurers of safety. Shipping companies hire river pilots because they have knowledge of the river’s hairpin turns, strong changing currents, shifting sandbars, traffic density, local weather conditions and thick fog routinely encountered on the river that foreign ships’ captains lack.

“One accident could bring the flow of a multibillion-dollar industry to a sudden and prolonged stop,” said Associated Branch Pilots President Michael R. Lorino Jr. “River pilots spend their entire careers on very specific portions of the river, so their local knowledge becomes invaluable to ships entering the river from all over the world.”

Because lives are in their hands, as well as the fate of damage to the environment and maritime commerce of our state, safety is a primary concern. Each pilot group sets its pilots’ qualification regulations; however, they generally involve Coast Guard licensing, an apprenticeship, continuing education, emergency ship handling procedures and drug testing.
 

National Security

Because of its strategic location, economic importance and draw as a tourist attraction, New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River have the potential to be targeted in a terrorist attack.

“The Department of Homeland Security has classified the region’s five major deep-water ports as the Lower Mississippi River Port-Wide Strategic Security Council (LMRPWSSC), a Tier I port area due to its importance in national and international trade and its key impact on the nation’s economic security,” said Matt Gresham, director of external affairs at the Port of New Orleans.
 


 
LEFT: The Port of South Louisiana undergoing a rescue exercise with the U.S. Coast Guard. RIGHT: A peek inside the control room of the Port of South Louisiana’s Maritime Security Operations Center (MSOC). Photos courtesy of the Port of South Louisiana


DHS grants helped establish the Lower Mississippi River Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), created to improve safety and heighten security against potential risks. With local river pilots, the Coast Guard operates the VTS around the clock to identify and track vessels moving on the river. Every vessel that enters the river has an Automatic Identification System onboard, which provides the ship’s and crew’s identification, vessel type, and cargo, as well as real-time updates on its location, speed, course, draft and pilot on board.

Additionally, VTS aids pilots’ situational awareness by providing information on hazardous cargoes and weather conditions, sudden emergencies, and oncoming vessels hidden behind a bend or in fog or darkness.
 

Ancillary Services

Moving other vessels safely through the shipping channel to their destinations is the responsibility of companies like Bisso Towboat. In 1999, Bisso built the first ASD Tractor Tug for assisting ships in and out of place on their docks.

“These ASD Tractor tugs are the safest and most-efficient means of assisting ships into and out of berth,” said Bisso president Scott Slatten. “We took delivery of our fifth ASD tractor tug earlier this year and just commenced construction on our sixth, with delivery scheduled for fall 2016.”

The port system of Southeast Louisiana is already the largest in the world, and it is expected to continue growing. As the expansion of the Panama Canal nears completion, the port systems on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are gearing up for increased trade from Asia and the Pacific. More cruise lines are looking at New Orleans as a homeport for their ships. Last year, Chiquita Brands returned to New Orleans after a 40-year hiatus, and container shipping along the river will continue to expand as the new Mississippi River Intermodal Terminal ramps up production. That means traffic on the river will increase, and keeping it open for business will require further diligence to protect the backbone of the region’s economy. 
 


Top 15 U.S. ports ranked by tonnage

Four of the five deep-water ports on the Mississippi River below Baton Rouge are tops in the nation in tonnage transfer.

Rank    Port                         Total short tons (In millions)
                                                            
1           South Louisiana…………………………………...252.07

2           Houston………………………………………………238.19

3           New York and New Jersey…………………….132.04

4           New Orleans…………………………………………79.34

5           Beaumont, Texas…………………………………..78.52

6           Long Beach, California…………………………..77.39

7           Hampton Roads, Virginia………………………..76.73

8           Corpus Christi, Texas……………………………..69.00

9           Port of Los Angeles……………………………….61.82

10         Baton Rouge…………………………………………59.99

11         Plaquemines Parish……………………………….58.28

12         Texas City, Texas…………………………………..56.72

13         Mobile, Alabama……………………………………54.89

14         Lake Charles…………………………………………54.38

15         Huntington-Tristate, West Virginia…………….52.91

Source: American Association of Port Authorities

 

 


Categories: Maritime, The Magazine

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