Before Hurricane Katrina struck more than two months ago, New Orleans and the four other ports along the lower Mississippi river in southern Louisiana constituted the largest port, by tonnage handled, in the United States, and fifth largest in the world. Restoring activity at the ports is important for the United States as a whole and vital for New Orleans. VOA's Greg Flakus has a progress report on the port's recovery.
Its position near the mouth of the Mississippi has always been of vital importance to New Orleans.
And restoring activity at the Port of New Orleans has been a key element in restarting the local economy.
This port is also essential to many industries, according to Port of New Orleans spokesman Chris Bonura. "There's a reason that the cargo is coming to New Orleans is because there is a whole distribution network on the Mississippi River. We have six trunk-line railroads, more than any other U.S. seaport, right here at the Port of New Orleans. There is a lot of what we call inter-modal connections."
But Mr. Bonura says not all of the traffic on the Mississippi is handled at this one port.
"We are at the middle of a vast port complex here. The Port of New Orleans is just one of five port authorities on the lower Mississippi river in Louisiana. If you go a little further upriver from here, at the Port of South Louisiana, the Port of Baton Rouge, they handle a lot of the bulk commodities, a lot of the grain that will be coming in."
Much of the grain produced in the American heartland is transported by barge on the Mississippi and its tributaries, ending up at the ports here in south Louisiana.
Typically, a ship from Asia will offload steel and rubber in New Orleans and then go upriver to another port to take on grain for the return trip.
The Port cannot operate without workers, but most of them lost their homes to Katrina. Chris Bonura says the federal government has provided some 200 of the port workers a place to live in the meantime. "Many of them are living aboard Maritime Administration ships," he said. "We have free housing available for them until they can get their situation worked out a little better."
The Port of New Orleans is now operating at about 35 percent of its former capacity and is expected to move close to full recovery by March of next year.