One year after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, one of the city's main engines of economic activity is back with a vengeance. Business at the port is now above pre-Katrina levels.
Large areas of New Orleans remain abandoned and half of the pre-Katrina population remains scattered around the country. Tourism is down below half of what it was before the disaster and many businesses have had to close.
But local leaders see a bright spot at the wharves, warehouses and ship facilities along the Mississippi river and nearby canals that are all part of the Port of New Orleans.
Gary LaGrange, President and Chief Executive Officer of the port, says there was an initial lag in activity in the weeks following Katrina, but that since then business has picked up dramatically.
"The port has actually exceeded 100 percent of pre-Katrina levels in ship calls and in terms of tonnage is actually four percent up over the previous five-year average," said Gary LaGrange. "That is huge, as far as we are concerned."
LaGrange says the figures are especially impressive in view of the fact that the port lost one third of its container yard and terminal capacity as well as its cruise ship operations because of Katrina. The cruise ships are returning to New Orleans in October and he says this will boost port activity even more.
A key factor in the port's increased activity over the past year has been steel and rubber shipments coming from various parts of the world. Gary LaGrange says the steel imports reflect both the decline of steel production in the United States and increased demand for steel by various US industries.
"We have the automotive industry, we have the appliance industry, the construction industry," he said. "That steel has got to come from somewhere. In large part it is now coming from Japan, China, also Brazil and Russia, to a great degree."
LaGrange says this boom at the port of New Orleans is good news for a city still struggling to recover from the worst natural disaster in US history. He says the effects of the port's increased activity are also felt well beyond the Crescent City.
"The port is sort of the economic engine to the city and, in large part, to the entire state of Louisiana," noted Gary LaGrange. "Our economists tell us that 380,000 people realize their income as a result of the port of New Orleans, around the nation. Sixty two percent of the consumer-spending public in the United States receive their goods and depend on getting their goods through the gateway at the port of New Orleans."
Local and state officials are also hoping the economic vitality of the port will help the overall revitalization of New Orleans and its economy. Tourism should get a boost from the return of cruise ships and the opening of a new cruise ship terminal in Bywater, just southeast of the famed French Quarter, next year.
In addition, Gary LaGrange says there are plans for an overall refurbishing of the port area so that it will be an attractive destination for both tourists and city residents.
"We are looking at giving the river back to the people by developing parks and playgrounds and plazas, mixed-used development areas, pedestrian-friendly areas on the river," he noted. "This is not an original idea. Baltimore has done it. New York has done it. San Diego has done it. San Francisco has done it with a lot of vigor. A number of ports have done. So the issue is relocating the industrial and true maritime activities of 2006 to other areas of the port while we develop and concentrate on new areas, that being the tourism area, and areas for the people that live here."
As part of the proposed Riverfront Development Agreement with the city, the port would provide some wharfs and waterfront areas for parks and recreational facilities, including restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. This idea is still in its very early stages, but local business leaders are encouraged to see port and city officials discussing such a grand scale development for the years ahead. Hope for a better future, they say, is what can help this city move beyond the damage caused by Katrina last year and the difficulties still facing the city today.