Life after Katrina

Mississippi River closed to commercial navigation! Operations cease at the Port of New Orleans! Restoration date of the deep-draft channel at the river’s Southwest Pass uncertain! These and other headlines bombarded those in the marine industry for nearly a week after Hurricane Katrina, all against the backdrop of New Orleans’ rising flood waters. 

Few Americans were probably aware of the temporary disruption of river shipping as the more heartbreaking destruction of parts of the city and surrounding rural areas was played out in the media. And even fewer probably realized that, with the exception of a few terminal facilities, most of the river’s lifeline of bulk terminals are located above New Orleans and survived Katrina relatively unscathed. 

The result is that low-cost river transshipment of bulk commodities between deep- and shallow-draft vessels has continued, largely unaffected by the storm and the catastrophic levee failures than inundated much of New Orleans.

A big concern was whether there would be any long-term disruptions of transport supply chains. This could have resulted in cargo losses as shippers switched to different transportation modes. But the loss of downriver brownwater business as a result of Katrina appears unlikely since few alternatives are available and disruptions of river terminals above New Orleans were short-lived.

Still, the city, its port and related infrastructure will require massive new construction and investment. This suggests that imports of building materials — steel, cement, and fixtures — may be diverted from upbound barge movements to the local New Orleans economy. The “Katrina effect” on the brownwater sector will likely result in increased competition for these resources. As a result, the brownwater sector should see a reduction in upriver backhauls of imported building materials. 

Katrina will long be remembered as an urban phenomenon. There were more disruptions to local rail service connections through the Crescent City than barge service. (Five miles of track were blown off a Lake Pontchartrain trestle.) Katrina had little impact on the long-term viability of bulk cargo transshipping by barge. 

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