This morning’s Sun Herald front page lead story was a bittersweet treat for me this morning to the point where I actually read the print story rather than the on line version which is my custom. (Mrs Sop insists on keeping the print edition coming to our doorstep) The subject matter is one that I am very familiar in the destruction caused by unsecured containers and break bulk cargo that was left on the port by the shipping companies. Today Anita Lee ties up all the loose ends from the past and tells us about the lessons learned response from the port’s management and it is there we begin:
The S.S. Camille bore witness to a hurricane’s formidable surge.
In 1969, Hurricane Camille beached the 72-foot tugboat north of U.S. 90 in Gulfport, not far from the state port. The property owners accepted nature’s bounty by setting up a souvenir shop beside the tug.
The men who managed emergency plans for the port and companies operating there frequently drove past the hurricane relic. They would later testify they saw no need to dwell on Camille’s ferocity or, if they were new to the area, to delve into the dynamics of storm surge at a port that sits over the water, 9 to 12 feet above sea level.
As a result, Katrina hurtled containers, trailers and paper rolls into the neighborhoods of West Gulfport and East Long Beach. They heightened the terror of residents who remained in their homes, equally unprepared for the storm’s savagery. Essentially, containers that weigh 3 1/2 tons empty to more than 26 tons loaded, along with 5,400-pound paper rolls, pounded like battering rams against structures already compromised by wind and water.
Lawsuits prompted by the damage ended badly for property owners, but their attorneys say Katrina reinforced lessons lost after the 1947 hurricane and Camille. Both of those storms forced the enormous paper rolls ashore, before containers became part of the operation.
Camille’s surge was around 20 feet at the port; Katrina’s was 22 1/2 feet.
Katrina was a major impetus for an expansion redesign that would elevate the port to 25 feet. Permits for that project, however, are years away. Meanwhile, port managers say, evacuation for hurricanes will be mandatory.
Though the lawsuits were thrown out Gulfport lawyer Ron Feder still manages to find a silver lining to what was ultimately a useless legal exercise.
“The lawsuits essentially served as a warning shot across the bow to all the marine operators and the port,” said Gulfport attorney Ron Feder, who represented property owners. “Now they’re on notice. Essentially, the lawsuits now require them to clear all that stuff out and they’ve adjusted their plan accordingly.”
We made the decision not to file suit against the port after Katrina for a variety of reasons, the major one being we were made whole by a combination of wind and flood insurance recoveries. I also figured that while it is absolutely clear the port debris was the major reason my neighborhood appeared like it was ground zero for a nuclear detonation late in the afternoon of August 29th 2005, I also knew proving damages was an entirely different story from a legal standpoint, especially for those of us closer to the beach. In my mind there was one notable exception to that problem and that was my neighbor Jerry Young. We’ll circle back to Jerry in a bit but first we need to backtrack to the reason containers were left on the port to begin with as we continue with Anita’s story:
Police Chief Alan Weatherford, who was commander of operations when the storm hit, said conversations about container evacuations began Thursday.
Some containers evacuated
Dole and Chiquita evacuated as many containers as they could Sunday morning, as Katrina intensified and inexorably moved toward the Mississippi Coast.
Dennis Kelly of Dole said he made the evacuation call for his company around midnight Saturday. Maximum winds, he said, were at 145 miles per hour at 1 a.m. Sunday.
“At the time,” he said in court documents, “we saw that the force of the storm had increased… And so, at that time, we said, you know, we need to protect our assets and our cargo and our customers, and so let’s move.”
Dole evacuated about half its containers, leaving behind 280. About 2,000 paper rolls remained, some in containers, others in a warehouse.
Chiquita also decided to evacuate all its cargo Sunday morning.
“We didn’t have enough trucking power to physically move all of the containers,” said Chiquita’s Gulf regional manager, Patrick J. Farrell. Farrell said Chiquita had previously been able to evacuate all equipment in as little as 10 hours. The company secured 158 containers at the port, 20 of them filled with paper rolls.
Farrell was asked if he had considered the paper rolls that washed ashore in Camille.
“No,” Farrell said, “because never in my wildest dreams did I expect anything like Katrina to happen.”
Crowley contacted its customers to pick up cargo beginning Friday, but the company never intended to evacuate its own containers. Instead, Michael Hopkins, vice president of operations for Latin America, said the company’s hurricane plan was to use a “tried and true” block stow. The lightest equipment is stacked at the center, with containers of increasing weight added so the heaviest are on the outside to hold the block stow in place.
The remaining Dole and Chiquita containers also were block-stowed.
Through at least 20 hurricanes over his 32 years with Crowley, Hopkins said, he had never seen a block stow fail. But he also said he had no knowledge of water reaching Crowley containers prior to Katrina.
Each of the men was aware of the S.S. Camille. But boats float. They did not think containers would float.
My understanding is the port people were told the police would not be able to provide traffic control on US 49 on Sunday August 28th which is why Pat Farrell, Dennis Kelly and Crowley’s Michael Hopkins tap danced so much in the response to Anita’s questions about the sequence of events. I can attest first hand that a cargo container does indeed float, no doubt aided by air trapped inside the units. As further evidence I offer the second Sun Herald photo I published on this post. If containers don’t float then how did that Crowley container end up on top of that wood debris pile?
Like us Jerry Young and his fiancée made the decision to stay. Jerry lives up the street from us in a raised house that he had to demolish due to damage from a container ramming the side of it in the surge. Like us, Jerry and his fiancée are lucky to be alive today as the story continues:
Gulfport resident Jerry Young, his fiancée and two Great Danes rode out the storm at his home on Hardy Avenue. When the water arrived, they retreated to the attic. About an hour after the water came up, he said, a Crowley container crashed into the living room. The crack, crack, crack of container against timber punctuated the wind’s howl.
Luck, Young said, kept them all alive. They had 4 1/2 feet of water in the house.
“My house would have been restorable had it not been for the container knocking it off the foundation,” he said. “That was a thrill watching that container try to batter you down. We thought the whole thing was going to collapse on us.”
Another container sat near the house, and a giant paper roll rested on the front doorstep. Young said Katrina deposited in the house hundreds of pounds of chicken from a port freezer. Today, Young and his then-fiancée, now his wife, live in a Mississippi cottage in Kiln on property her son gave them. Young, who is retired, said, “I don’t have a real home and I doubt that I ever will.”
After the storm I gained an appreciation the speciality known as maritime law. The legal hurdles facing the plaintiffs were huge since the bar to escape liability for their negligence for the port tenants is set so low. Despite passing the SS Camille on Highway 90 on their way to work for years, Dole, Crowley and Chiquita were indeed able to use ignorance as an excuse in court as we continue:
In March 2007, U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman found Crowley had taken reasonable precautions for Katrina.
“The court concludes that both the extraordinary force of this storm and its ability to transport containers, trailers and/or chassis away from the port and onto and into neighboring property was unforeseeable, as these were ‘unusual and improbable or extraordinary circumstances,’ (quoted from case law) that defendant had no duty to take additional measures, beyond those described, to secure its property; and that defendant breached no duty to plaintiffs.”
Gulfport attorney Jim Davis pressed on with other lawsuits against the container companies. He thought he had found an expert, Stephen W. Harned, to assure the court Katrina was not unprecedented. Harned, a meteorologist who worked for many years at the National Weather Service, testified Katrina’s course was accurately projected from Aug. 26 until it hit shore three days later. Also, he said, the shallow Mississippi Sound enhances storm surge. The surge increases in height, he said, because it can’t go down.
The Coast can generally expect a Category 5 storm once every 50 years. “This was an extremely strong storm,” Harned said. “Was it one that could not have been anticipated or people were just absolutely shocked that this ever happened? From a professional standpoint, no.”
Harned was questioned under oath in November 2007, but never got the chance to testify in Davis’ lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerdon dismissed the case in July 2008, deferring to Friedman’s ruling that Katrina’s power could not have been anticipated. He also referred to the argument that Camille foretold Katrina’s destruction. Crowley, he said, had no basis for comparison because no containers were at the port in 1969.
On the bright side the gang at the port will not be able to use “the ignorant defense” next time as Port Director Don Allee acknowledges:
Katrina did put the port on notice, though. Its executive director, Don Allee, said the port was completely evacuated for Gustav in 2008, and will be for future hurricanes.
A long-term expansion plan would elevate the port to 25 feet. Allee believes an elevated port would end the need for evacuation, even though Katrina produced a surge well over 30 feet closer to landfall on the Mississippi-Louisiana line. He also exhibited the attitude toward Katrina some longtime residents had about Camille: They thought nothing could be worse, and thus lost their lives in Katrina.
That is little consolation for my old neighbnor Jerry Young.