Port Fourchon rebounds

09 03, 2012 by Houma Courier

Hurricane Isaac could have been worse at this hub for boats, rigs and manpower that serve most of the Gulf of Mexico’s oilfield.

The port shut down Monday as a mandatory evacuation was ordered in advance of the storm. Isaac dealt a direct hit to the port early Wednesday, but the facility reopened two days later, emerging with what officials describe as minor damage.

Electricity was still out Sunday, but Director Chett Chiasson said the docks, supply yards and other facilities buzzed with activity.

“Our biggest concern was the possibility of channel restrictions and damages to facilities where we would not be able to operate efficiently,” he said, “but that doesn’t seem to have happened.”

Getting the port running was key to allow Gulf oil production to continue, he said.

As Isaac hit, the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement estimated that 509 of the 596 oil-production platforms and 50 of the 76 drilling rigs the Gulf had been evacuated. By Sunday, workers remain evacuated from 131 platforms, 22 percent, and 18 rigs, 23 percent. About 71 percent of Gulf oil production and 55 percent of natural-gas production remained halted Sunday.

Through the weekend, massive oceangoing vessels could be seen navigating the port’s channels as gulf oil production resumes.

The port serves as a staging area for half the drilling rigs in the Gulf and production of about 20 percent of the nation’s oil supply, Chiasson said. Supplies, equipment and rig infrastructure are typically brought into the port by truck along La. 1 then loaded onto towering vessels before being transported to the Gulf.

Wind damage was minimal, he said. About a dozen power poles were down this weekend, and work was being powered by generators.

Chiasson said he expects power to be restored sometime early this week. Entergy crews have been moving steadily but had not restored power 20 miles to the north in Golden Meadow as of midday Sunday.

The port did receive some damage from Isaac’s nearly 100 mph winds. Some offices had roof damage, the massive, airplane hanger-like structures where ships are loaded received mostly cosmetic damage, Chiasson said.

But advocates for more federal money to upgrade La. 1, the only land route to and from the port, say Isaac — as hurricanes past — renews concern about the crippling effects a lengthy closure of the road could cause to the nation’s energy supply and economy.

La. 1 Coalition Executive Director Henri Boulet noted that 7.1-mile section of highway between Golden Meadow and Leeville was closed 78 hours as Isaac’s storm surge overtopped it. Last year, a 61-hour closure due to flooding from Tropical Storm Lee also shut down traffic to and from the port.

Sea-level rise, coastal erosion and storms have threatened the road for decades, and one section south of the port remains closed to traffic at night while workers repair Isaac’s damage.

Boulet cited a July 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that concludes a 90-day closure of Port Fourchon because of damage to La. 1 could result in a $7.8 billion economic loss nationwide. Domestic oil-and-gas production would also be significantly impacted for 10 years, he said.

“What other 7.1-mile stretch of highway in the nation poses a $7.8 billion vulnerability to national gross domestic product if it is washed out?” Boulet said in a news release. “None.”

Boulet said Isaac again illustrates why Congress should spend the estimated $320 to upgrade the stretch of road to an elevated expressway, money the La. 1 Coalition and others have sought for years.

Chiasson said the port area saw about 7 feet in storm surge, but because the facility sits at a higher elevation than surrounding areas, it sustained only minimal water damage.

The port reinforced many of its aging facilities following 2008’s hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which paid off as workers were able to reopen facilities shortly after Isaac passed.

The port’s northern expansion project received no damage, while the local Caminada Headlands area saw a loss of about 30 yards of beach, he said.

“It’s great to be back open,” he said. “Our mission, when these storms come in, is always to be closed for as short an amount of time as possible. We strive to do that and were very fortunate.”