The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday concluded that Southern Scrap was responsible for every one of about 70 vessels that got loose in the Industrial Canal during Hurricane Gustav and began a formal investigation into whether the company followed a plan for securing ships and barges before a dangerous storm.
The loose vessels produced some of Gustav's scariest moments as they careened around the waterway, with some crashing into an interior floodwall, a bridge and industrial warehouses. At least one barge knocked holes in a nonfederal floodwall -- one not responsible for protecting New Orleans residents -- and there were fears that the next big storm could unleash barges in an unprotected industrial area and sweep them across open parking lots toward a federal floodwall that protects the Upper 9th Ward.
That threat prompted the Coast Guard to issue an unprecedented order for all vessels to be removed from the Industrial Canal in advance of gale-force wind conditions, and to bar Southern Scrap from keeping vessels in the canal at during the rest of the 2008 hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. The Coast Guard would review the order for future seasons.
Joel Dupre, president of Southern Scrap's parent company, Southern Recycling, said his company is following the Coast Guard orders to get all vessels out of the canal, or to sink them, by the time Hurricane Ike could threaten the area.
Southern Scrap is in the process of either sinking in place or evacuating all of its vessels in the canal and poking holes in all grounded barges to make sure they won't float, Dupre said. He declined to say where Southern Scrap is moving the boats, saying it's "proprietary" as the firm tries to work out agreements with other entities. But Dupre promised the vessels "will not be put in harm's way for anyone."
Dupre has repeatedly said his company followed a federal mooring plan, but that Gustav's storm surge and high winds were simply too powerful, snapping anchor chains and causing other mooring failures the company had never experienced before, including during Hurricane Katrina.
--- Coast Guard suspicions ---
But on Monday, the Coast Guard questioned whether the plan was truly followed, and several grounded barges could be seen with frayed ropes and severed steel cables, but no chains.
Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the Coast Guard's New Orleans sector commander, wrote in his order to Southern Scrap that the "company has not shown the ability to follow (its) Heavy Weather Protection Plan as hurricanes approach this Port."
Stroh would not specify which aspects of Southern Scrap's plan were under investigation. But he said the Coast Guard suspected that the company improperly secured vessels before the storm, evidenced by the fact that Gustav affected only Southern Scrap's vessels.
At least one vessel not owned by Southern Scrap was docked in the Industrial Canal at the time of the storm, but it did not break free, the Coast Guard said. Dupre said Southern Scrap had 130 vessels in the canal at the time of Gustav, which would mean about 60 of them held in place.
By late Monday, about 40 of the original loose vessels remained in the canal. Dupre said Southern Scrap likely would sink about a half dozen of them, but there would not be enough time to salvage grounded barges, so they would either be filled with water or punctured to make sure they cannot float.
That was little consolation to Joe Sproules, president of Tri-Dyne Industries. Gustav launched Southern Scrap barges into two of Tri-Dyne's warehouses, preventing the company from resuming its work building adjustable home foundations. Sproules called that a hard pill to swallow, saying he would leave the matter to the lawyers. Dupre already conceded last week that he would have to pay the owner of the warehouses some money.
But what really worried Sproules were the 11 other Southern Scrap barges that ran aground next to the warehouses. One cluster of three barges tied together rode the storm surge over Tri-Dyne's parking lot until the middle one wedged into a cement batch plant, a ramp structure that was there only because Tri-Dyne is operating.
The other two barges looked as if they could have kept going. One had already begun to go up and over a 2-foot-high earthen seawall, not part of the critical federal floodwall. The other barge crushed a trailer that had been set up to support the filming of a television commercial.
"There is nothing else to stop them from going straight into that (federal) floodwall but a few telephone poles," Sproules said. "This would have flooded the 9th Ward again."
--- 'We rely on them' ---
The Coast Guard reviewed Southern Scrap's weather plan during the early part of this year's hurricane season. The agency has no formal approval process for such plans and instead offers informal endorsements.
"We review it with them, and if we see that it's satisfactory, then that's what they'll be following," Stroh said, adding that the Coast Guard considered Southern Scrap's plan to be satisfactory.
The Coast Guard also inspected Southern Scrap's recycling yard on the Industrial Canal early in the season and determined that the company had the proper mooring equipment outlined in its plan.
"We rely on them to follow the plan," Stroh said.
Coast Guard officials said they don't check mooring of vessels to see whether a plan's details have been followed.
The new ban on vessels in the canal expands hurricane safety measures the Coast Guard instituted after Hurricane Katrina, which prohibited during a storm any watercraft in the southern portion of the canal between the Mississippi River lock and the Florida Avenue bridge.
The policy proved successful during Gustav, with no loose barges found in that southern portion after last week's storm. After the Southern Scrap incident, the Coast Guard decided to apply the ban to the entire canal, Stroh said.
The rule will require mariners to begin moving their vessels when the Coast Guard declares "whiskey" port conditions, a stage that goes into effect when gale-force winds are expected at the mouth of the Mississippi within 72 hours. All vessels will have to be out of the canal by the time the Coast Guard declares "zulu" port conditions, which occurs when a major storm is 12 hours away from the river's mouth.
Canal vessels can weather the storm anywhere above mile marker 71, at Belle Chasse, on the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, no closer to the canal than the Michoud slip east of the Harvey locks. Vessels must be in slips or berths and will not be allowed in the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.
The Coast Guard rule could weigh heavily on the operations of Southern Scrap, which relies on the canal to bring in old watercraft that it shreds and recycles at its sprawling junkyard near the foot of the Florida Avenue bridge.
However, any hardship for the company promises to be short-lived. Southern Scrap plans to move its ship-recycling operations to St. Charles Parish next year.
. . . . . . .
David Hammer can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3322.Jen DeGregorio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3495.