Features

November 1, 2005  

Weathering the storm

Naval shipbuilders struggle to resume operations in Katrina’s wake

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the central coast along the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29, the storm struck a region that is home to some of the U.S. Navy’s most important shipbuilders.

More than a month after the storm, the disruption to military building schedules still was being sorted out. But it is clear most of the government’s ship construction programs will see delays that could affect new construction programs for 2006 and 2007.

Chief among the shipbuilders in the affected region is Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, with major shipyards in Mississippi and Louisiana. Also in the storm’s path were smaller shipbuilders such as VT Halter, Textron Marine and Land Systems, Austal USA and Bollinger. The Northrop yards alone account for more than two-thirds of the Navy’s surface warships: Half the fleet’s guided missile destroyers and all of its amphibious ships are built there.

The smaller Austal and Bollinger yards are set to begin building Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), and Textron is refurbishing LCAC air-cushioned landing craft. The new Coast Guard cutter programs were affected, as were new Army ships and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ship. Sub-assembly manufacturers for shipbuilders in California, Virginia and Connecticut also were hit.

BATTENING DOWN

As Katrina approached, shipbuilders along the Gulf Coast packed away tools and machinery, cleared loose items, stored equipment up high in case of flooding, and extra-thick oak fenders, called “camels,” were laid between ships and the piers to which they were tied. Mooring lines were strengthened and extra anchors set out. Most shipyard employees evacuated the region, many heading north. Navy service members and employees joined in the evacuations, most heading to Florida and Texas.

At the sprawling Northrop Grumman Ingalls yard in Pascagoula, Miss., about 75 employees remained to ride out the storm. Tied up at the facility were four Navy ships in various stages of construction: the amphibious transport docks San Antonio and Mesa Verde, and the destroyers Forrest Sherman and Kidd. No one remained aboard the Mesa Verde and Kidd, and only one “key watch” sailor remained on the Forrest Sherman. But the crew of the San Antonio had moved aboard their new ship only four days before Katrina arrived, and 355 sailors manned their vessel while the Gulf waters surged to more than 20 feet and winds blew more than 140 miles per hour.

At Northrop’s Avondale shipyard on the Mississippi River just upriver from New Orleans, 84 employees hunkered down in the “Rock House,” a strongly built administration building in the center of the yard that got its nickname from large boulders around its base. In the water were the New Orleans, a new amphibious transport dock, and a commercial tanker launched a few days earlier. No one was aboard the ships.

At VT Halter’s small shipyards around Pascagoula and Textron Marine and Land System’s shipyard in Michoud, east of New Orleans, all employees left. Most of those working at Bollinger’s shipyard in Lockport, La., south-southwest of New Orleans, and at Austal USA’s yard in Mobile, Ala., also got out of town, joining workers at dozens of smaller shipyards throughout the region.

For those who weathered the storm, the experience was harrowing. At Ingalls, the storm surge sent more than six feet of water surging through the facility. Employees at the shipyard’s emergency response station climbed on top of large fire trucks to stay above the rising waters.

“Those winds and seas were just unmerciful,” said Cmdr. Jonathan Padfield, the San Antonio’s commanding officer. At Avondale, workers in the Rock House listened to winds whipping through the darkened yard. Afraid to venture out to check damage, they moved to the top of the building in case the Mississippi River levee, which bisects the facility, gave way and flooded the below-river-level yard.

At VT Halter’s yards in Pascagoula, Northrop’s Gulfport facility and Textron’s shipyard in Michoud, a day or two elapsed before employees were able to return or fly over to begin to assess the damage. Halter’s Moss Point facility near Pascagoula was particularly hard hit, even though it lies on a bayou that doesn’t directly face the Gulf of Mexico. Surge water lifted two nearly finished, 4,000-ton Army vehicle landing ships across the shipyard — passing over the yard itself — and deposited them about 300 yards inland, aground in a marshy area.

Northrop’s Gulfport facility too was flooded by the storm, although most of the buildings survived, and the facility’s parking lot was dry enough by Aug. 31 to be used as a base for relief efforts.

Textron’s shipyard was trashed. The five LCACs left on blocks inside a workshop were lifted by the 10- to 14-foot flood surge and left strewn among wreckage and debris.

On opposite sides of the storm, both LCS yards, Bollinger and Austal USA, were more fortunate. Austal’s Mobile shipyard took several feet of flooding, but a new construction area specifically for LCS work did not flood, as its extra two feet in height kept it above the waters.

An incomplete building under construction for LCS fabrication suffered some damage, but yard officials said that wouldn’t delay work on General Dynamics’ first LCS, scheduled to begin this fall.

Bollinger’s Lockport shipyard is inland, connected by a 25-mile-long industrial canal to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the yard sustained wind damage, flood waters didn’t breach the canal’s flood gates, and Bollinger officials were similarly sanguine about their ability to begin work in the next few months on the second LCS being built to a Lockheed Martin design.

Bollinger proudly noted that a nearly finished 87-foot Coast Guard cutter went down the canal in mid-September for sea trials, right on schedule.

At Ingalls, Avondale, Gulfport, VT Halter and Textron, the surge waters receded after only a few hours. But the scenes that greeted workers as they emerged from their shelters and returned from evacuation areas were truly daunting.

THE DAMAGE

Most of the industrial buildings in the region are simple structures, with sheet metal forming walls around steel-beam structures. Hurricane winds blew out the siding on dozens of buildings, and sheet metal hangs in giant swaths from many. Surge waters snapped the siding at the base of most buildings, buckling it inward, usually at the level of the lowest horizontal beam. Many smaller buildings were smashed.

Vehicles were strewn about, even the largest trucks. At Ingalls alone, more than 125 vehicles were ruined. Some buildings, such as a large fuel tank at Ingalls, were lifted off their foundations by the water and dropped elsewhere.

Telephone and power poles were tilted at odd angles and cables lay in disarray. Tools, equipment and materials of all kinds lay in great piles under plant debris. And everywhere was a thick, gooey muck — sometimes nearly a foot deep.

While power was out throughout the region, areas that were flooded couldn’t have used it anyway. Junction boxes, cabling, motors, and power stations were ruined by the flood waters.

Damage to the ships under construction, surprisingly, was relatively light. The incomplete destroyer Kidd, at Ingalls, sustained the most damage when it was lifted by the storm surge. A large bollard ripped out of its concrete pier and the ship, blown by the wind at a severe inward angle, smashed against the bollard and pier, which punctured a hole in the forward machinery space through which seawater poured in. Ingalls engineers patched the hole within hours and pumped out the water, but the ship’s side remained crumpled over about eight to 10 feet and will need replacement.

The Kidd’s sister ship Forrest Sherman suffered slight damage when a runaway barge bumped into its side, but the damage wasn’t considered serious. Aboard the San Antonio, skipper Padfield was amazed at the steadiness his new command exhibited at the height of the storm, and damage was largely confined to topside items that were blown away or damaged. The San Antonio’s sister ships Mesa Verde and New Orleans also emerged largely unscathed. Of the incomplete ships on shore, the 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship Makin Island took in a considerable amount of water, largely from spray blown in through many openings yet to be closed.

One hazard of cleaning up after a storm in southern Mississippi is the presence of large numbers of snakes. On the Makin Island after the storm, a yard worker found a water moccasin on the O-8 level, more than a hundred feet above the average water height, blown there by Katrina.

A month after the storm, the Navy submitted an internal estimate of the costs Katrina incurred to its shipbuilding programs. Of the $2.7 billion estimate, most was for labor disruption, replacement of government- and contractor-furnished equipment and overhead. Only $132 million was for repairs to the 17 Navy ships under construction or refit at the shipyards hit by Katrina.

Nevertheless, the Navy estimates its shipbuilding programs at the Northrop Grumman yards will slip by an average of six months. Northrop Grumman is shifting some work from Ingalls to the relatively undamaged Avondale facility, and executives said it would take a year to get the Ingalls yard back to where it was Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit.

None of the Navy’s $2.7 billion Katrina damage request is for the shipyards, but will go to the building programs. On Oct. 10, Northrop officials said damage to their yards was estimated to total about $1 billion, although insurance is expected to cover much of that.

PROGRAMS AFFECTED

The scope of the naval building programs adversely affected by Katrina is wide. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are the two primary shipbuilders for the U.S. Navy. General Dynamics concentrates on submarine construction at its Electric Boat yard in Groton, Conn., destroyers at its Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, shipyard, and auxiliary ships at its National Steel and Shipbuilding subsidiary in San Diego. Northrop’s scope is far wider.

The company has two shipbuilding divisions, with Newport News in Virginia handling nuclear construction. It is the only yard in the country capable of building 90,000-ton aircraft carriers, and, jointly with Electric Boat, builds SSN 774 Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines.

The company’s Ship Systems division comprises of three shipyards. The Avondale yard is devoted to building LPD 17 San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships. The small Gulfport facility specializes in composite, or nonmetal, construction, making tower masts for the LPD 17s, mast structures for the carriers built at Newport News, and specialty craft for experimental purposes. It’s also poised to begin building the first of a series of Fast Response Cutters for the Coast Guard, and will make the superstructures for the Navy’s new, advanced DD(X) destroyer.

The sprawling Ingalls facility is the most diverse naval building shipyard in the United States. It is one of the few places one can stand and see five ship classes in various construction stages: DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, built jointly with Bath Iron Works; LHA and LHD amphibious assault ships; LPD 17-class amphibious ships; and the Coast Guard’s new National Security Cutter (NSC), the largest of three new cutter classes being built for the service’s Deepwater modernization program. The yard also is expected to build medium-sized Offshore Patrol Cutters for the Coast Guard, and will likely begin construction in fiscal 2007 of the first DD(X) destroyer.

Since acquiring the shipyards in 1999, Northrop has been reorganizing and modernizing the facilities — a move company officials say will pay off in getting back on track after Katrina. A major decision has been made along those lines: fabrication of the second NSC, previously to have begun at Ingalls, will be handled by the lesser-damaged Avondale yard, with subsections being barged to Ingalls for assembly. That move, the company says, will mean only a few months’ delay in the ships’ construction. Sub-assembly work on other programs also will be moved from Ingalls to Avondale while the Pascagoula facility continues repairing its infrastructure.

Navy officials, in submitting their $2.7 billion request to repair their ship programs, stressed the urgency of avoiding delay in the rebuilding work. Among their chief concerns are keeping delays to a minimum to avoid further cost increases and to minimize impact on future ship-building programs.

Navy, industry and local officials throughout the region emphasized that their biggest problem will be getting people back to work. It’s not just an industrial concern: Northrop, with nearly 20,000 Ship Systems employees, is the largest single employer in both Louisiana and Mississippi.

As of Oct. 10, more than 12,000 Northrop employees were back at work, and most of the remainder were on leave attending to their personal situations. But the company had not heard from more than 700 employees despite widespread advertising in the region that workers should at least check in to advise them of their situation. With work needing to be done, the company isn’t waiting for everyone to come back, and in late September full-page newspaper ads began advertising that Avondale was hiring in certain skill areas.

The imbalance between Pascagoula and New Orleans in how the local regions are returning to some semblance of normalcy is contributing to the work shift between Ingalls and Avondale. Ingalls has more employees and more ship programs, but damage to the yard’s infrastructure is limiting the work that can be done, even though services around the Pascagoula area are coming back and more people are able to return to their homes — if they’re still habitable. But while Avondale could use more of its work force back on the job, continuing problems with restoring the region around New Orleans means more of its people can’t come home any time soon.

To help out, Avondale has established a number of bus routes shuttling workers from the shipyard to regions as far as 60 miles away. The company also modified several classrooms into “Kamp Katrina,” an area with a 150-bed bunkhouse, canteen and showers and bathrooms where employees can stay during the work week. Avondale is adding another 250-bed facility, and one or two berthing barges with accommodations and mess facilities for up to 600 people are being leased from the Navy.

Textron also is constructing facilities for its displaced employees. The company, with more than 1,100 workers between its Slidell and Michoud facilities, is planning on including facilities where families can stay while their homes are rebuilt.

A month after Katrina, with the shipbuilders getting a better handle on what they can and can’t do, a spirit of cooperation between rivals began to appear, and Northrop and Textron managers spoke of exploring how their companies could support each other.

“Boat builders in difficult times always find a way to help each other out,” said Clay Moise of Textron.

Christopher Cavas covers the Navy for AFJ’s sister publication, Defense News.

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