New Orleans port readies for storm

Some of the 1,500 Louisiana National Guard troops who have been sent to New Orleans get instructions after arriving at the convention center during preparations for Tropical Storm Gustav.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Gustav is a hurricane again after weakening a bit over Haiti and Jamaica. The storm is now expected to make landfall sometime Tuesday morning, somewhere between Mobile Bay and the Texas-Louisiana border.

New Orleans, of course, is right near the middle of that broad area. So we've called Gary LaGrange, he runs the Port of New Orleans, to see what kinds of preparations are being made, and to ask what happens if the storm does hit.

Mr. LaGrange, good to talk to you.

GARY LAGRANGE: Hey, good to be with you today.

RYSSDAL: How's your stress level today, sir?

LAGRANGE: Well, it's about normal hurricane stress level. Not any different than Katrina. Things have been happening for two or three days in terms of, you know, a worse-case scenario landfall. But from the state level on down there seems to be a lot more organization, a lot more concern. People are more organized and confident.

RYSSDAL: Give us the 30-second primer on what happens if you have to shut that port down. What happens to the rest of the economy.

LAGRANGE: Well, it's not good because, as you know, 62 percent of the consumer-spending public of the United States is served through the gateway here at the port of New Orleans -- 380,000 jobs in America as a result of it. At the end of the day, if the Mississippi River here at the Port Of New Orleans closes, it's a detrimental economic impact of $275 million a day to the economy of the nation. And that grows exponentially after the fourth day because of the laws of supply and demand.

RYSSDAL: How long do you figure it'll take you to open things back up if you get a moderate storm in our near New Orleans?

LAGRANGE: Well, we're hoping . . . Actually, we're hoping within a day or two. In the case of Katrina, we were open 12 days following the storm.

RYSSDAL: Remind us what's in those container ships that go up and down the Mississippi through the port.

LAGRANGE: Oh, everything from Fruit of the Loom underwear to Spalding basketballs and footballs, Nike running shows. Electronics equipment, televisions, computers, clothing, textile goods.

RYSSDAL: Characterize the preparations for me this time. Would you say you're better prepared this time.

LAGRANGE: Yeah, I think so. You know, we began preparations in earnest, actually, two or three days ago. And I think it was done almost in the pretense of a fire drill, if you will. Just check, and double checks and rechecks.

You know, particularly with our I.T. people, commuications being the big factor that we had a problem with after Katrina. You couldn't find a cell phone anywhere that worked. So, this time we hafe out-of-state cell-phone numbers that aren't in jeopardy of being damaged or malfunctioning as a result of the storm.

Our I.T. system has a backup, a backup, and a backup to that backup now. And so, just a lot better preparation.

RYSSDAL: What's your indicator, your trigger for shutting things down?

LAGRANGE: I think the main indicator is at a point in time when the Hurricane hits the gulf and we're relatively assurred that it's taking dead aim or we're within not only the cone but within the actual, real models, they're called. The real models that are projected take landfall anywhere near New Orleans. It was be at that point, or the alternate would be if the governor says, as a mandatory evacuation, get out. Then, at that point, is when we would pull the trigger.

RYSSDAL: Gary LaGrange is the president and CEO of the port of New Orleans, Lousiana. Mr. LaGrange, thanks a lot for your time, sir.

LAGRANGE: You're welcome, Kai. Have a great weekend.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

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