Out of the Storm, Up from the Gulf

The birth – and near death – of the new Vineyard ferry Island Home as it was being built in Mississippi and Hurricane Katrina arrived.

One end of the new ferry, not yet attached to the rest of the ship, was shoved off its construction platform and left in the mud fifty feet away. The three middle sections of the hull were already welded together and rested on a set of steel stanchions. The bottom of the keel stood ten feet off the ground, but the water rose eleven feet and roared against, under, and around it. Machinery worth $1.2 million, which would have generated electricity throughout the ship and driven motors deep within the hull, was sitting in a warehouse five hundred yards inland from the river. It was run over by water five feet deep. All this equipment had to be thrown away before it was switched on even once.

This was a shipwreck, but it happened on dry land – or at least what had been dry land until that last Monday morning in August 2005. To understand what happened that day to the $31.5 million vessel that will soon serve as the new flagship ferry on the Martha’s Vineyard route – and what happened to the shipyard that was assembling it, and to many of the men and women who worked there, as well as to their families – you must first understand how the motor vessel Island Home was being built. And to understand that, you must imagine a hard-boiled egg slicer.

Imagine that this new ferry is already finished, but as easily divisible as an egg, and that the ferry rests in the slicer. Pull down and you cut the ship – hull, superstructure, and wheelhouses at either end – into sections. These sections are built separately, as modules, at all three levels. Five modules make up the hull at the bottom level, five more the middle superstructure above it, and three more the superstructure and wheelhouses at the top. As the modules are finished, the workers trim and smooth the edges and weld them together from bottom to top.

The shipyard building the Island Home is called V.T. Halter Marine. Some modules for this 255-foot ferry were fabricated at the main Halter yard in the city of Pascagoula on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. These modules were barged to Halter Moss Point, a smaller satellite yard about five miles north, built atop fifty-six acres of sand and marsh and reddish dirt at the eastern end of the Pascagoula and Escatawpa rivers. It was at Halter Moss Point that the company built the rest of the modules for the Island Home, assembled all of them, and launched the ferry.

This is how it was at the end of the fourth week of August 2005: The three center modules of the hull were finished and stitched together at Moss Point. The two end modules were built but not yet attached. These rested upside down on two sets of low platforms called platens. (Shape and gravity make it easier to build modules upside down than right-side up.) A module at one end of the uppermost superstructure was under construction at Pascagoula. The rest of the ship was not yet begun. But everything was on course to see the new ferry launched on December 13, 2005. The Island Home would be shuttling passengers, cars, and freight between Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole by the Fourth of July.

Then something happened that everyone could see coming – but, after the fact, nobody could quite believe.

The shipyard

Boyd E. (Butch) King had a feeling the shipyard was in danger right from the start.

Hurricane Katrina, born in the counterclockwise swirl of a tropical depression off the southeastern tip of the Bahamas on Tuesday, August 23, was forecast to cross Florida, curve up the state’s western coastline, and advance on the panhandle on Sunday or Monday. This would have put Pascagoula and Moss Point on the weaker backside of the storm.

King, a retired brigadier general who had flown helicopters in Vietnam and specialized in the maritime side of the Army transportation corps, had taken over as chief executive officer of V.T. Halter Marine in December 2002. In the three years since, he had seen many storms boil up from the Gulf of Mexico or parade in from the Caribbean and Atlantic. He looked at the forecasts for Katrina when it was still a tropical storm. On Wednesday, when the depression was just a day old, something told him “that we were going to get enough of it that it was going to be painful,” he said nine months later. “We implemented our hurricane plan, laid down all our cranes, raised up our power-generation equipment. I’ve got to get my work force out of here and give them two days to take care of their houses and their families.”

There were 650 workers at Halter that week, some of them with tenures going back thirty years, to the time when Harold Halter, the founder, still owned it. Halter started his first shipyard in East New Orleans in 1956, and at one point owned as many as six shipyards along the Gulf Coast. In the 1980s and 1990s, the company went through an unsettling period of acquisitions, mergers, divestitures, and even a bankruptcy. The three existing Halter yards – the third, Moss Point Marine, is the smallest – were acquired by Vision Technologies Systems, a Singapore holding company, in 2002, and given the name V.T. Halter Marine.

Halter is a small shipyard – tiny in comparison to Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems, which has 18,000 employees along the Gulf Coast and around the world. But Halter had begun moving successfully into ventures in which the bigger, neighboring yards have less interest: medium to large ships – between 300 and 600 feet – of rather complicated designs, built for commercial, research, and military sectors in the United States and Middle East.

“The ferry business is very much in our strike zone,” said King. “But we go after the larger ferries. The Island Home is not only a large ferry, it’s a very complex ferry. The way we’re having to put it together, having both ends of it drive the vessel, makes it very complex. And that’s kind of our forte.”

Threats from a tempest

Butch King was worried about all three Halter yards on Friday morning, August 26. The Pascagoula yard, a facility of about eighty-two acres, faces the broad, shallow width of Mississippi Sound. On the far side of the Sound lies a string of barrier islands. Beyond these lies the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf and the Sound had flooded the Pascagoula yard before.

On that Friday, the Halter closeout crew followed the final steps in the hurricane-preparation plan. They set out storm anchors to try to keep ships in the yard from being torn away from their wharves or driven into them and wrecked. They winched down crane booms, chained heavy pieces of steel to anything that ought not to move, and pulled electrical connections out of junction boxes. In all three Halter offices, managers covered computers with plastic and lifted hard drives onto desks.

Of particular concern to King was the aluminum fabrication shop, a shed the size of an airline hangar, built of steel and sheets of siding, down the hill from the office at the Pascagoula yard. Aluminum construction is a Halter specialty. It takes more time, care, and money to build ships of aluminum than of steel, but aluminum saves weight, which usually allows a ship to travel faster at the same horsepower than if the ship were all steel. And the weight saved lets the vessel carry more cargo – in the case of the Island Home, more cars and trucks.

In the fabrication shop were two cutting tables, which took up a third of the width of the building and were worth at least $1 million. These machines use a computer program to cut sheets of steel or aluminum, forty feet long and ten or twelve feet wide, into prefigured shapes, with little waste. Modules are built from this pre-cut steel and aluminum.

Most of the Island Home is built of steel, but in a first venture for the Steamship Authority, the uppermost deck and the pilot houses at both ends were being built of aluminum. Under the direction of John Lindsley, the general foreman of the Pascagoula yard, a module for the Island Home was under construction in the fabrication shop as the storm crossed Florida.

Aluminum must be kept smooth and clean – “extremely clean,” said Lindsley. “Everything that has to touch a weld has got to be clean.” Unless covered carefully by paint rich in zinc, aluminum cannot be scoured by sand or grit or dirt. If abraded while still bare, it must be re-ground with a special disk to make it smooth and bright as a newly minted nickel. And untreated aluminum cannot be exposed to heavy concentrations of salt. If uncoated aluminum is too heavily pitted with debris or exposed to too much salinity, the yard must trash it and start over.

By Saturday morning, Butch King knew that the situation was grave. Katrina had crossed Florida, entered the Gulf, and wound itself up into a Category 3 storm – but rather than rolling up the coast of Florida, it kept moving west. If it followed the path of the latest forecasts, it would turn toward New Orleans, putting Halter’s yards, about eighty miles east of the city, on the side where the force of the forward motion of the hurricane is strengthened by the winds around the center. Worse than this, it was the side where the storm surge would pile up highest. “Saturday I came out here,” said King. “We knew we were in for it. And I shook Bill Skinner’s hand” – Skinner is the chief operating officer of V.T. Halter Marine – “and I said, ‘Bill, this one’s going to be bad. We’re going to take the right-front quadrant.’”

What King had in mind was Hurricane Frederic, which had come ashore with 130 mile-an-hour winds at Gulf Shores, Alabama, about forty miles east of Pascagoula, on September 12, 1979. “The yard took about two feet of water,” said King. “So this time we raised everything to about a five-foot level.”

Katrina makes landfall

Until Monday, August 29, 2005, the hurricane that many workers at Halter recalled with the deepest sense of awe was Camille.

Many were living in the same coastal towns where they had grown up, and they had known it personally. Camille drove into the Mississippi shoreline near Louisiana late on the night of August 17, 1969. It was a Category 5 storm with winds estimated at 190 miles per hour around the eye and a storm surge of twenty-two feet. It made landfall at a town called Bay St. Louis, about forty miles west of Pascagoula and Moss Point. Several men and women at Halter who remembered Camille and lived near the coast judged the oncoming storm by comparison. They saw that Katrina was aiming for the same piece of coastline near the Mississippi-Louisiana line. A number of them learned on Sunday that Katrina had strengthened to an intensity that nearly matched Camille at its fiercest. But few understood how much larger Katrina was. Camille was tightly coiled. Katrina was much more broad.

“My family has lived there for generations,” said Tracy George, who supervises maintenance at the Moss Point yard and whose home stands a few roads west of it. “And all of my family still lives right there. I have uncles and aunts that’s in their nineties. None of them’s ever seen water there. Camille didn’t put water there. So none of us was expecting it. None of us had any idea what was coming.”

In the middle of the Gulf, Katrina finally began its arc to the north. At six o’clock Monday morning, the storm made its first landfall just east of New Orleans, with winds approaching 130 miles an hour. At the same time, the first waves broke over the western end of Dauphin Island, a barrier island about fifteen miles southeast of Pascagoula. “On the island,” said Lon Billings, the yard superintendent at Moss Point, who has lived there nine years, “there was over a hundred houses missing – and I’m not talking damaged. I’m talking, when you go to where the house was built, there is nothing there and nothing in sight.”

The storm surge filled Mississippi Sound, whose waters lie between the barrier islands and the Pascagoula shoreline. The bottom of the Sound is remarkably flat, the depth rarely more than twelve feet. At 8 a.m. Monday, Pascagoula Civil Defense recorded a gust of 119 miles an hour, and ashore came the first of the great seas.

At the Pascagoula yard, the first waves crashed into the first floor of the office building – the one that looks down on the rest of the yard from a small rise of about twenty feet above sea level. “We had water up to eighteen inches in this building,” said Butch King. Down the hill, the water thundered northward through the parking lots, busted up against forklifts, bobcats, and cranes, rushed through piles of scrap metal, and filled the fabrication shop. “We were expecting a couple of inches,” said foreman Lindsley, “but not eight feet.”

Even with all this water coming on shore, it was possible to hope that the Moss Point yard – about five miles inland – might yet have been spared any serious damage. But that reasoning would have overlooked how low and flat this ground really is, and how naturally the streets and ditches of the neighborhoods served as channels for the water. And it would have ignored altogether the natural gateway to Halter Moss Point offered by the Pascagoula and Escatawpa rivers. The water would not stop until it ran underneath the bridges of Interstate 10, which was another two-and-a-half miles inland from Halter Moss Point.

Wrath of the storm

At Halter Moss Point, the water ran over the little yard on the bayou as if it had never been there, and for the rest of the day the seas looked to be in no hurry to run back out. That evening Tommy Harrell, a crane operator, looked down on the yard from the Industrial Highway 63 Bridge, just to the east. The gusts were dying away as the storm wheeled off to the north.

“It was like the Gulf of Mexico out here,” he said. “Water everywhere. The ferry? It looked like it was floating. Looked like it was in the water. The cranes? They had the cranes winched down. You couldn’t see the tracks.” For a moment, he looked for a pair of new LSVs – Army cargo ships that can be beached to offload freight – that had been tied together at the face of the yard with anchors set far out into the river. Then he spotted them. They had been lifted over their wharf, carried across the yard and surrounding marshland, and left stranded in a copse of tall and slender trees a thousand feet from shore. Each ship was 324 feet long.

Jay Loris, lead worker in the equipment operations department, arrived at Halter Moss Point the next morning, but he could not see beyond the debris piled up five feet high against the chain-link fence. There were telephone poles, culverts, parts of a guardhouse, oil barrels, propane and diesel tanks, computers and desks, photographs and water coolers, table saws and skill saws and band saws, steel plating, a GMC pickup, two Ford Ranger pickups, generators, spools of electrical cable, tons of twisted rebar, flower pots, and porch furniture. He tied a rope from his truck to a gate that hadn’t been opened in years, gunned the engine, and pulled it down. The first few laborers – those who had not lost their homes and were curious to see if they still had a place to work – picked their way over the wreckage toward the river. On the waterfront, the aluminum siding on the machine shop had been torn away nearly at the roofline by the oncoming waves. The workers could trace the height of the highest wave as it rolled ashore along the adjoining carpentry and electrical shops. The lowest tear was still higher than a man of average height could reach.

Larry O’Rourke, a Rhode Islander hired by the Steamship Authority just one week before the storm to oversee the construction of the Island Home with
Captain Ed Jackson of the boat line, returned to the yard Tuesday morning from Pensacola, where he had sought refuge two days before. “Disaster,” O’Rourke said of what he saw on Tuesday. “The whole place was under mud, completely buried in mud. It got so heavy on your boots, you’d have to stop every few minutes to scrape it. The first floor in the main office and our trailer were wiped out. Generally, everything that wasn’t bolted down ended up somewhere else.”

A shipwreck on land

Butch King returned to the Pascagoula yard on Tuesday morning, and he was not sure that V.T. Halter Marine was still in business. The first thing he wanted to know was the fate of his work force. Katrina had killed twelve people in Jackson County, of which Pascagoula and Moss Point are a part, but within thirty-six hours King knew that none of his 650 workers were among them. What he saw across the Halter yards – quite apart from the damage to the buildings themselves – was that every piece of electrical equipment, from sanders up to cranes with two-hundred-foot booms, was out of commission, most of it permanently.

King got through to his corporate office in Alexandria, Virginia: “All right, you guys got to tell me what to do,” he told headquarters. “This place is pretty bad. I’ll probably spend $8 million in two weeks if you want to rebuild. If you want to just take the insurance money and run, tell me now.” Shipbuilding was in the midst of a boom. Headquarters replied: “Start buying.”

With his crew of aluminum specialists, John Lindsley returned to the fabrication shop to find the watermark at eight feet and the shed shin-deep in mud. All the drill presses, upright sanders, fans, welding equipment, and skill saws were ruined. The shop was littered with dead birds and fish and sodden carcasses from a family of raccoons that had lived in the warehouse. The smell was putrid. But his men and women went to work. As they collected what they could find from their toolboxes, Lindsley found a pair of his eyeglasses hanging from the chain links of a fence behind the shop.

The water had raced over the platform and much of the aluminum upper module of the Island Home. A specialist was called: The detritus that smacked into it from the Gulf, the Sound, and the yard could be grinded out of the surface. The salinity on the bare aluminum was not beyond acceptable limits; the module could be saved. But the two giant cutting tables, which shaped aluminum and steel with so little waste, were shot. They needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. King ordered two hundred 600-ampere welding machines, which arrived within ten days. He bought new trucks and vans. He divided everything he got among his three yards. And in less than two weeks, he’d spent that $8 million.

At Moss Point, the water had rushed through the stanchions supporting the incomplete hull of the Island Home, but the weight of the three center modules had held most of the supports firmly in place. The freight deck – onto which cars and trucks will drive – was already on the hull, and bulkheads sealed the ends, so a set of electrical panels already installed in the vessel stayed dry. The two General Motors EMD diesel engines – each delivering 3,000 horsepower and designed so that they can drive the ferry in either direction – stood safely on blocks in the warehouse, but the floodwaters had washed over the oil pan at the bottom. The engines were sent back to a firm in New Orleans, which escaped the worst of the damage there. Both engines were opened, cleaned out at a cost of about $35,000, and returned to Halter Moss Point within seven weeks. But the Island Home’s generators, hydraulic power packs to assist with steering, and motor-control units were ruined by contact with salt water, which is an unpredictable conductor of electricity. (For weeks afterward, cranes in the yard would start up suddenly and begin to raise or lower themselves because the wiring had gotten wet.)

With landlines out and cell phone towers down, it took Larry O’Rourke a couple of days to reach the leadership of the Steamship Authority, which still
didn’t know whether there was a yard left, let alone a ferry under construction. O’Rourke sent photos of the damage, and Carl Walker, director of engineering and maintenance for the boat line, flew down to Moss Point as soon as flights resumed. He surveyed the shipyard with O’Rourke, Ed Jackson, Halter management, and workers. Walker noticed “these wavy lines” moving through the wreckage. “What’s that?” he asked. Alligators and snakes, he was told, heading back to the Escatawpa River. “They lost their homes too,” Walker said. “All of these creatures, they went north, and now they were
coming back.”

Rebuilding begins

Grover Colburn, a welder who had worked at Halter for thirty-eight years, had come to feel a certain pride in the yard. Halter was small, but it had a
unique reputation in the shipbuilding world for “can do,” he said. “I mean, you bring us a puzzle, and we can do it.” He visited Moss Point for the first time
a week after the storm. He was sixty, looking forward to retirement in two years, and had endured the consolidations, divestitures, and adversity that the yard had been through. Now Halter and its workers were flat on their backs.

“I came back over here, number one, to see if anything was left,” Colburn said. “And when I did, when I came back and seen that we still had modules that we’d worked on before, I said, ‘Damn it, I can finish that.’ I mean, I had that much determination. And it’s not just me – it’s these other people: The people came back that already had modules built, like for the ferryboat down here. I mean, we just kind of got together, you know, because we took a hell of a lick.”

But V.T. Halter faced a new problem – a manpower shortage. Before the storm, shipbuilding along the Gulf Coast was roaring along as the oil industry and the military ordered fleets of new ships and barges. Scores of Halter employees had returned to houses destroyed or severely damaged by Katrina – Tracy George’s house, next door to Halter Moss Point, was uninhabitable until April – and most of the contract workers, who routinely traveled up and down the coast looking for shipyard work, had simply left.

Before the hurricane, Butch King had 650 workers but needed 900. With his contract work force decimated, King hired a hundred certified shipyard workers from Mexico, brought them into the country on temporary visas. John Lindsley hired a former shrimp fisherman, a clothing saleswoman, a barber – anyone with an interest in welding who was willing to work hard and learn.

Within six weeks, the yard could spare two or three men to resume work on the Island Home. By December, operations at V.T. Halter Marine were back to 60 or 70 percent. And by the end of the year, a new date had been set for the launch of the $31.5 million ferry: Friday, July 21, 2006 – seven months after the original date, and less than twelve after the storm had swamped and ruined the yard that built it.

After the launch, while the ship lay tied up to the bulkhead on the Escatawpa River, shipyard workers would hook up the machinery and electronics, install the seating and tables and windows and heads and lunch counters, rig up the two elevators that run from the freight deck all the way up to the top deck, and test every piece of equipment at the wharf and in the Gulf of Mexico. The new ferry was expected to make the six-day journey north to Fairhaven in the middle of November for final fitting out, and be in service before Christmas. But the enduring labor shortage and the unyielding boom in shipbuilding caused a new delay. At press time, Halter expected to deliver the Island Home to the Steamship Authority by the middle of January. And the Steamship Authority expected to have her in service by February.

Launch of a flagship ferry

On the morning the Island Home was to slide down a set of skids into the river, Butch King recalled how the Authority leadership reacted when Larry O’Rourke and the shipyard managers finally reached them after Katrina: “What we got from the Steamship Authority was not ‘When are you going to deliver my boat?’” said King. “But ‘How are your people, and what can we do to help?’ And I can tell you right now that that boost to us down here was just what we needed at a time when everybody was pretty low.”

 “Usually when they do a launch like this, they take all the muckety-mucks on both sides for a dinner and open bar and all that sort of stuff,” said Ed Jackson, the Authority captain who had overseen the building of the Island Home for the Steamship Authority since her keel was laid on April 27, 2005 – one year and three months before. But the boat line thought that, given the circumstances, it ought to celebrate this launch in a different way. It held a barbecue for all Halter workers and their families.

Under the cry of the shipyard whistle, and with a roar that sounded like the hull was tearing through an oak forest as it broke free from its temporary wooden supports, the new ferry raced down the row of skids and dropped three feet into the Escatawpa at 11:23 a.m. on the appointed Friday in July. She threw a large wave across the river – the opposite direction from which a much larger wave had come to her less than a year before – and rocked back onto an even keel. With spume bubbling up from beneath her hull, the new ferry drifted toward the bows of two tugs, which gently nosed the Island Home to the wharf.

It was a successful launch, said one worker from the fabrication shop. He was eating barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob under a tent with his family. He said that he expected nothing less than a good christening, because the Island Home, more than most newly built ships, knew exactly where the water was. And after all, this was not the first time she had gotten seriously wet. Asked how he felt about what he and his shipyard had gone through in the past year, the welder smiled. “Just tell them to hurry up and build another one,” he said.