Transportation around Gulf Coast is brought to a standstill by storm

Planes are grounded

New Orleans' port closes

Hurricane Katrina

August 30, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

With Hurricane Katrina battering the Gulf Coast, hundreds of planes, trains, automobiles and ships were not bringing anything - or anyone - in or out for most of yesterday, but officials said there might be some movement later today.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and others in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were closed, and airlines flew their airplanes to safer ground out of the region. The carriers are monitoring them and airports in states to the north that might be in the storm's path, including Nashville and Memphis international airports.

The Port of New Orleans, one of the nation's major cargo gateways and a thriving cruise ship terminal, was closed. One Carnival cruise ship has already been diverted to Galveston, Texas, and a second was expected to be rerouted Thursday.

Railroads, ferries and public transportation ceased operations in the region, and roads were only allowing traffic out. Delivery companies including FedEx and UPS suspended all service in the region.

Some optimism

Local and corporate officials could not say when services would begin again, having not surveyed damage or determined Katrina's path and intensity, but some were optimistic that flights and other modes of transportation would resume later today or early tomorrow.

Some airlines warned, however, that with thousands stranded at the airport and other tourists among the 10,000 or more people taking refuge at the Louisiana Superdome, getting on a plane might take some time. They also said other direct and connecting flights might be affected as the storm makes its way inland. Closed yesterday were airports in Gulfport-Biloxi and Jackson, Miss.; Pensacola, Fla.; and Huntsville and Mobile, Ala.

Southwest Airlines, one of New Orleans' biggest carriers, canceled 148 flights in New Orleans and Jackson, Miss., yesterday and didn't expect to resume operations there until at least 3 p.m. today. The carrier also planned to stop service to Birmingham, Ala., last night and move its planes out of harm's way.

"The time may shift depending on the severity of damage, road access and other issues," said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman. "We are trying to accommodate our customers. We are encouraging them to make alternative travel plans."

Help for passengers

Southwest and others were advising passengers to check their Web sites to monitor flights. Many also have 800 phone numbers to help book new flights. The airlines generally are offering one-time changes at no cost to passengers or credit for canceled flights.

It's unclear when other modes of transportation would resume.

The port, which averages about 2,000 vessel calls a year, closed Sunday. Ships were waiting out at sea for more information on the storm.

According to the port's Web site, "At the earliest possible time after hurricane Katrina, port personnel will restore normal operations."

Steven M. Cernak, director of the Port of Galveston, said his port was unaffected by the storm and was accepting diverted cruise ships.

"It's premature to see if there is any damage" to the Port of New Orleans, he said. "Cargo ships may be waiting it out at sea, but when you have passengers, you have to do things with more time sensitivity. ... We're willing to help in any way we can."

Other companies that operate in the New Orleans area must wait until the mandatory evacuation and road closures are lifted.

FedEx said it has closed its facilities from the Florida Panhandle west to Louisiana, bringing trucks inside and sending workers away.

Once operations resume there, other buildings and airport operations might be closed, depending on the direction of the storm. Its first plane and truck shipments into Louisiana and other hard-hit areas, possibly tomorrow, are likely to be emergency supplies for the Red Cross rather than the usual packages.

"We're constantly assessing the situation," said a spokeswoman, Traci Barnett, who noted that the global shipper's Memphis headquarters could be in Katrina's path.

"Personally, I'm listening to what's going on, the turns here and turns there," she said. "We'll make decisions based on what Katrina does, and we'll do our best to get moving again. But safety first."

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