Destruction. Gulf Coast Pre-Stess fabrication yard took a pounding last year from Katrina’s storm surge. (above). One year later, fab yard is bustling with business from around the Gulf.(below).
(Photo above courtesy of courtesy of Gulf Coast Pre-Stress, below by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)

The yard of Gulf Coast Pre-Stress Inc. in Pass Christian, Miss., now rumbles with more work than it has ever seen, a year after the company was brought to the edge of destruction by an 18-ft wall of water from Hurricane Katrina. Reborn, the yard has become the beating heart of reconstruction, the critical source of oversized prestressed columns and beams for infrastructure repairs throughout the region.

Gulf Coast Pre-Stress is a key player in the recovery because its waterfront location, which almost led to its demise, makes it the ideal womb for forming the big bones of reconstruction and floating them out to projects throughout the region, one barge load at a time.

“Over there, they’re loading the 36-inch pilings for the Bay Saint Louis bridge,” says Mike Spruill, president and CEO, during a tour Aug. 25. And then, “…that’s the first load going on the barge for (Louisiana Route) 1,” he says, driving beneath a straddle crane. Spruill is enthusiastic and proud. “Rebuilding, surviving all this….I enjoyed this more than any job I’ve ever done,” he says.

On the GCP yard are pieces for the first phase of the $1.4-billion, 17-mile-long La. 1 elevated causeway to connect the oil-industry linchpin, Port Fouchon, to the mainland south of New Orleans. There are parts for the $266.8-million, 1.9-mile-long U.S. 90 Bay Saint Louis Bridge and parts for the $243-million, 3.2-mile-long Interstate-10 Escambia Bay Bridge in Pensacola, Fla., blasted to bits by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Since Katrina, the yard also has delivered test piles for the $800-million replacement for the I-10 Twin Spans bridge, the battered lifeline into New Orleans across the east end of Lake Pontchartrain, as well as test piles for the $338-million, 1.2-mile-long, replacement U.S. 90 bridge across Biloxi Bay. It has cast beams and columns for casinos, liquified natural gas terminals and several smaller bridges. The new bones for Gulf Coast reconstruction are everywhere. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to go through this again,” says Spruill. “Quitting was never an option, but if we have another Katrina, it will be a lot harder to find people to do it.”

Help Wanted. Project manager Nelson needs labor. (Photo by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)

GCP isn’t the only prestress fabricator supplying materials for those jobs. The scope and urgency of the work after Katrina has contractors tapping resources far and wide. Granite/Archer Western, the joint venture building the Bay Saint Louis Bridge, is also using components cast in Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss., Tampa, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., says project manager Allen Nelson. “Gulf Coast has so much business that they can’t finish all of our projects,” he says.

Even projects almost in GCP’s back yard, like the CSX railroad bridge across Bay Saint Louis, destroyed by Katrina and needing concrete girders in a hurry, had to go elsewhere. “We were right here, and we couldn’t do it,” Spruill says.

In fact, GCP couldn’t do much for the first month after the storm, so badly was the yard damaged. It made its first pour 30 days after Katrina, using well water because public service wasn’t available. But even then, Spruill says he felt he had to finish what was on the books before starting new orders. After that, “the ones who screamed loudest got theirs first,” he says.

Now, GCP’s activity is a sign that key infrastructure projects are surging, and with them, rebirth in the region. “You’ve got to have infrastructure before you can get back up and start to rebuild,” says Kelly Castleberry, Mississippi Dept. of Transportation project manager for the U.S. 90 Bridge over Biloxi Bay. Both the bridge over Biloxi Bay and Saint Louis Bay are financed with emergency federal funds and Castleberry says both represent huge milestones for recovery. “Once the bridges get complete, they will bring a little more normalcy,” he says.

+ Enlarge this image

Storm’s Fortunes

Before Katrina, GCP was doing well, Spruill says. After a three-year lull, MDOT had let a few contracts and GCP also got the contract to supply pilings and center spans for replacement of the Escambia Bay Bridge.

Then came Katrina. On Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, assuming Katrina was headed toward Florida, Spruill and his son were at a fishing camp in Meridian, Miss., when he got a call saying the storm had turned. “I left the camp at 4 a.m. with my son, got everybody back here, boarded up, put the cranes down and went home,” Spruill says. He hunkered down at home with 30 relatives and rode out the storm, losing only a part of his roof. Floodwaters prevented him from returning to the yard until a day later.

“It was a big surprise” to see the batch plant still standing after seeing the destruction on the way to the yard, Spruill says. There were about 50 boats littering the property. Product from an adjacent wax plant was scattered everywhere. The roof to the office had blown off, and an estimated 18-ft storm surge had inundated the second floor of the building. Every truck and piece of equipment had been underwater.

Several employees had made it to the plant and everyone pitched in. Max Williams, vice president of sales, worked the phones “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” trying to get trucks and barges. Williams had lost his home, shipped his family to Texas and had a wardrobe of two pairs of shorts, borrowed shoes and a T-shirt. “I just kept washing them out and putting them back on,” he says.

Somehow, Williams found trucks to ship out the first order of pilings a week later. “Contractors who weren’t affected got back to work the next day, so we had to get up and running,” he says. Mechanics flushed salt water out of the equipment, cranked it up and ran it until it died. “Some ran for three or four weeks, and then blew up,” Spruill says. “It was the only thing we could do.”

MDOT, however, could not fix the hydraulic lift on the nearby Bayou Portage bridge, which blocked access to the plant. Spruill took a generator and his mechanic to open it so the company could move barges into St. Louis Bay.

Now production is averaging 2,600 cu yd a week. “We hope to be up to 4,000 in the next couple months,” Spruill says.

Rising. Bridge piles march toward Saint Louis Bay for the state’s first new replacement bridge.
(Photo by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)

Timing is Everything

It’s a good thing the U.S. 90 bridge over Biloxi Bay is paced six months behind the U.S. 90 bridge over St. Louis Bay or materials might grow short, says Castleberry. The Bay St. Louis Bridge is scheduled to open two lanes by May 16, 2007, and finish six months later. Thirty miles  east, GC (Gulf Coast) Constructors, a partnership of Massman Construction Co., Traylor Bros. Inc. and Kiewit Southern formed to build the Biloxi Bay bridge, is driving test piles. That bridge’s first two lanes are to open in November 2007 with project completion by spring of 2008.

“For the most part they will not be looking for what we are looking for at the same time,” Castleberry says.

The amount of work  far exceeds the hands available, says Richard Sheffield, MDOT’s assistant chief engineer of operations. “It has nothing to do with being able to pay,” Sheffield says. “You can’t find anybody.”

Projects that got going first grabbed the available workers, but even those contractors now are looking for more. “We advertised all over the southeast,” says Granite/Archer Western’s Nelson. “Our wages were well above what was pre-established, but we are still having a hard time finding qualified people.” Construction carpenters are especially high in demand, he says.

Right after the storm, Gulf Coast Pre-Stress’s 200-plus labor force dropped to about 70, but has since swelled to 360. Still, Spruill says the only thing holding the...