The reconstruction of an airfield may have been completed in the nick of time. Officials at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Airport were literally finishing up an $83-million airfield reconstruction program last week before Hurricane Katrina hit. That may have made all the difference in enabling the airport's two runways to reopen for emergency relief operations, according to Mario Rodriguez, a civil engineer and deputy director of planning and development for the airport.

About a year ago, new airport director Roy Williams prioritized repaving and reconstruction of the 10,000-ft runways over terminal refurbishment, says Rodriguez. "We didn't have a crystal ball, but we'd known the runways' elevation had to be raised" in case of a hurricane, Rodriguez said Friday evening, speaking by phone from an emergency office in Dallas. Crews had installed polystyrene sections to address settlement, taken out the old concrete topped with asphalt layers, and poured new concrete, while raising the runway elevations by about 18 inches. "It made the difference," he says. "The runways stayed dry."

Rows of concrete-and-timber pilings were driven to varying depths around an area where an unused 24-ft-wide tunnel crossed beneath one 150-ft-wide runway. The pilings are intended to prevent large humps in the runway caused by settlement around the edges of the tunnel. Rodriguez could not give more specific dimensions because his plans and drawings were sitting in the office in New Orleans.

Navigational aids on the runways are damaged, and the Federal Aviation Administration "is working feverishly" to restore them. In the meantime, military pilots flying relief aircraft are landing visually. Powered by emergency generators, the terminal housed some 800 refugees Thursday, Rodriguez estimated. The mostly wind-caused damages to the terminal will cost at least $40 million, he says. "It's like dumping a car in wateryou don't know what's damaged until you start the ignition," he says. "We will need to look through the entire system."

Had the airport not completed its runway work in time, Rodriguez doubts that the runways would have been able to handle heavy aircraft loaded with supplies. "The pavement probably would've unraveled," he says. As it is, a skeleton crew led by airport director Williams is working with relief crews despite many of them having lost homes and possibly family members.

It was still unclear Friday as to when the airport damage assessment could begin and when the airport will reopen to commercial traffic. Rodriguez on Sept. 1 emailed an airport peer review group, run by DMJM+Harris aviation director William Fife, to ask if any airport has been successful in procuring from FAA funds to cover loss of revenue due to airport closures and the resulting time it takes to get traffic back up to normal levels. He says he received a slew of responses that he will be sifting through.

The New Orleans Aviation Board in July had formally halted a $5-million study at Louis Armstrong International Airport after an airport consultant suggested building a new airport in the Bonnet Carr Spillway or in eastern New Orleans so that city officials could decide what to do. Now plans for that and a proposed refurbishment of the terminal will be on hold indefinitely.

Later Friday, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation announced that it had launched airlift operations at the airport, with the two runways and air traffic control facilities able to sustain four flights per hour.

The flights are using commercial aircraft supplied by airlines under Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta's emergency authority, granted during a natural disaster.

The U.S. DOT said it had dispatched more than 500 buses to New Orleans to aid in the city-wide evacuation and is working with Amtrak to arrange for the routing of a passenger train to support the evacuation efforts.

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