As in any approaching hurricane, you pray and hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. On Aug. 29, 2005, the coast of Louisiana was not so fortunate like in previous hurricane seasons – southeast Louisiana took a direct hit from the category 4 Hurricane Katrina. Shallow Draft Elevating Boats Inc. in Plaquemines Parish, La., was located at what now is referred to as “ground zero.”
Situated in Braithwaite, La., approximately 25 miles east of New Orleans, Shallow Draft received the fury of the Hurricane's western-most eyewall. Having prepared for the worst and knowing just what type of winds the Shallow Draft lift boat barge fleet could withstand, Ernie Geraci, the owner/builder of Shallow Draft vessels, was confident that the vessels would fare OK from the effects of the Hurricane force winds. However, he was not confident as to the amount of storm surge to expect, and herein laid the unpredictable problem.
As it turned out, there was a 20-foot surge of storm water that inundated the Shallow Draft shop and shipyard. With this surge came tons over tons of mud, marsh, uprooted trees and debris of all types, which filled in the canal and settled over the grounds in the shipyard with 3 feet to 4 feet of muck. The good news was that as a result of intense and careful preparation by Ernie Geraci and the members of his family, the entire fleet of lift boats had survived the wind and surge waters. The bad news was the mud and debris that was left behind in the aftermath had trapped the fleet of liftboats. Even though the liftboats are truck-transportable, no truck could get through the muck and debris, nor could the vessels be piloted out of our canal.
Logistically, the canal that leads to the Shallow Draft shipyard eventually winds its way clear to the Gulf of Mexico. This canal normally was 8 feet deep and 70 feet wide, but after the storm, it became filled in with mud, trees and debris for 8 miles. No type of watercraft or vessel could ply this thoroughfare, and it would need to be excavated. "We were literally buried in, and the only way out was to dig ourselves out," says Geraci. Again Shallow Draft was quite fortunate – in preparation for the storm, Geraci realized that the outside yard equipment was mobile, so he moved backhoes and forklifts to higher ground areas on a nearby levee. Our yard equipment was spared, and was able to be used in the days after the storm to start the digging-out-and-clearing process.
The after-effects of this storm on the entire community of 69,000 people were almost indescribable. Most of the community flooded with water in excess of the rooftops. Of course, there were no businesses or stores that survived, and there were downed streetlights, downed power lines, plugged drainage and sewer lines, contaminated water treatment plants, and mud everywhere. Seven days after the storm, the last remaining 6,000 persons who did not evacuate prior to the storm's arrival were finally evacuated out of the community via boats on the Mississippi River. There were 128 people in the Parish of St. Bernard who perished from this storm. The entire community had become a ghost town – with martial law in effect, along with the presence of a few National Guardsmen in high-wheeled vehicles.
Cell phones were just starting to come back on line in the area, and I finally was able to communicate with Geraci and learn of the situation. By that time, the oil and gas companies were in dire need of the lift boats, and were able to contact us. The offshore oil and gas industry off of southeast Louisiana literally was torn up and severely damaged. Wells and platforms had disappeared, ruptured flow lines were spewing oil and gas indiscriminately 24 hours a day, and the situation was becoming grave for the environment.
Over the following days, Shallow Draft, using its own equipment, worked feverishly to dig out several of the lift boats from the muck and make way for them to be truck-transported out of the yard and over the Mississippi River levee and onto a location where they could be launched out to the oil and gas fields. Shallow Draft tracked down some of its displaced boat skippers from Florida to Texas to get them back to work – quite a monumental task when you consider they had to leave their families behind, but it was pulled off with the support of some loyal Shallow Draft personnel who understood the grave need of getting the vessels out to the field.
The work that the Shallow Draft fleet and all other liftboats, which were brought in from around the Gulf of Mexico, contributed to stabilizing the escalating price of gasoline at the pump across the nation, as well as stabilizing the detrimental environmental impact. Rebuilding the offshore oil and gas fields became a top priority and, of course, this consumed Shallow Draft. Now that the offshore oil and gas fields are operational and out of crisis mode, Shallow Draft looks forward to turning its attention back to the geotechnical industry and serving its many clients. It disappointed us immensely to have to turn away so many of our clients when we were consumed by our mission in the oil and gas fields, but through it all, we were supported by every client who had contacted us with best wishes, understanding the clear priorities we were dealing with. For this, we are sincerely appreciative. We never dreamed that we would become such a vital link in the recovery of an industry after a disaster of this proportion.
“Shallow Draft always will remember the many people who lost their lives in this storm, and we thank all of the people in this great nation who came to help and volunteer to clean up in the aftermath. We also thank the many members of Congress who were sympathetic to our plight and extended the federal government's resources to support us when we needed it.” says Geraci. Shallow Draft employees just recently have been getting back into their refurbished homes some two years after Hurricane Katrina.