Ingram Vice President Discusses Hurricane Ida Aftermath
A panel discussion from inland barge operators on connecting ports to global and domestic trade turned into a much different kind of talk during Kentucky’s virtual riverport freight summit August 31.
Ken Eriksen of IHS Markit, moderator for the session, spent 25 minutes speaking with Steve Alley, vice president of sales for Ingram Barge Company, based in Nashville, Tenn., about the effects of Hurricane Ida.
Ingram has in excess of 4,000 barges and 150 towboats and is the largest dry cargo carrier on the inland waterways. Alley has 38 years of industry experience. He also serves as one of the original members of the Kentucky Water Transportation Advisory Board, appointed by the Kentucky governor.
Eriksen was originally to be joined by representatives from American Commercial Barge Line and James Marine, but they were unable to attend because of the situation with Hurricane Ida.
“When she came ashore and made a little bit of a turn toward the east it created a number of challenges around that,” Eriksen said.
Specifically, Eriksen said he had heard from Barry Gipson of James Marine, who passed along his regrets for being unable to attend.
“He messaged me and said that his company, they were able to find their drydock, towboat and some other barges, and they’re now trying to figure out how they are going to get them back to where they need to be,” he said.
Eriksen said he had heard similar stories from other companies.
“A lot of barges have been corralled,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting them to the rightful owners in the Gulf and making sure of what cargo is in there and what condition it is in as we go forward.”
Interconnectivity Of The System
Throughout the discussion, Eriksen stressed a central point, important to the Kentucky conference attendees who are looking at how to increase use of the state’s public riverports.
“What happens in one part of the system really has repercussions and ripple effects through the entire system,” he said. “And we know that the center Gulf is very important for the inland river system, and of course for the inland riverports, especially, and those terminals trying to operate there, shippers trying to move cargo.”
Commodities have already been affected by the hurricane. Some shippers are trying to divert cargoes to other destinations or to other modes of transportation entirely, he said.
“When the gates reopen, we hope that the cargo is still there,” Eriksen said.
Overall, he said, the industry is doing its best to respond in as safe a way as possible and to build resilience, keeping in mind long-term competitiveness.
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Speaking as the only representative of a towing company present, Alley at first sought to reassure those worried about mariners in the Gulf region.
“Ingram’s been through many a storm,” Alley said. “We were involved in Katrina and many other ones over the years. Right now most of our team is in contact with our New Orleans people, our associates, to make sure everyone’s safe. As I understand as of [Tuesday] morning’s conference call/video call, we have one person with a broken leg. Everyone else is sound and good to go. We take care of our own, so we’ll be allocating some people out of our Paducah operation to New Orleans. They’re going to take over and fill in down there.”
He said when natural disasters do happen, he is glad to be working in an industry that has a long tradition of companies coming together to help each other out.
“This industry works really closely together, especially in times of need,” Alley said. “If you have a breakaway on the waterway system, everybody jumps in and helps. Everybody jumps in and corrals barges, and they work together as a unit to protect floating assets, but more so to protect the people. You won’t find an industry that’s like that, other than ours. Bills don’t get traded off. You don’t invoice people for your time. You just take it, and you fix it and you move on because you could be the next one who needs help, and that’s what we’re seeing right now in the Gulf. Everybody’s pulling together, pulling barges off of hillsides and out of trees and making sure things will float and getting them back to their proper holding areas or proper fleeting areas. That’s one of the fantastic things about being in the water business on the inland waterway system. That’s the way they’ve always operated, and I don’t ever see that changing. It’s been that way my entire career.”
Preparing For And Responding To Ida
Eriksen asked what anticipating Hurricane Ida looked like from an industry perspective in terms of planning and daily operations considerations.
“Initially about five days [before the hurricane hit], as this thing was developing in the Gulf, our operating team got together, which they always do, and we start looking at where are our floating assets, what is at risk, and what needs to be moved first,” Alley said. “We had some barges down at the mouth of the river that had to be pulled up immediately, back into the waterway system. And then the next thought is how do we get our assets into the safest possible harbor. What that means, though, is that there are times like in Ingram’s case and others that our industry people take the risk. And we put men and women on our boats, and they man these operations or these floating assets in the Gulf region. So we had boats on the West Canal, on the East Canal in New Orleans, at LaPlace—where this thing hit pretty hard—and Algiers Point, where we saw it came through.”
Some situations were precarious, he said.
“We had boats basically holding on to barges and people risking, potentially, their lives, because the window was small,” Alley said. “Normally as you see these things developing out in the lower Atlantic, you have 10, 12, 14 days to react, and then when it gets into the Gulf we all have pretty good models that we use to determine where it’s going to come in at. You know, this thing took a direct turn north.”
The path the hurricane took turned out to be key.
“This thing went far enough over Morgan City, far enough west, that it pushed water out of Lake Ponchartrain right up into the river system,” Alley said. “Some people are saying this is 10 times worse than Katrina. I would say if you lived in New Orleans through Katrina, you would disagree, but from an industry standpoint, where the damage is done at, this is no doubt probably worse effects on the industry just because of the way it came in and how it raised the water levels. I will say, from a positive standpoint, the billions of dollars that was spent by the federal government to protect the levee systems, to raise those up and redirect that water, I would say that from what I have been able to see so far, it’s worked. Those levees didn’t get breached. There was a minimal loss of life, minimal, really, loss of assets.”
Ingram worked initially to assess employees’ needs.
“Our first priority is always our people, and once we got people off the boats, we sent people down from Paducah, St. Louis and other areas,” Alley said. “They’re in transit right now to get in there and replace those personnel as they go home and take care of their families and their homes and things of that nature.”
Restoring power and establishing and maintaining communications are important, he said, adding employees find themselves using old-fashioned ways to communicate, including VHF radios.
“The telephones, the analog telephones, are working,” he said. “The internet’s a mess right now. We’re not really relying on that, but what I’ve seen, even if you go out on Facebook there are a lot of river industry pages you can belong to, and the people who are pulling together always pull together.”
As to how the hurricane affects upriver shippers, Alley gave an example of vessels not able to come into port from the Gulf to unload.
“We know some of the rigs that do the discharging, in this particular case, have flipped, so they’re not available,” he said. “They have to be raised and repaired. So if you have imports coming in, and they’re in the Gulf, you’re probably best leaving them there. It’s hard to redirect a vessel that’s already waiting to come into a pass. If you have an export business and you’re trying to ship southbound out of the lower Ohio or one of the state docks in Kentucky, we’re probably not going to load right now for at least a few days–well, I know we won’t–until we can get a handle on what’s going on the Gulf. Nobody wants to take barges south and then to just have them sit. We’re not as concerned about future storms as we are about protecting the customer’s product. The timing is not great. It looks like there’s going to be an early harvest in the Lower Miss and the lower Ohio valleys, so I’m sure our docks are ramping up for some corn and soybeans to ship, but if there’s not a vessel to put those in or anchorage or somebody to work them in the Gulf, that corn may have to sit a bit longer. But it’s a little early to say at this point.”
He saw the industry’s attitude and resiliency as a bright spot leading to recovery.
“I will say that if it can be fixed in rapid fashion, this industry has proven in the past that they can do that,” Alley said. “Where there is a will, they will find a way to move freight. But right now we are telling our southbound shippers, ‘Sorry. We’re just not loading until we can figure out what’s going on.’ And the same thing for the northbound accounts. You can’t get into the harbor, so nothing’s going to pick up. Nothing’s going to move for at least, well, we’re guessing at this point. Some people are saying six weeks. Some are saying a week. We’ll move when the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard say we can move.”
Importance Of Relationships
Alley said relationships between the Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers and private industry have improved a lot over the last 10 years through the work of both the private and public sector, something that’s paying off now.
“They work in collaboration multiple times a day on videoconferencing to work toward a resolution. They [the Coast Guard] take the lead in a situation like this, so they tell us when we can and can’t get in,” Alley said. “We are priority companies, so we do get to get into devastated areas, check assets and get people going. The Port of South Louisiana and all the other ports, they work hand in hand with the Corps around the clock right now. These conversations were taking place even before the storm hit.”
It’s hard to say exactly how the recovery unfolds, he said.
“Hopefully in a week or 10 days the river comes back to where it needs to be, and we get our anchorages back, and some barges get drug out of fields, or they just get cut up. That does happen, too.”
Alley also talked about how drone technology is helping to speed the recovery.
“I’ll tell you, as a new technology, the drone is pretty impressive,” he said. “We didn’t have that in Katrina, per se. There were drones out immediately yesterday, flying over the waterway system, sending continual video back to the federal government and to the industry. They were mostly concerned, initially, with personnel, and then cargoes that could be more dangerous than others, to tag them, identify where they’re at and, if need be, get bodies on them.”
He added, “I was shocked how fast video was coming in, drone video, above New Orleans up through the Baton Rouge waterway system. It’s so clear you can actually see barge numbers on the side of barges.”
He said the geocoding on the drones helps companies know exactly where their assets are so they can get to them as quickly as possible, even in hard to access areas.
Other technology could be more helpful as time passes.
“We have a lot of generator power that we can bring in,” he said. “If we think this is extended, we have floating facilities we can have in New Orleans in six to seven days with living quarters, water, fuel, generator power. All the boats have generators on them, so you can have electrical power there.”
Some shoreside facilities also have ability to tap onto generators.
“It’s just a matter of getting to them,” Alley said.
Although there is a lot of planning that goes into how to respond to such events, much of what happens is still necessarily reactionary, Alley said. For example, Hurricane Ida didn’t go far enough west that it affected salt mining operations, although some previous storms did.
“You can’t tell, coming in, really, if it turns two or three degrees left or right or goes straight,” Alley said. “Usually, it comes in at an angle. This thing came straight up. … There’s nothing good about that going up and you see the river to the east of the storm. So I understand why the rest of the team couldn’t be on the call today. There are people still looking for employees. Like I said earlier, we know where all ours are. Some have lost homes. A lot of them have fishing camps down along the Gulf shore. Those are gone, but that’s just a camp, and that can be replaced. This is about people and keeping people employed.
“The industry, as I said, always amazes me how they work together in situations, whether it’s a breakaway on a locking river or a catastrophic event taking place on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not like any other industry, and I worked in a few of them before I got involved in this one.”