At 4:30 a.m. yesterday, Davie J. Breaux had a big problem. A really big one.
Breaux is director of operations at Port Fourchon, a facility at the southernmost tip of Louisiana that provides key support for offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. In normal times, about 1,000 tractor-trailers reach the port each day via a two-lane road, hauling in goods and equipment critical to the import of about 18 percent of the U.S. oil supply.
But no trucks are coming through. The oil rigs are not running. Electricity is out. And Breaux's big problem today: Blocking that key road is a 200-ton houseboat blown by Hurricane Katrina some 200 feet out of the water.
The repairs Breaux and his crew must undertake are a prime example of what must be done to bring the U.S. oil supply closer to full capacity.
So Breaux, 46, whose grandfather and father each worked 30 years for Texaco on offshore rigs near Port Fourchon, came up with a solution: soap.
His plan was to put five gallons of liquid soap on wooden boards, slide them under the houseboat, and use five or six large cranes to swing the front of the 100-foot-long barge to the side of the road.
"Apparently everybody thinks I'm crazy," Breaux said after one of his workers chuckled at his idea and reminded him of how heavy the barge is.
Such are the challenges at Port Fourchon, a mini city with almost 1,000 workers on giant oil rigs off the coastline in the Gulf of Mexico and another 1,000 on the narrow marshlands of the Lafourche bayou each day.
Established in the 1960s by former Louisiana Senator A.O. Rappelet as a means to boost the local economy, the port has grown from a small operation into a major supplier of offshore services in the Gulf of Mexico, providing rigs with everything from oil-storage containers and drilling equipment to drinking water and toilet paper. In the last ten years alone, Fourchon has grown from 15 to 130 tenants and had hoped to expand even further.
But Hurricane Katrina has crushed the port's operations. Almost four days after the hurricane swept through the 25-square-mile port area, it is operating at only 10 percent of its capacity and is not likely to be fully operational for possibly another week.
The surrounding destruction is widespread.
"One quarter of a billion dollars of oil and natural gas products, ranging from the gas in your car to the plastics that are made out of oil, are unavailable to the American public because our port is not up and running fully," said Ted M. Falgout, executive director of the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, which oversees the port's operations.
"Port Fourchon is one of the pistons in that economy," Falgout said. "When you lose a piston, you've just about lost your power."
Falgout said that because oil is not being pumped from offshore rigs in the Gulf and processed through Port Fourchon, gas prices are likely to spike more -- at least until the port gets back on its feet.
Getting there, however, will be tough, with workers trying to clean and repair the facility without power to run chainsaws, generators or water pumps. And moving the 200-ton houseboat off the road is one of the biggest problems port officials must address.
To complicate the problem, the boat had gas in its large tanks, and local authorities were unsure if it had standing water inside of it. The combination of water and gas could make the cleanup even messier. And to make matters worse, several downed power lines hung over part of the bow of the boat and into the street. A few utility poles had been cut in half by the barge and rested atop its two-story captain's quarters.
Breaux needed the support of his men and those who work at the port, many of whom have been logging 18- and 20-hour days since the storm hit Monday.
So from 5 a.m. until noon, Breaux -- who looks like a younger Richard Gere -- drove his white Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle along the bayou with a cell phone to his ear and a red pen and legal pad on his steering wheel, jotting down a plan and looking for help.
With one hand on the wheel, he took down notes of problems to solve. Where to take truckloads of marsh grass that covered the roads. How to get drinkable water in to the skeleton crew of gas company workers who were clearing debris from their warehouses and equipment. And where to put up for a few nights the 200 or so electrical workers expected to come to the port to put up new power lines.
As he stopped to check in on some of his clients, which include Chevron, helicopter companies and storage container suppliers, he asked managers and workers if they could lend their brawn and perhaps a crane to help move the barge blocking the road.
"Sure, no problem," said one contractor who sells drilling equipment to gas companies that do offshore work. Make it later this afternoon, Breaux told him. They shook hands.
At noon, Breaux took a lunch break at the port commission's building farther south on the bayou peninsula. The building on stilts had survived the hurricane -- only a couple of air conditioners had been ruined. As he wolfed down roast beef and drank a Pepsi, Breaux explained his plan to some of his workers. Many had worked almost nonstop since before dawn, driving front-end loaders to move splintered wood, pick up plastic drums and remove sheets of tin from rooftops. But they nodded in agreement.
After lunch, Breaux ticked off a list of other cleanup duties his men need to get to, such as spreading gravel on washed-out side roads along the bayou's main drag and getting the permits ready to do a controlled burn of the truckloads of marsh grass that oil companies and other contractors were collecting.
As he drove past the houseboat again, Breaux pulled his SUV over to the side of the road, next to a black Infiniti SUV parked behind the stranded houseboat. The driver was the boat's owner, a developer and shrimp boat owner in the area.
Wait. Don't soap the boat down, the owner insisted after Breaux explained his plan. His insurance adjuster was on his way, and he wanted to hear ideas on how to move the hunk of metal.
"I ain't slept in two damn days trying to figure out how to move that bitch," the owner said.
Barely an hour later, as Breaux went around and checked on his crews of workers -- some of whom were prisoners from the local jail on work release to help clean up sand and marsh grass and pull boats upright -- he got a call from the owner. Solution found -- if Breaux and Falgout would agree, that is.
The insurance adjuster said he would have the boat moved using cranes in the next two to three days. A crew would tear out the wet wood on the inside and do a controlled burn. The only problem: A special burn permit would be necessary; port officials get nervous with fire around so many oil storage containers. The insurance company said it would then take the boat apart and turn it into scrap metal -- a boat that at one time could sleep 50 people and was worth about $1.5 million, according to the owner.
Falgout gave the okay, and Breaux called the owner back with the news.
"Throw that monkey back," Breaux said, as he clicked off his cell phone, crossed the boat off his checklist and drove off to check on his cleanup crews.
Leeville Bridge allows workers to move heavy equipment and trucks into Port Fourchon. On Monday, it was largely submerged, cutting off the port. The water has since subsided, and the road is clear.
A houseboat blocks a key thoroughfare to Port Fourchon, putting an obstacle in the path of tractor-trailers that need to get into and out of the port.
Downed power lines litter the street at Port Fourchon, a crucial hub for oil in the United States.