Early Thursday morning, a big, blue cargo ship called Indotrans Flores delivered more than 3,000 tons of rubber and timber to City Dock 27 at the Port of Houston, becoming the first vessel to reroute because of damage inflicted on the Port of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
The hurricane severely damaged the Port of New Orleans, which handles major shipments of steel, coffee and other products, and the Port of Gulfport, which handles significant shipments of fruit. Nearly a quarter of all cargo shipped to and from the United States over water arrives through the two ports.
Now importers and exporters are trying to figure out what to do.
One of the nation's largest coffee companies, Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Folgers and Millstone, said it has several million pounds of green coffee at sea bound for New Orleans. "We are still trying to figure out where to send it," said Lars Atorf, spokesman for the company's coffee business. "A second, smaller harbor we use regularly is Seattle, but that's a little bit far away."
Shipping experts said they expect numerous ports along the Gulf Coast to handle cargo originally bound for New Orleans, with a substantial number of vessels diverted to Houston. Houston already receives more foreign imports than any other port in the nation, according to port officials. Houston's port authority has begun receiving calls from shippers inquiring about the availability of space and cargo storage.
Port officials said it's too early to know how the increase in traffic at Houston's port will affect operations. "The question is how much and when," said James T. Edmonds, chairman of the Port of Houston Authority.
Edmonds said that at some point, the Houston port could run out of container space -- the area where the goods are held for days or weeks before they are sent on to their destinations. But port officials said shippers have a number of smaller ports in the gulf they can use.
Oil shipments could be a particular problem because the Port of Houston's petrochemical industries are already operating at full capacity and thus would not be able to handle a substantial increase in oil shipments.
Alton Landry of the Greater Houston Port Bureau, an association affiliated with the port that counts the number of ships that dock there, said the large port can absorb business from New Orleans for a few weeks. "But a month from now, if things aren't back up, I don't know what would happen," Landry said.
Richard Couch, president of Osprey Line LLC, which transports containers after they are unloaded from ships, said he is expecting an increase in shipments arriving at the Port of Houston, as well as the smaller ports. But he said diverting shipments from New Orleans to other ports is "not a long-term solution." Goods transported inland from the Houston port, for example, go through the Intracoastal Waterway.
On the Mississippi River, the average tow can carry 30 barges. In the Intracoastal Waterway, the maximum number of barges per tow is six, Couch said. "That's like going from a 10-lane highway down to two," he said.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.