Ports tell troubles

GULFPORT - Sean Connaughton could have been sitting on the other side of the table Wednesday as South Mississippi port officials got him up to speed with their troubles.

He was sworn in almost two months ago as the maritime administrator, head of a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. But 23 years ago, he had three job offers coming out of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

One of them was to be assistant port director at the state port at Gulfport.

"I do wonder if I'd took that job offer here, maybe I'd be sitting in here talking to whoever has my job," he said.

Connaughton accompanied Rep. Gene Taylor on a tour of VT Halter Marine and Signal International facilities at the Port of Pascagoula, then came to Gulfport to meet with folks in charge of four port divisions along the Coast: Port of Pascagoula Director Mark McAndrews, Gulfport Executive Director Don Allee, Hancock County Port and Harbor Director Hal Walters and Biloxi Port Commission Director Frankie Duggan.

He heard status reports from each, including immediate recovery efforts after Katrina, current problems and future plans. Connaughton heard a lot about the insurance woes from Taylor and the port directors, and asked technical questions about drafts and intermodal connections.

"What surprised me was how quickly a lot of the prime infrastructure was up and running," he said. "It's a great testament to the people involved... . They recognized very quickly that they could help the entire region by getting up and running."

Connaughton was a bit dismayed to hear that the Department of Homeland Security failed to award Pascagoula any money in the recent round of port security grants. Like Gulfport, it had received previous awards to beef up protection, but it was all washed away by Katrina.

Gulfport won $2.5 million in the process.

Port Bienville in Hancock County has struggled getting back in business because some of its waterways were obstructed by Katrina. Because some of those problems are in Louisiana, it's caused problems with FEMA funding and resistance from that state's residents who don't see the value in doing something in Mississippi.

Connaughton said trying to help negotiate the Byzantine bureaucracy can be of his goals, and that seeing the return of large portions of business at the ports is encouraging, but isn't enough.

"It's trying to get them back to the growth rate they were on before," he said. "I think that's where the Department of Transportation and our administration can help."