Miss. Shipyard Toils to Resume Business - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Miss. Shipyard Toils to Resume Business

Northrop Grumman shipyard workers remove debris caused by Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss., Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Northrop Grumman shipyard workers remove debris caused by Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss., Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
By Steve Quinn
Associated Press Writer

PASCAGOULA, Miss. - Donald Ashford can't go home, but he can still go to work. Hurricane Katrina saw to that when it forced his family from their Moss Point, Miss., house 10 days ago.

"I'm bringing home the bacon, but I got nowhere to bring it to," said the 30-year worker for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s shipyard.

He's part of the state's largest work force, a man whose only sense of place for now is a shipyard undergoing a massive restoration and cleanup from debris strewn across the port.

A feeling of urgency grows each day as crews fill trash bins and dump trucks with items ranging from shards of metal to a pile of computers.

For now about one-fourth of the 12,000 person work force is back, though the count is growing incrementally, scooping and shoveling. Each trash pile removed not only means being a step closer to a return to shipbuilding, which the company hopes to resume next week, it also means more people can come back to work.

Northrop Grumman employees who have not returned or been called back will get paid through the period ending Friday.

But, many still can't be found or reached and the company heightened its efforts on Tuesday by establishing a hot line for employees to check in.

Since then, the company has received about 2,000 calls, but still needs to hear word from another "few thousand," said company spokesman Brian Cullin.

Meanwhile, Ashford winces when recalling Katrina's Category 4 power and the flood damage that made his home unlivable. But choosing between work and home, he says, is a no-brainer.

"I already got paid, and I'm down here making some more money," Ashford said. "This is what I got to do.

"I still can't believe it. I had to save my mom, my sister, my wife and my daughter. They held a fishing pole as I brought them up out of there to high ground. I won't ever forget that."

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman has three Gulf Coast yards that build ships or sections assembled elsewhere, one each Pascagoula, Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans. They sit within about 110 miles of one another, the largest being Pascagoula's 800-acre facility.

Including an onshore facility, the defense contractor employs close to 19,000 people in the Gulf region, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of its annual business. The regional impact is significant as well. Northrop Grumman's average Gulf operations payroll is about $17 million a week, Cullin said.

Pascagoula has the highest profile among the three shipyards. Here, the company builds four classes of vessels for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

Nearly every worker who reported to this shipyard was put on clean up duty, regardless of the job title as shipbuilder.

Jackie Robinson didn't want to drive the Caterpillar front-end loader, but the man known as "Jelly Belly" understood that he had no choice.

It's a job few thought they would ever be doing until Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last week, even those like Robinson who encountered Hurricane Camille's wrath in 1969.

"I've been here since 1968 and Camille wasn't this bad," Robinson said. "I'm telling you this place was tore up...tore up, I tell you."

"We need to get more people here, and we will get them," he said just before hopping in the tractor. "This ain't fun. But you watch me, I'll get it done."

And he did.

Robinson first pulled an office trailer out of a pile that included several storage bins and trash bins, an endeavor that took several efforts, the first two kicking up dust and smoke from the wheels spinning in place.

Once complete, he regrouped and got behind the dilapidated structure. He turned it over in sections, finished the demolition Katrina started ten days ago, and laid it in a truck awaiting a load for hauling.

The new kind of work has also presented unique hazards such as snake bites, which have hit two employees thus far.

"We've found anything and everything in here," said J.F. McLeod Sr. just as one worker unearthed a fishing lure he vowed to keep as a souvenir.

"See? But I'm talking rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Not just that. I'm still amazed at what I'm seeing."

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Officer Ron Sugar visited the shipyard.

"The damage was substantial in size and scope, but the crew has been effectively working to get us back to operations," Sugar said. "They are professionals and they understand what their job is: getting the shipyard up and running."

After he left, word soon spread among the workers that they could be resuming their shipbuilding work by next week.

The company plans to phase in production while continuing its restoration and clean up, said Philip Teel, the company's ships system president. No specific start date has been established, but the news of the potential ramp-up was a much needed boost to the folks working until dark each day.

"It gives you some ambition, something to look forward to and some hope," said Arthur Pitts, who has been with the company 18 years.

"When you see something of this magnitude, you know it's affecting everybody outside the shipyard.

"The sooner you put it back up, the sooner you can get these people back here into work for their families and for the company. We'll get it done."

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