Lawmakers Question Slow Port Recovery In Gulfport

The Port of Gulfport is now back up to 60 percent capacity since Hurricane Katrina, but that's not fast enough to satisfy some lawmakers. House Port Committee members want to know what's taking so long, and if the Port Commission has the state's best interest at heart.

The Port of Gulfport used to bring in $21 million in annual revenues, as the country's third largest container port. Now port officials are in the legislative hot seat amid a slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

"That's an issue that even they admit is a concern," Rep. Billy Broomfield of Moss Point said.

The state can't go after $300 million in federal recovery money until the port submits its long-term master plan. Port Director Don Allee says that plan is still three weeks away, and will include gaming, condos and a cruise terminal. Port officials assured lawmakers they do not plan on phasing out their shipping business.

"We are really after what our mission statement is and that's maritime. We are out there to protect maritime jobs," MS State Port Authority President Lenny Sawyer said.

But one major export, poultry, is still essentially shut down at the port. Work to rebuild freezers still not begun. That's bad news for a state that's the fourth largest poultry producer in the nation.

"We're going to come back state of the art, and when our master plan comes out, the people in the chicken business are going to want to do business with the Misssissippi State Port," Sawyer said.

While Thursday's hearing did ease some concerns, House Ports Chairman Billy Broomfield still vows to change requirments for the appointed commission, making maritime experience mandatory for three of the five members.

"There are too many obstacles involved in maritime for a person not to know all there is to know about the industry to make the decisions," Broomfield said.

Port officials told lawmakers 225 employees are back to work at the Port of Gulfport. That's down from more than 1,200 before Katrina.

by Wendy Suares