An SSA ferry and Katrina share history

Partially built Island Home survived huge hurricane that devastated shipyard and Pascagoula, Miss.

Hurricane Katrina flooding with the Pascagoula Bridge in the background. Construction of the Island Home ferry was delayed as a result of the storm.

Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina buzz-sawed into the Gulf Coast, dealing biblical-scale damage to Louisiana and Mississippi.

The 255-foot MV Island Home was under construction in August 2005 when the infamous Category 5 hurricane tore into the port city of Pascagoula, Miss., and sent 10 feet of water over the VT Halter Shipyard. What would become of the Steamship Authority’s largest ferry, which was on the slipway in the yard, according to Capt. Ed Jackson, who was the Steamship Authority’s onsite representative during the construction, was in question.

Jackson was out of town when the storm hit. When he returned, the VT Halter Shipyard was unrecognizable.

“Mud was everywhere,” he told The Times during a recent interview. Two Army landing ships were cast into the trees, he said: “They had to dredge a new channel to get them out.”

Jackson noted there were curious paths cut in the mud that looked like lawnmower trails. He later found out alligators were responsible.

“The yard was completely wiped out,” Brian King, vice president of engineering at Elliot Bay Design, recalled in a conversation with The Times. King, who designed the Island Home, pointed out that VT Halter’s buildings and tools were soaked, and many of the materials for the Island Home were ruined or damaged.

“Several of the amidships hull modules had been erected on the building ways,” Douglas Wolff wrote in the technical paper “Tradition and Innovation: The Design of the Ferry Island Home,” but the end modules and upper levels were at ground level, still undergoing fitting and welding.”

“The steel all got submerged and contaminated with saltwater,” King said. It later had to be cleansed of salt and rust blooms.

Jackson said many parts and components of the vessel were irredeemable. The Caterpillar generators for the ferry went completely underwater — two mains and an emergency one — and couldn’t be salvaged.

“Practically all the electrical panels had to be replaced,” he said. Luckily, the main switchboard was still in Jacksonville and therefore unaffected, he said. “About $1 million worth of components had to be replaced.”

The diesel engines, however, were a close call. These were in a shed on blocks, he said. Water lapped against the bottoms of them but did not immerse them, he said.

“Another six or nine inches, and I don’t know,” he said.

Steamship Authority director of engineering and maintenance Carl Walker indicated the impact of the flooding was minimal on the engines.

“The water level came just to the base of the shaft of the engine[s],” Steamship Authority spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote in an email Friday, after consulting with Walker. “A small amount of water — ounces — leaked through the seal on the shaft into the oil pan, which was empty. The water was wiped out and the seal around the shaft was replaced. There was no internal damage to the engines.”

Stewart and Stevenson, distributor of the EMD (Electro-Motive Diesel) engines, examined and re-warrantied them, Jackson said.

After what Driscoll described as an “exhaustive search,” no warranty or related documentation could be found in the ferry line’s records.

“They are a railroad engine that’s adapted to marine service,” King said, “easily a quarter million each.” King described them as the most expensive part of the ferry, and like most ferries, the vessel is designed around them.

The president of VT Halter was forced to fly up to Woods Hole to plead for more time to complete the ferry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Jackson said. “This guy was just about on his knees,” he said.

“The Steamship Authority was very accommodating to VT Halter,” King said.

The extension the Steamship Authority gave VT Halter not only saved the Island Home but probably kept the shipyard from becoming insolvent, he said. It also put many people back to work when they really needed it. Six months later, the Island Home was completed.

Elsewhere in Pascagoula, at Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard, Katrina punched a hole in the nearly finished Arleigh Burke–class destroyer Kidd, the New York Times reported.

Pascagoula Fire Chief Donnie Carlson said 70 to 80 percent of the city was flooded. Chief Carlson, a lieutenant in the department at the time, said the water came from the beach (Gulf) and from the Pascagoula River.

“At the time we didn’t have any boats,” he said. “We never imagined we’d need them. We just never saw that kind of water.”

Chief Carlson said Katrina induced a 30-foot storm surge. Members of the fire department used their personal boats for rescues. Despite a mandatory evacuation, many stragglers bent on protecting their homes and property needed to be rescued from their homes, he said.

“When the water receded, we had three or four boats sitting outside the fire station,” he said. “There was a ton of debris. There were roads that had houses lying in the middle of them. It was a sight to be seen.”

Because so many people were displaced, Carnival Cruises lent a liner for use as a huge dormitory, Caroline Bishop, multimedia specialist for the City of Pascagoula, said.

“People lived in that thing for a couple months, at least,” Chief Carlson said.

These days the Pascagoula Fire Department is better rigged for another weather event like Katrina. “We have three boats now,” Chief Carlson said.

The department also has an old military truck used for high-water work. The tires are about three to four feet tall, enabling it to motor through about six to seven feet of water.

Gary Johnson, Aquinnah’s emergency manager and chairman of the all-Island emergency managers group, said the Vineyard isn’t prepared for a Category 3 hurricane, let alone a Category 5 like Katrina. He and his peers are embarking on a campaign to inform Vineyarders of ways to be safe and self-reliant in the face of weather events that will undoubtedly overwhelm the limited resources of the Island.

Asked what advice he could give to the residents of Martha’s Vineyard should they face a hurricane, Chief Carlson mustered three clear words: “Heed the warnings.”