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Mon, Sep 05, 2005

Despite $40 Million In Damage, MSY Stood Up Against Katrina

Last Year's Improvement Project May Have Saved Runways

By ANN Associate Editor Rob Finfrock

The news from New Orleans and Mississippi seems to get worse with each passing day. Scenes of inconceivably horrendous devastation, human suffering and squalor, and rampant crime flash across television screens throughout America and the world, while signs of hope are few and far between. It has to get better... someday, it just has to.

A massive airlift into New Orleans finally began on Friday, said to be the largest ever in US history, coordinated by the Department of Transportation. As of this writing, the airport remains closed to everything except four relief flights per hour, with supplies coming in and people going out, dawn through dusk.

The delay was caused in part by the need to wait three days for the waters to recede from the grounds at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport, and debris to be cleared off that facility's two main runways. It had also taken that long for limited ATC functions to be reestablished at the airport.

Now would not seem to be the time for anyone to say "it could have been worse," as the toll from Katrina continues to mount... but it could have been far worse, and here is why: those flights might not have been happening even now, five days after the storm hit, had it not been for a little bit of foresight on the part of MSY airport director Roy Williams.

According to a report in Architectural Record magazine, Williams had the choice one year ago between upgrading and refurbishing the passenger terminal at MSY, or spending the approximately $83 million available on repaving and modernizing the runways at the airport.

The runway project got the nod... and that may have made all the difference, says civil engineer Mario Rodriguez, who is also deputy director of planning and development at MSY.

"We didn't have a crystal ball, but we'd known the runways' elevation had to be raised," said Rodriguez, speaking by phone to Aileen Cho with the Engineering News-Record from an emergency office in Dallas. Crews had installed polystyrene sections to address settlement, taken out the old concrete topped with asphalt layers, and poured new concrete. The process also resulted in raising the runway elevations by about 18 inches.

"It made the difference," Rodriguez said. "The runways stayed dry."

What's more, work crews were finishing up the reconstruction project just one week before Katrina hit. Had the storm hit any sooner, the pavement would have likely come "unraveled" in the fury of the wind and rain, according to Rodriguez.

Of course, there is still significant damage to the airport. Approach systems for the runways are still down, although the FAA is working hard to restore them for the planes flying the airlift. MSY is operating on emergency generators, with wind-caused damages to the terminal alone estimated to require at least $40 million to repair. Commercial flights are unlikely to resume at the airport for quite some time... if ever at all, given the questions of New Orleans' very future.

But it could have been far, far worse. Had MSY sustained any more damage from the storms, and had those runways been flooded out or even destroyed by the ravages of the hurricane... there would be no relief flights into New Orleans going on at all right now, and all of those people would now be suffering that much more.

In the face of one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States, now -- more than ever -- is the time for all of us to be grateful for what little fortune and good luck does come our way. After all, sometimes eighteen inches can make all the difference.

FMI: www.dot.gov

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