Mississippi's hurricane-hit port of Gulfport, a key economic engine and vital food transport hub, plans to be back in business by the end of the month.
Though heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina on 29 August, Mississippi State Port Authority executive director Don Allee is confident that the port will be able to begin loading and unloading cargoes of tropical fruit and other items within two weeks.
This will come as welcome relief to many food suppliers who rely on the gulf region. Gulfport, the third busiest container port on the Gulf of Mexico, is the second largest importer of green fruit in the United States and moves over 2.3 million tons of cargo annually.
Many businesses have been hurt. Chiquita for example was forced to shift its port operations from Gulfport to Florida in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.
"The city of Gulfport sustained tremendous wind and water damage, and many port facilities, including ours, have been severely affected" said Bob Kistinger, president and chief operating officer of Chiquita Fresh.
"It is clear that we will need to relocate our services from Gulfport for the foreseeable future."
However Allee told Reuters that he is confident that vessels operated by Chiquita, along with those owned by Dole Food could be among the first to restart business at Gulfport. Grain processors are also likely to be heartened by the news. Major processors such as Cargill have been concerned that with the grain harvest season less than a month away, shipping will remain constrained during the busiest and most important time of the year, translating into a half-billion dollar export loss for US ingredient producers.
There are ten export elevators in the surrounding New Orleans area with a storage capacity of about 53 million bushels of grain: they can load 970,000 bushels per hour when fully operational.
But things slowly seem to be getting better, if not quite back to normal. Vessel restrictions, slower barge movements and limited staffing on the Mississippi have cut operational capacity of elevators and floating rigs to about 63 per cent of normal capacity, but officials are confident that the transport will not be restricted for long.
"I am encouraged by the resumption of grain movement along the Mississippi River," said agriculture secretary Mike Johanns.
"Clearly, there is much work to be done but I am confident that remaining obstacles will be overcome to resume all activity in a timely manner. We are assuring our international customers that we expect minimal disruptions."
It will be a long time, however, before the Gulfport can rebuild warehouse and shed space. Allee estimates that the total cost of rebuilding the 184-acre port area will be well over $250 million.
Similarly, the damage wrought to transport facilities along the Mississippi means that significant investment is needed before food suppliers can expect normal service to resume.