updated 3/6/2006 9:41:13 AM ET 2006-03-06T14:41:13

Down where this great American river meets the Gulf of Mexico, river pilots negotiate a new reality as they steer oceangoing oil tankers, cruise ships and gigantic cargo carriers toward the warehouses, docks and rail yards of New Orleans.

Their world was turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina. With the roads down the river out of service, they had to hire helicopters to get to their posts in the days after the storm. With their pilot stations heavily damaged, members of this fraternity — many related by blood — have lived like sardines on barges.

And their working life on the Mississippi River is a lot less predictable and a lot more reminiscent of Mark Twain's daredevil tales — ever since Katrina knocked out navigational lights, jetties and other manmade structures like wing dams and rock jetties that tame the river and steer currents. And the channel bottom was clogged with mud and silt brought in by Katrina's storm surge.

"It all looks different to us," said river pilot Tony Vogt. "You're extra aware of the situation."

From the control tower at a hurricane-damaged pilot station at Southwest Pass, the primary channel from the Gulf to the main trunk of the river, Vogt's new reality comes into focus. A rock jetty that protects and demarcates the channel, like an airport runway, disappears under the water not far from shore. That line of rocks used to run farther out, and the pilots say it's trickier now to take ships into the pass.

Before Katrina, piloting a ship was like walking down the unlit hallway in your home at night, Vogt said. You do it without incident, he said, because you've done it so many times before.

"But if you change a door frame or something, you'll bump into it until you learn it all over," the 45-year-old pilot said.

The same principle applies on the river, but the stakes are much, much higher.

A mistake doesn't result in a stubbed toe or knocking over a lantern. Instead, human and environmental catastrophes hang over their heads.

"You take a tanker with 500,000 barrels of oil in it, each barrel is worth $60, and that's just the cargo there's a lot of money involved," said Michael Lorino, the president of the Associated Branch Pilots.

Traffic flowing after 5 days
By law, each deep-draft vessel that goes up the Mississippi must have a pilot at the helm familiar with the ways of the river.

Despite the new risks, pilots pushed the limits and remarkably got traffic flowing again five days after Katrina without any major mishaps being reported.

They were forced to: The pressure was too great.

"Gas prices were rising," said Petty Officer Jesse Kavanaugh of the U.S. Coast Guard. "Our main objective was to get the oil tankers up the river, those were priority ships."

The port system on the lower Mississippi is one of the busiest in the world with about 6,000 ships a year docking there. Oil refineries, chemical plants and other industries line the banks from below New Orleans all the way to Baton Rouge, and about three quarters of U.S. grain exports pass down the river.

"You only realize the importance of this vital economic asset — this river artery that stretches from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico — when you lose it," said John Hyatt, a board member of the International Freight Forwarders and Customs Brokers Association of New Orleans.

One of the biggest risks they took was to take ships up the river even though the channel was not as deep as it typically is.

"Risky? There are always risks associated with this job," said pilot Stephen Post. "If you want guarantees, go to Sears."

For Hyatt, the risks they took were good for business.

"They tell me time and again that they were taking chances," he said. "I don't have a problem with that, sometimes you have to take chances. You've got some soft bottoms, so you can drag bottom to some degree."

Dealing with new conditions on the river — stronger-than-usual currents, outdated radar on rusty liners, fog, sandy bottoms, river traffic, storms — is what the pilots are taught to expect. It's all part of the job.

What might take longer to adapt to are the changes to their way of life.

Katrina left Pilottown, a century-old clustering of homes built for pilots near the river's mouth, a jumble of ruin.

"You hate to leave it, but we believe the time has come and gone," Lorino, the pilot president, said.

Inside the pilot station
The Associated Branch Pilots, or Bar Pilots, voted not to rebuild their old pilot station, a West Indies-style cypress building, and to abandon the town's two dozen structures, all of which were badly damaged. The Bar Pilots bring ships across the mouth of the Mississippi before handing them over to other pilots who make the voyage north.

Months after Katrina hit, Lorino picked his way through the mess at Pilottown.

"Look at that! That's a 2-by-4 stuck in the palm tree," he said. "Do you know how hard the wind had to be blowing to do that?"

Inside the pilot station, heaps of marsh grass, clothes, boots, papers, books, a boxing glove and an assortment of other belongings is an entanglement of loss. The flood waters and winds left little untouched.

"This was it," Lorino said. "This was the body and soul. Pilottown was the body and soul of the Bar Pilots."

Pilottown was built when pilots and their families lived as close as they could to the action. At one time, the town had a post office and its own ZIP code and a school.

"Pilottown even had a baseball team," recalled Paul Vogt, a 64-year-old pilot who's been guiding ships up the Mississippi since 1967.

He said he'll miss the place he remembers so vividly from his youth.

"As a kid I used to fish for eel — people would use that for catfish bait, crawfish — and just hang out. Shoot fiddler crabs with BB guns, do the little boy things."

There is some hope for the town, however. Another group of pilots that also used Pilottown plans to keep a station on the same site and there is a chance that some pilots who owned structures there will want to keep hunting and fishing camps there.

But will it look, and feel, the same? Pilots said that's unlikely. While it may still retain the name Pilottown, it will likely not look much like a town. And that signals the end of an era: There may never be another full-scale town this far south where the river ends.

It's happened before many, many times. Hurricanes have torn apart the towns that sprung up over the centuries in the soft, marshy delta soil. They were places called Balize, Oysterville, Port Eads, Burrwood.

The towns always served economic ends — as stopovers for ships, or stations for pilots, or trappers' settlements.

They're all gone now, swallowed by the marsh, time and the Gulf.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments