Capt. Harry D. Hocks and his second in command, Capt. Paul Segura Jr., leaned over a map in the cabin of their 210-foot boat, plotting the route they would take from this port in southeastern Louisiana into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The map's red, green and blue lines marked the locations of the oil drills and rigs in the gulf — or at least where they should be.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit last week, Hocks, Segura and other employees of Epic Divers & Marine LLC have been in high demand. The diving services company has received about 100 calls from oil firms seeking to hire its ships and diving crews to locate their oil rigs and underwater pipelines and assess and repair the damage wrought by the storm.
Diving companies such as Epic Divers, one of only 25 or so worldwide, play a small but critical role in restoring the nation's energy infrastructure. The price is steep — Epic Divers charges about $50,000 per day, or even more for complicated jobs — but the stakes are high: The oil operations off the Louisiana and Mississippi coast supply about 18 percent of the country's oil.
"We're going to be busy for a very, very, very long time," said the sun-tanned Segura, a 20-year veteran of the diving business.
Epic's president and chief executive, Julie Rodriguez, said she has even turned some business away because her 300-person company is still swamped with work from Hurricane Ivan, which struck the Gulf in September 2004.
"Ivan hit a year ago, and we're still doing work from that," she said. "We're trying to satisfy everybody. There's so much work to be done."
After Hurricane Katrina, the Epic Seahorse and its 36-man crew spent four days out in the gulf, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, examining three rigs and their underwater pipes for oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC. The pipes and two of the rigs were not damaged, they found, but one rig was missing.
"We went out to inspect this one platform and it wasn't there," said John Jansen, a diving superintendent for Epic, from a satellite phone in the gulf. He has been a diver for almost 12 years.
"The platform had fallen over in 250 feet of water," Jansen said. "We knew we were on it because there were some gas bubbles coming to the surface."
The boat's crew spent 247 days offshore over the past year, assessing damage and repairing pipes and platforms. They expect to spend close to 300 days on Katrina-related jobs.
The dive preparation is intense. Divers coat their necks, wrists, ankles and groin with petroleum jelly to protect them from oil. Wearing jeans, sweatshirts, helmets and white rubber boots, they strap on emergency air tanks and weight belts that help them descend into the water. They typically fall about 150 feet deep, breathing through masks strapped inside their helmets that pipe air from compressors aboard the ship. While in the water, the divers can communicate with the crew on deck via small microphones in their helmets.
"The water [coming] off the Mississippi River is black as night" with mud and slit from upstream that dumps into the Gulf, said John Lariviere, a former diver and director of projects for Epic. "You could put your hand in front of you and not see it."
Below the surface, the divers' first priority is to find the base of the above-water oil platform and locate the pipelines leading from the ocean floor into the rigs. They work by touch to find the valves on the pipes and the hulking legs of the platforms. Sometimes they use sonar devices or an eight-foot-long stick to find pipes buried in mud. The pipes, if split from the main line, have an automatic cutoff valve that prevents oil slicks.
Once a broken pipe is found, it must be flushed with saltwater using heavy equipment lowered into the water by 25-ton cranes. The most dangerous part of the job is helping guide the crane and hooking it to pipes that have to be put back in place. Repairing a single pipe can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. Divers are brought up to the surface slowly, stopping at different depths. Once on board, they are put in decompression chambers for almost two hours.
"We're like underwater plumbers," said Mike Roehl, a former naval officer and the superintendent of the roughly 20 divers aboard the Epic Seahorse.
Entry-level divers make around $35,000 to $40,000 annually, while more experienced divers earn up to $140,000.
Epic Divers must deal not only with Katrina's damage to its clients' oil rigs but also with the physical and logistical challenges the storm poses for the company's work.
The storm damaged the windows, radar and lighting equipment of one of Epic Divers' four ships. Because of flood damage in her New Orleans office, Rodriguez is working from Houston. The company's workers hail from as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin, and some had trouble reaching the area because of airport and highway closings. And most of those who live nearby were evacuated to other cities and were able to return in only the past few days.
Even navigating the ships back into the port can be tough. "We saw some of everything coming in," Hocks said. Some of his crew rattled off the list: dead cows, ducks, deer and alligators, all floating in the water. "We were just zigzagging around it all to get through," Hocks said.
But the divers are used to tough working conditions. The company motto on the back of Hock's navy blue T-shirt says it all: "Working under pressure." And they understand that their work will help not only their client companies but also American consumers.
"The sooner we get everything up and online and running," Segura said, "the prices of gas will go down."