Dodging Disaster in Pascagoula, Miss. Noah Adams has been traveling by boat along the Gulf Coast's Intracoastal Waterway, stopping along the way to talk with people about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the massive Northrop Grumman shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula, Miss., he met two people -- a chemist now living on a housing barge, and a ship building foreman. They share their stories of the deadly storm and its aftermath.
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Dodging Disaster in Pascagoula, Miss.

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Dodging Disaster in Pascagoula, Miss.

Dodging Disaster in Pascagoula, Miss.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This week, NPR's Noah Adams has been traveling by boat along the Gulf Coast and sending back reports on the waterside view of Katrina's aftermath. For today's story, he paid a visit to the giant Northrop Grumman shipyard at Pascagoula, Mississippi. The company is the largest private employer in the state and it is vital to the economy. It was slammed by Hurricane Katrina. The damage estimate is a billion dollars for the three Northrop Grumman facilities on the coast. At Pascagoula, Noah's boat, tied up alongside an old Navy berthing barge that was brought in as living quarters for employees who have no place else to go.

(Soundbite of motor, water)

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

Stand on the bow of a boat far out in the Mississippi Sound and you are amazed by the size of the Northrop Grumman complex, an industrial self-contained city, topped by an immense yellow lifting crane. As you approach, you lose that perspective because everything's too big above you. Lisa Volmer(ph) is a chemist for Northrop Grumman. She's now living on the housing barge, which is OK for this moment--safe, solid. But memories of Katrina came back the very first night the wind started blowing against the barge.

Ms. LISA VOLMER (Northrop Grumman Chemist): We had a little wind from the south or the southeast one evening, here in the ship, in fact, and the female berthing is on the front end, and we are against the outside wall, where--my particular berth and another woman's is. In the middle of the night I found myself woken up, thinking what was going on, was there a storm coming, what did I need to do, and it was just the wind howling. It was that simple.

ADAMS: When Lisa Volmer first got back into the shipyard, she found five feet of water inside her laboratory. The Northrop Grumman yard builds warships for the US military. Almost 10,000 employees are back here now. That's 80 percent of the regular work force.

(Soundbite of muffled voices; chain saw)

ADAMS: A shipyard is constant noise--generators, grinders, welding, materials and workers being hoisted up and down. Cary Thornhill(ph) oversees construction of the USS Kidd, one of the Navy's guided missile destroyers. It was securely tied against the hurricane. The storm surges arrived. The destroyer, more than 500 feet long, started banging against the dock, even knocking a hole in the side of the hull.

Mr. CARY THORNHILL: We got a flood alarm and after that we was busy for about--I guess about 12 hours. We had a hole bigger than a five-gallon bucket; wood was split about four foot long. Debris got in that hole and slowed it down to a trickle. So that way we started the pumps up and brought the ship back up. I don't know if you call that luck, fate or what, but you see the ship, it's floating good.

ADAMS: Cary Thornhill worried about his destroyer sinking. He was also trying to hold on to his co-workers.

Mr. THORNHILL: No one--luckily, no one got hurt. We had to throw a guy a line 'cause he was scooting across the deck with the wind, but we got him back in.

(Soundbite of TV)

ADAMS: The TV lounge on the shipyard employees' barge. More than 80 workers live aboard. Breakfast is at 5 AM. They're on a 10-hour day, four days a week, so they can get out to help their families and rebuild. The shipyard has been somewhat cleaned up and they've gone from almost all generator power to regular electricity. And Dave Shoshay(ph), the facilities director, says he's been on a learning curve here.

Mr. DAVE SHOSHAY (Facilities Director): We had four ships that were tied up at the dock. One sustained damage. If you look at how bad the storm was, and if you look at the surrounding community and look at what happened to all the houses, we have a pretty good mooring system and a system of preparation that these ships rode very well. Unfortunately, one did get damaged, but we're right now looking at assessing our mooring system and we're gonna make improvements and you'll never see that happen again.

ADAMS: Dave Shoshay is also the emergency director for storm season at Northrop Grumman. He says they usually like to get the ships they're building out to sea to try and safely ride out the hurricanes. With Katrina, he said, there just wasn't time. Noah Adams, NPR News, New Orleans.

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