When the Lykes Flyer sailed into the Port of New Orleans two months ago the medium-sized cargo ship earned itself a modest place in maritime history. The vessel, carrying coffee and plywood from South America, was the port’s first caller since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city a fortnight earlier.

“We only restored power four hours before the ship arrived and the cranes wouldn’t work because their software had been wiped,” recalls Chris Bonura, port spokesman. “The ship had to use its own cranes to unload and it took all night.”

Today the port’s cranes are fully operational and dozens of ships have followed the Lykes Flyer as the Port of New Orleans gradually reawakens.

As the nearest large port to the mouth of the Mississippi, New Orleans acts as a natural hub for goods flowing in and out of America’s greatest river, including coffee, rubber and steel imported from South America, and grain, coal and chemicals exported from the US Midwest.

Including tributaries and canals, New Orleans gives access to 15,000 miles of inland waterways, reaching 30 states and more than 60 per cent of the US population.

George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, an intelligence consultancy, says the port is so strategically important that had the Soviet Union wanted to destroy a single US city during the cold war, it would have chosen New Orleans.

“If the Mississippi River was shut to traffic, then the foundations of the economy would be shattered,” he wrote recently.

For a few days after Katrina struck, it appeared that Mr Friedman’s nightmare scenario had become reality as a 500-mile stretch of the lower Mississippi, including the Port of New Orleans, were closed.

But it gradually became clear that the port had escaped the worst of Katrina’s flooding because the Mississippi and its giant levees are among the highest points in New Orleans. While water from Lake Pontchartrain gushed into the city, the river did not overflow.

“One of our challenges has been to get the message out that most of our facilities were relatively untouched,” says Mr Bonura.

Still, while most of the facilities are intact, the storm left about half the port’s workforce homeless. “A port cannot operate without dock workers so our number one priority was finding temporary accommodation,” says Gary LaGrange, the port’s chief executive. He called the US Maritime Administration and arranged to borrow five small military vessels to act as dormitories. Several hundred people are still living on the ships.

Securing truck capacity has been another struggle. Many truck drivers fled the area amid the hurricane, while some of those who remained have been drawn into the relief and clean-up effort. Railway access was also disrupted, but most lines have now reopened.

Shipping activity has been gradually increasing since the Lykes Flyer’s arrival, up to 17 vessels a week, compared with an average of 40-50 before Katrina. Mr LaGrange says he wants the port back at previous levels within four to six months.

However, some parts of the port will not recover so easily. Fire destroyed a riverside warehouse in the chaos following the storm, and facilities along the city’s Industrial Canal were flooded. Among the damaged buildings was a cold storage facility containing thousands of tonnes of chicken. Dumper trucks have been sent in to clear the rotting meat.

But perhaps the biggest blow was the loss of the lucrative cruise-liner business. New Orleans had become a popular departure point for Caribbean cruises in recent years. Today, however, the only two cruise ships in port are being used to house thousands of relief workers. Mr LaGrange is hopeful that cruises will resume by March but it remains to be seen if the city can recover its former appeal among cruise passengers.

Ships delivering supplies for the relief and reconstruction effort will help offset the loss of other business. But Mr LaGrange says the port – owned by the state of Louisiana – needs federal assistance to meet the $1bn cost of replacing damaged facilities.

“This is not just about New Orleans,” he says. “The whole country needs our port to be healthy because we serve so much of it.”

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