Picking up after Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina roared through Mississippi Aug. 29, officials at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT) figured it would take six months to a year for the airport to return to full service.

Damage included the loss of the hangar that housed the general aviation FBO, as well as the south end of the airline terminal, which was in the midst of an expansion when the storm hit.

Thankfully, estimates on when the airport would be back into operation were conservative.

“We figure that by Dec. 15 we will be back to 90% capacity,” said Jim Pitts, director of cargo development and marketing for the airport. He credits the relatively quick turnaround to maintenance teams from out of the area who pitched in to make repairs.

“They came from Pensacola, Orlando, Daytona Beach, we even had one crew that came all the way from Minneapolis,” he said. “We were able to restore airline service within 10 days.”

Before Katrina, the majority of travelers who passed through the airport were tourists who came to gamble in the 12 casinos in the area. “We lost those casinos in Katrina,” he said. “We lost our tourist traffic and we were worried, but then there was a market shift. Now I would say that 99% of the travel we are seeing is business travel related to the hurricanes. We are seeing insurance companies, federal agencies and relief groups.”

Meanwhile, on the GA side of the airport, the hangar that housed FBO AvCenter took such a pounding that the company was forced to move out.

“We have a temporary office set up in a double-wide trailer for now,” said Hank Salcido, general manager. “Before that we were in tents, then in a recreational vehicle. We’ll soon need to have a triple-wide trailer.”

Salcido says crews from the company’s sister FBOs in Pittsburgh, Burlington, Vt., and Louisville, Ky., came to the airport with equipment to help get them back into operation.

“They were happy to come down here,” he noted, adding that most of the FBO’s 21 employees lost everything in the hurricane and are living in temporary shelters or with friends.

“They’re a good group,” he said proudly. “They are trying to get their lives back in order, yet they still come to work everyday.”

In the days following Katrina much of the traffic that came through the FBO was relief traffic. “But that has tapered off and now we are seeing more contractors and insurance companies,” he said.

He added that the damage assessments are still rolling in. For example, they still don’t know if the hangar they vacated after the storm is worth saving or will be demolished.

“That’s hasn’t been determined yet,” he explained. “We are also looking at building a new facility at a another part of the airport. We were looking at it before Katrina hit.”

For more information: 228-863-2698.

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