Gulfport-Biloxi Thrives in Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

Building a new terminal is tough under the best of circumstances; throw in a hurricane of historic proportions, and it becomes a true test of fortitude. That was the case at Gulfport-Biloxi International (GPT) in 2005. The rapidly expanding Mississippi airport was about a year into construction of its new terminal when Hurricane Katrina hit. Little did she know a former Marine and an unbelievably resilient team of airport professionals were there to receive her.

Executive director Bruce Frallic estimates that 30% of construction on the new terminal was complete when Katrina made landfall. The exterior structure was finished and work on the air conditioning system and interior metal had just begun.

"The storm ripped open the walls like a can opener," Frallic recalls. "Half our gates were destroyed; we were lucky we didn't lose any jet bridges."

In addition to major damage at the terminal, the rental car facility and air cargo facilities were destroyed. The entire general aviation area - including 40,000 square feet of hangar space - was wiped out. Members of the engineering firm that designed the terminal recall the scene resembling a war zone.

Unlike other areas ravaged by the hurricane's 32-foot storm surge, most of the airport's damage was caused by wind and rain. Surge water did, however, enter through tributaries on the north and south sides of the airport and destroyed the ILS and navigational aids.

"The eye of the storm was 40 miles wide instead of the typical four to five miles," explains Frallic. "And we had storm force winds that peaked at 150 miles per hour and lasted eight hours vs. the usual two or three. It was much worse than anyone expected."

First Things First

When the winds subsided, crews immediately transitioned to "safing up" the building, as Frallic puts it.

"It really tore us up," he notes. "We had major structural issues, like the east boarding area with just one wall and no windows."

The very next day, however, the SEADOGs (Southeastern Airport Disaster Operations Group) arrived. "It was unbelievable," Frallic marvels. "We had help from 12 airports – everything from electricians and carpenters to operations and security workers. On any given day, there were no fewer than 25 people here helping, and they stayed a full month. They came from throughout the Southeast and as far away as Minneapolis."

With only about 20% of its own staff on site during the first few days after the storm, extra help from SEADOG was critical to GPT's quick recovery. "They were the first of a number of bright spots in the whole mess," relates Frallic.

GPT's skeleton crew scrambled to resume service as soon as safely possible. Although it was operating with only 70% of its staff for about a month, the airport managed to resume limited air service just eight days after the storm. "We were blowing and going," recalls Frallic. "Many of our employees lost everything, and they were still there for us. Mississippi Coast people are amazing. You wouldn't believe the way they rallied."

Facts and Figures

Project: New Terminal

Location: Gulfport-Biloxi (MS) International

Architect/Engineering/Design: Gresham, Smith and Partners

Size: 171,500 sq. ft.

Cost: $50 million

Construction: March 2004 to March 2007

Of Note: Damage from Hurricane Katrina added 1 ½ years and 23% cost to the project

Major Success: Resumed air service 8 days after the storm

Key Participants

Contractor: WG Yates & Sons

Local Engineer: Brown & Mitchell

Underground Storage/Cleanup: J. Levens Builders

Checked Baggage Screening System: Reveal Imaging Technologies

Northwest was the first airline to resume operations, and others followed quickly. "By February, we were back with 100% of our seats," Frallic says proudly of his airlines. "Demand was incredible. The airlines actually ended up adding service."

Three years later, GPT is operating at 130% of its pre-Katrina activity. Before the storm, the airport offered non-stop service to six cities on four airlines; these days, it's up to 10 non-stops on eight airlines. Officials also expect the airport to hit the 1 million total passenger mark this year for the first time.

The addition of service by American Airlines to Dallas/Fort Worth International was especially meaningful because negotiations started shortly before the storm hit in late August 2005. "It was delayed a few months," notes Frallic, "but it says a lot about American and this community that we were able to make it work."

Fast Money

One of the other major bright spots that emerged during the Katrina disaster was how fast the FAA responded to the injured Mississippi airport. "It was almost instantaneous," says Frallic.

In total, the airport received about $70 million in emergency AIP funds. FEMA and the state of Mississippi Department of Transportation also contributed, but most came from the FAA. In addition, the airport used insurance, some limited reserves and bond money to help fund its recovery.

After emergency repairs were made, damage remediation and terminal construction began in concert. Despite blurring categories and concurrent contracts, jobs were awarded via competitive bidding. Overall, Frallic estimates Hurricane Katrina added 1 ½ years and 23% expense to the terminal project.

"The cost of materials went through the roof," he explains, "and labor was a very scarce quantity. We were all under tremendous pressure. There was just so much that had to get done."

Working with professionals who took pride in their work, he says, made a huge difference. He also came to accept that various participants in the recovery simply wouldn't see eye-to-eye on some matters.

"Our contractors did a good job under terrible conditions," shares Frallic. "When a single change order goes from $100,000 to $250,000, it's hard on everybody; but we worked through it."

In With the New

Architect/engineering/design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners (GS&P) adapted its working style to the unusual circumstances.

"Formalities were relaxed," explains Roddy Boggus, executive vice president of GS&P's Aviation Group. "You couldn't be so bound by formal processes and forms. It took more of a point-and-shoot approach to get it done."

Despite labor shortages, cost increases and a phenomenal amount of stress, the terminal did get done. The official grand opening was held in February 2007 - 18 months after Hurricane Katrina.

Although the new terminal is considerably larger (171,500 square feet vs. 92,000 square feet), Boggus notes that the nature of the space is equally important. "It really soars," he notes. "Most of the increased volume is vertical, but linear space was also added. The open, three-story ticketing hall is quite a juxtaposition of the low ceilings that were common when the building was originally built."

Generous use of glass, natural wood, terrazzo flooring and a cool color palette further enhances the effect. "We made sure the palm trees outside were visible from inside to give it that unmistakable Gulf Coast feel," says Boggus. "Everything works together to create a more placid, leisurely feel."

Exterior architectural elements based on classic trademarks of the region were used, but with a modern spin. "We used columns and other elements of the Southern antebellum vernacular in a clean, contemporary way," he explains.

Infusing interior spaces with outside influences was also key. "It was important to give people the opportunity to see the airfield from the hold rooms and gate areas," says Boggus. "There's just something exciting about watching a plane take off or land, and it's not just kids who feel it."

With annual growth rates for the airport forecasted at five percent or more for the next 20 years, GS&P designed expandability throughout the terminal. Two new gate areas are already in use; space for more is available. Two lanes for security screening replace the former single-lane arrangement, and there's ready capacity for two more. As a participant in a TSA pilot program, the airport is using five new CT80 explosive detection system machines for checked baggage; there is room for two more. Two new baggage claim devices that stretch more than 400 linear feet supplement the airport's existing system, and space is earmarked for another.

The level of patience shown by the traveling public during the construction and hurricane cleanup pleasantly surprised Frallic. Plywood walls, construction noise, indirect walking routes and hot, humid weather that challenged the air conditioning system were standard for months. When customers asked Frallic when the new terminal would be complete, he braced for venting and anger; but it rarely came.

"People were great about it," he says. "They were very supportive and understanding. I guess they could tell how rough it had been."  


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