‘Better than bananas’
Founders of Port Fourchon hoped for fruit; instead they got oil.
Photographs by Brian Gauvin
It was the late 1950s, and some Louisiana public officials were worried. They feared they saw opportunity slipping away from the docks in the Port of New Orleans. The problem: Banana traders were looking east.
Bananas from Latin America had been moving through New Orleans since the turn of the century. The potential for profit in the trade prompted members of the local Vaccaro and D’Antoni families to open an import business called Standard Fruit Co. Rival importer United Fruit Co. also established a base in the city. By mid-century, almost one-fourth of all bananas imported into the United States arrived via New Orleans docks.
As the years passed, though, smaller ports along the Gulf Coast began to awaken from their slumber. In neighboring Gulfport, Miss., it dawned on city fathers that banana shippers could save money by unloading their cargo at docks adjacent to the Gulf rather than having to travel 90 miles up the Mississippi River to reach New Orleans. Gulfport maritime interests mounted a campaign to steal the banana trade.
Lawmakers in Louisiana took note. In particular, state Sen. O.A. Rappelet had an idea he thought might keep the banana boats from veering east. “Why not snag the fruit cargo from a wharf right on Louisiana’s coast?” the Terrebonne Parish native wondered.
What Rappelet had in mind was to build a commercial cargo dock on the Lafourche Parish headland, near the south end of Louisiana Highway 1, just west of the popular fishing community of Grand Isle.
The result of Rappelet’s efforts was a piece of legislation signed in 1960 by Gov. Jimmy Davis creating Louisiana’s “port of the future,” Port Fourchon.
Rappelet and others tried to move fast to get viable cargo and transportation facilities in place and demonstrate Louisiana’s commitment to the banana trade. Citizens of Lafourche Parish even voted to tax themselves in order to pay for the needed structures.
But in the end it was too little too late. Standard Fruit merged with a Hawaii-based firm, which chose to use the Gulfport docks. Later United Fruit also pulled up stakes and slipped off to Mississippi.
Louisiana never recaptured the lucrative banana trade. Yet, as it turned out, the efforts of Rappelet and others to found a coastal port did not go unrewarded.
That’s because around the same time that the bananas were slipping away, a far bigger industry was making waves in the Gulf of Mexico.
Louisiana already had a well-established relationship with oil and natural gas producers, who had punched hundreds of holes throughout the state to extract valuable commodities from beneath the soil. During the 1970s, as producers began to realize that much larger deposits lay under the ocean floor and to develop sophisticated technology to go after it, Louisiana was positioned to profit.
The commodity-rich waters off of the Mississippi River Delta became a magnet for Big Oil. All of the major oil companies soon were erecting drilling platforms off the Louisiana coast. Each of those installations required services and supplies that had to come from inland sources. In short order, Port Fourchon’s raison d’être became clear.
“The bananas left for Gulfport, but luckily, now we have something better than bananas,” says Ted Falgout, executive director of the Greater Lafourche Port Commission.
Serving Big Oil
Falgout, who took the helm at Port Fourchon in 1978, oversaw the port’s growth as oil companies evolved from strictly land-based businesses into a highly sophisticated offshore industry.
In its early years, the port consisted of a dock that served fishing boats and the few vessels that then carried workers and supplies to the production platforms operating in shallow waters just off the coast.
Even though the hoped-for banana trade never materialized, Lafourche Parish carried out its plans to improve the port with a new connecting road to Highway 1, a deeper navigation channel from the Gulf into the mouth of Bayou Lafourche and a network of water and power lines to serve businesses that would operate in the port.
As commercial shrimp boats shared dock space with offshore work boats such as those operated by New Orleans-based Tidewater Inc., Port Fourchon expanded with larger boat slips and new cargo-handling facilities to help speed the movement of vessels in and out of the port.
Although offshore oil and gas business grew during this period, the activity was hardly explosive. Because much larger oil-rich lands were opening in other parts of the world, the Gulf of Mexico was seen as having limited potential for meeting the nation’s oil needs.
In fact, one of the biggest installations erected in the Gulf during this period was the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or LOOP, whose purpose was to offload the supertankers that brought massive amounts of oil from distant ports. LOOP, located about 18 miles southeast of Port Fourchon, sends the oil onshore through a large pipeline that connects to refineries in several states.
LOOP helped increase the demand for services at Port Fourchon, but major port expansion wasn’t yet part of the picture.
“There was just a gloomy prediction of a steady decline in the domestic oil and gas industry,” Falgout recalls.
In 1995, the picture changed. That’s when the U.S. Congress, recognizing that huge deposits of oil lay beneath deeper waters of the Gulf, passed the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act.
The new law was the first in a series of financial incentives the federal government used to entice oil companies to find and produce oil farther offshore. While production activity previously had been concentrated within a 3-mile band off the coast, demand now escalated for massive amounts of equipment, supplies and services for platforms located 25 miles or more out.
Port Fourchon launched an expansion. The port grew northward over the next few years, digging new inland channels to connect to Bayou Lafourche. The complex attracted dozens of new oil service tenants as it added boat slips and installed cargo systems that could quickly load work boats with supplies ranging from drilling mud to drinking water.
By the end of the 20th century, the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico were America’s new oil frontier and Port Fourchon was the foremost oil service port in the United States.
The port now encompasses some 1,500 acres and handles hundreds of work boats each day, and Falgout notes that its original dock is still in operation. “It’s still called the Banana Dock,” he says.
Raise the road
With oil demand still vigorous and crude prices soaring, prospects for deep-water production and growth at Port Fourchon remain strong. But the port and its users face challenges. Chief among them is access.
As anyone who has traveled to the nearby fishing and recreational paradise of Grand Isle knows, Louisiana Highway 1 provides the only land-based access to coastal Lafourche Parish. The narrow two-lane road is nearly overwhelmed by the more than 1,000 trucks that roll down it each day, not to mention hundreds more vehicles that hit the road for Grand Isle on many weekends.
Add to that mix a six-month long hurricane season, during which LA 1 is regularly at risk of flooding, and the result is a serious threat to the operation of Port Fourchon.
Falgout says that the port itself is built to stand up to strong storms, and neither Hurricane Katrina nor the recent assault by Hurricane Gustav took the docks out of commission for long.
The highway, however, is another matter. “LA 1 floods even in a mild southeaster,” Falgout says.
Several years ago, the port and the businesses that operate there took steps to counter the area’s storm vulnerability. They formed a coalition to seek funds to build an elevated highway and bridge to replace the flood-prone stretch of LA 1 from Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon.
Some $350 million worth of bond sales and fundraising later, a new high-rise bridge spans Bayou Lafourche at Leeville. Grandly curved arched approaches are slowly lining up on either side of the bridge. This portion of the new LA 1 is slated for completion during 2009.
Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, says the road is designed to stand up to major storms and keep access to Port Fourchon and Grand Isle open even if the area around it floods. “We wanted to build it to take a hit,” Boulet says.
But coalition members are worried about when and if the full stretch of road will be finished. “We still don’t have funding for the northern piece,” Boulet says.
Advocates of the new LA 1 are hoping that recent Gulf storms will help call attention to the need to complete it. Boulet says their best bet is to continue getting the word out in political and economic circles about the importance of Port Fourchon.
“There are 600 offshore platforms within 40 miles of the port, and about 1,200 trucks travel LA 1 to get to the port every day” he says. “The mouth of Bayou Lafourche is busier than the mouth of the Mississippi River.”