Fordice tells of work to save New Orleans|[3/4/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 6, 2006

Dan Fordice of Vicksburg well remembers the night he realized the lights were out in New Orleans.

&#8220The strangest thing was to see stars in downtown New Orleans,” said the owner of Fordice Construction Company, a contractor with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. &#8220There wasn’t a light anywhere out there. It was a strange feeling.”

&#8220We were riding down St. Charles,” a main avenue in the city’s Uptown section, Fordice said.

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During a meeting of the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club this week, Fordice told about his company and its experience in the storm’s aftermath.

He told of his company’s background, long history with the Corps and his attempts to help employees of the New Orleans District, with whom his company was working before the storm hit.

Among the Corps’ greatest needs were riprap for roads to get to canal-wall breaches and for help in filling the breaches themselves.

Barges carrying rocks that make up riprap were on the Mississippi River before the storm but could not be found after. Making matters worse, power lines were down and cell phone towers were damaged.

Fordice said he could connect on about one of every 15 cell-phone calls he dialed and could &#8220talk for about 30 seconds” before being cut off.

So Fordice, who is also a pilot, flew himself and the head of another Corps contracting company, Tony Zelenka of Bertucci Contracting Corp. of New Orleans, over affected areas searching for barges carrying riprap and Bertucci equipment along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.

Most of the rock barges had been washed to land, Fordice said.

Fordice Construction was also put to work right away, filling the Corps’ needs for critical supplies, such as small sandbags, fuel, collapsible water containers and shackles for attaching large sandbags and other materials to Corps helicopters for carrying and dropping into the canal-wall breaches.

&#8220We were calling him on a regular basis,” New Orleans District project manager Jackie Purrington said of Fordice, adding that the company supplied &#8220critical parts” for the mission.

&#8220He was providing those a few days after the storm, filling sandbags as quickly as possible,” Purrington said.

Fordice said he was impressed with the dedication and effort of Corps employees in the storm’s aftermath.

&#8220It took a while to dawn on me that 75 percent of the people in the room had just lost everything they own,” Fordice said of New Orleans personnel who moved to Vicksburg after the storm.

They were &#8220all extremely focused on what was going on, to try to correct the problem in New Orleans,” he sadi/.

&#8220I’ve never been so impressed as I was with the 100 people who worked seven days a week for two-months-plus – and some are still working seven days a week,” Fordice said.

Fordice Construction was awarded the Corps’ first contract for the mats used in the Mississippi River to control bank erosion in 1946, Fordice said. The company was begun by Fordice’s grandfather and continued by his father, the late former Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice.

The company was begun in Memphis and moved to Vicksburg in 1962. Its mat-making operation was moved to St. Francisville, La., in 1992.

&#8220And we’re still making mats there,” Fordice said, adding that the company also builds commercial buildings and makes precast bridges. Among its completed projects are St. Aloysius High School, and many of the bank branches in town. Its current projects include an addition to Mission Primary Care Clinic, a renovation of a four-story dormitory at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson and an expansion at Bowmar Baptist Church.

The bridges Fordice builds are relatively small, &#8220county-road-type” bridges – the most recently intalled is on Belva Drive across from Cooper Lighting.