Laid-off LeTourneau workers biding their time|[04/17/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 17, 2008

The fishing has been good for Edward “Red” Partridge recently, a silver lining for one of the roughly 1,100 employees of LeTourneau Technologies laid off for more than a week and expecting to be jobless for several more.

“I think we’ll be out of work for about six weeks at the most, but it’s really hard to tell right now,” he said. “If it keeps raining north of us they’re going to keep raising the crest, and it could be even longer.”

The river stage at Vicksburg is 50.6 feet today, a rise of 0.3 from Wednesday and exactly 1 foot lower than the 1973 crest. The river is forecast to top out at 51 feet Saturday. Flood stage at the city is 43 feet.

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The National Weather Service is expecting an estimated half-inch of rain in the Vicksburg area Friday and Friday night. More rain may accompany the expected front as it crosses upriver, but no rain is expected for the rest of the weekend or early next week.

The stage was even at Memphis today, cresting upstream, but still rising slightly at Helena and Greenville.

LeTourneau Road — the only road to access the site where the company makes offshore oil rigs — became impassible April 8 and was closed, forcing the layoff. The last time the yard was forced to run on a skeleton crew due to flooding was 1997, when the river topped out at 49.1 feet and the business was closed for about a month.

The river has not been over 50 feet on the local gauge for 35 years.

Although he’s been laid off multiple times throughout his 33 years at LeTourneau, this is the first time Partridge has filed for unemployment instead of finding temporary work.

“I don’t like drawing on the system,” he said. “I’ve always been the type who has been able to provide for and take care of my family.”

However, Partridge and his wife, Joyce, are in a financially more secure position these days than they’ve been in during previous layoffs. Their home and vehicles are paid for, and their daughter is grown. However, Partridge knows some of his co-workers are feeling the strain.

“I am concerned for a lot of the younger people I work with who have little ones,” he said. “You can only get up to $210 a week through unemployment, and that doesn’t buy a lot of groceries, medicine and food.”

LeTourneau Marine Service Manager Ronnie Neihaus said all employees will have their old jobs waiting for them should they choose to stick it out during the layoff period. Of the 1,300 employees at the plant, 1,165 were laid off. Additional employees continue to report at an office on Glass Road and in company outposts in other cities.

In 1997, the majority of employees returned to their jobs following the monthlong layoff, although exact figures were not available.

“We expect there will be some who go find other employment, and some who already have,” said Neihaus. “This is a tough situation for us and for them, and we certainly understand that people have to eat.”

Victor Worrell Sr. has been an employee at LeTourneau for about two years, and said if the layoff lasts too long he will have to start looking for alternatives.

The $210 per week is “better than nothing, but I make twice that much a week working,” he said. “As the weeks go by it’s probably going to get pretty tough.”

Ethel Mae Johnson has been a welder at LeTourneau for nearly 11 years. She has also filed for unemployment and said she’s not looking for another employer. Following the layoff, Johnson is expecting to work long hours at LeTourneau to catch up with lagging production.

“I have been saving for a rainy day, and this here is a rainy day,” she said.

More layoffs could come at LeTourneau if the river stage keeps LeTourneau Road closed for too long. The business cannot receive additional supply shipments, and once the supplies and materials on hand run out, the 135 still working will also have to be laid off. They are currently being ferried to the work area by boat each day.

“I think we’ve got a couple more weeks at least. Depending on how long it stays up, it will impact us,” Neihaus said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep the employees we still have on the job.”

LeTourneau Road was left in ruins following the 1997 flood. It was rebuilt and raised about a foot-and-one-half almost immediately after floodwaters subsided. Neihaus said the road appears to be suffering similar damage again during this flood.

“It looks like there’s at least two or three places where the road is entirely washed out,” he said. “We’ve talked with some of the county board of supervisors and I feel certain they’ll do whatever it takes to get it repaired as quickly as possible.”

Since the river at Vicksburg topped flood stage of 43 feet on March 29:

At least 132 residents have been displaced from 71 inundated homes in Vicksburg, according to city emergency management officials.

An estimated 240,000 acres of cropland have been submerged throughout Mississippi, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District Hydraulic Technician Waylon Hill. An additional 100,000 acres could go under by the time the river crests, if the forecast holds at 51 feet on Saturday.

A temporary Red Cross shelter opened Wednesday at the Church of Christ on North Frontage Road. As of this morning, no one had entered, but Vicksburg Red Cross Emergency Services Director Janice Sawyer said the shelter would remain open until at least noon Friday. A shelter at Calvary Baptist Church on Warriors Trail closed last Friday. It had served as a refuge for up to 12 residents of Ford subdivision since it was opened on April 1.

Crossties have been placed in all of the openings on the Vicksburg floodwall, closing off City Front.

Roadways in Vicksburg and Warren County covered with water and closed include Williams Street, Ford Road, Eva Street, Chickasaw Road, Long Lake Road, Thompson Lake Road, Kings Point Road, LeTourneau Road and Mississippi 465.

Mississippi RiverCREST FORECAST51 feet on SaturdayTODAY’S STAGE:50.6 feetROSE:0.3 footFLOOD STAGE:43 feetFlood PhotosSlideshow of All Photos