Staff is back at Eastern Shipbuilding Group after its yards in Panama City, Fla., were heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael. Workers were preparing to cut steel for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 360-foot offshore patrol cutter Argus (WMSM-915) when the Category 4 storm struck on Oct. 10.
Power was restored to Eastern’s two facilities two weeks later. By early November, more than 80 percent of employees had returned, and by early December staffing had reached 90 percent, said Brian D’Isernia, Eastern’s chief executive officer. That was out of about 800 workers when the storm hit, and included everyone assigned to work on the company’s OPC contract.
“Our Nelson facility is functional and preparing to build the OPC,” D’Isernia said in December. “Detailed OPC design work is underway per our USCG contract.” The company’s Allanton facility was also fully functional by then.
In September, the Coast Guard exercised contract options with Eastern to build Argus, the nation’s first OPC, with delivery scheduled for 2021. The ship is named for a Coast Guard cutter that began patrolling in 1791. Eastern also was awarded a materials procurement contract for the second ship in the series, Chase (WMSM-916). The combined value of these contracts is $317.5 million.
Dispelling any doubts after the hurricane, Brian Olexy, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate, said in early December that the service “is moving forward with Eastern to build the lead OPC. Preparations to support the beginning of construction next year are underway now.” He also confirmed that the long lead-time materials option for the construction of Chase was exercised. That award lets Eastern make main propulsion, machinery control and equipment orders for the ship.
The Coast Guard has a project resident office, or PRO, at Eastern’s Nelson Street shipyard. “PRO staff and program management staff from USCG headquarters have viewed post-hurricane conditions at Eastern,” Olexy said. “A formal assessment of shipyard conditions is ongoing.”
Eastern is building OPCs to replace the medium endurance cutters in service now. The company’s contract includes options for production of up to nine vessels, with options for two more after that. In a multibillion-dollar program, the Coast Guard plans to acquire 25 OPCs — the largest build project in its 228-year history.
Damage at Eastern from the hurricane included the capsizing of the 261-foot factory trawler North Star. The vessel, being built for Glacier Fish Co. in Seattle, ended up on its side in shallow bay water in Panama City. “We’re collaborating with the owners of the Glacier Fish trawler and the insurance company and look forward to completing the vessel,” D’Isernia said in early December.
Eastern also was building two 320-foot Staten Island ferries for New York City when Michael struck. The NYC Department of Transportation said delivery of the first ferry, slated for late 2019, will be delayed. “We have resumed construction on the Staten Island ferry and are moving forward with the project,” D’Isernia said.
While the power is on in Panama City and roads are open, housing is a big issue, according to Michael Myhre, state director of the Florida Small Business Development Center Network. Hundreds of structures were flattened when Michael hit the Panhandle as a nearly Category 5 storm. But Eastern and other businesses, at risk of losing skilled workers, found ways to house their employees, Myhre said. The shipbuilder set up temporary accommodations for hard-hit workers and started a GoFundMe account to assist staff and their families.
Eastern and other enterprises in Panama City have applied for fixed-rate U.S. Small Business Administration loans for hurricane damage and economic injuries, Myhre said.