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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

Background on the towns and this project is available under the about tab above.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – From a concrete pier in the mouth of the bay, where the October sun beats down and the wind blows in from the gulf, few people are in as good a position as Billy Baughman to understand the raw power of Hurricane Katrina.

Where two miles of CSX railroad line once ran across massive concrete slabs, there remained nothing but air after the hurricane blew ashore Aug. 29.

The tracks and ties and ballast and the slabs themselves now lie at the bottom of the Bay of St. Louis as the wind whistles smugly through the gaps between the piers, a stumpy Stonehenge row from here to Pass Christian on the bay’s eastern shore.

One of 90 crew members who are working seven days a week to rebuild the CSX railroad bridge across St. Louis Bay clambers onto a girder from a barge. Click Play below to hear project manager Billy Baughman detail the job.

Billy Baughman is here to make the trains run again and nothing could make him happier.

“I love it,” he says in a voice that has more South in it than there is water in the bay his men are racing to span. “I love it. I’ve done it all my life. I’ve done it since I was a child. My dad did it when I was a child and his dad did it before him. My whole family’s been in construction for as long as I can remember. … Construction is all I do and I love it. I really do. I love it.”

051024_blog_bridge_bcol_01_1Bridge builder Billy Baughman: "Construction is all I do and I love it." (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

Baughman is the project manager for Scott Bridge Co. of Opelika, Ala., which has the bulk of the contract to get the rail bridge back online by March 1. Damage to the St. Louis Bay bridge is part of an overall $250 million hit the railroad, largest in the eastern U.S., took from Katrina, according to CSX Chief Operating Officer Tony Ingram.

What this job will cost isn’t known, says Scott regional manager Chuck Davis, whose firm is essentially doing the work on a time and materials basis. “Very happy” with how Baughman’s crew is doing, Davis expects “we’ll meet our March 1 objective.”

Highway 90 bridge a total loss

The Highway 90 vehicle bridge to the north is another story. A much larger project, it was a total loss in the storm, contracts to replace it haven’t been let, and an optimistic estimate from the state’s transportation director is that two lanes may be open in a year with full service restored toward the end of 2007.

But the railroad bridge is the Big Game for Baughman. The 59-year-old family man from Columbia, Miss. – “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink … my grandbabies are my whole life” – is deeply moved by the world of hurt that this beast he calls a “HER-i-kin” has put on the Gulf Coast.

He sees a number of ways in which his work can help ease the pain. First and foremost, “freight haul is vital to reconstruction. … People need the things the railroad carries.”

Then there’s the boost to the local economy that the bridge job itself can bring, Baughman says. Scott Bridge crews partly reconstructed a local park that they’re using as a staging area, cleaned up a motel so its workers could stay there and provided generators to a local ready-mix plant so they would have a concrete source. And about half the crew is local, earning up to $20 an hour, about twice normal wages, with scads of overtime.

Finally, there’s the symbolic value in the rapid response to getting the bridge back online. “This area can’t start healing until the people see some visible repair.”

Tall and tanned in dark sage-colored work clothes, hardhat and life vest, Baughman looks like John Wayne going ashore in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” as he jumps into a skiff to see how things are getting on among the carpenters, welders, crane operators and beam setters.

A simple task, in theory

The task is fairly simple in theory. The piers that once carried the rail line survived Katrina intact. With a little work, they were ready for a new deck and tracks. Starting at Bay St. Louis, Baughman’s men are placing 26-ton, 60-foot-long concrete girders across the spans. Four girders to each span are topped with reinforcing steel that is then covered with a deck of concrete and rock ballast before the railroad ties and tracks are set in place.

051024_blog_bridge_bcol_02
Despite the loss of the superstructure, the railroad bridge's piers, like No. 107, survived Katrina. In the distance is what remains of the Highway 90 vehicle bridge, which will take years to fully rebuild. (Jim Seida / MSNBC.com)

Scott Bridge, Baughman’s company, has contracted to span 110 of the 160 gaps and fix the swing span that lets barge and boat traffic through the middle of the bridge. Starting in Pass Christian, another company has a contract for the remaining 50 spans.

The work itself is anything but simple. Supporting the crew of 90 workers are eight barges, two tug boats, two high-speed skiffs, five cranes from 100 to 230 tons, and countless trucks, forklifts, generators, arc welders and compressors. The company runs its own kitchen to serve three meals a day with lunch brought right out to the bridge.

The days are long – “all daylight hours, seven days a week” – and dangerous, but “this company is fanatical about safety,” which is just the way Baughman wants it.

On his crew, “there’s about 13 or 14 of them that I’ve raised,” he says, and “they mean a lot to me.” He points with pride to one of his three sons who is getting a girder ready to be hoisted into place.
He’s also proud of the pace that his crew is setting, having placed girders across 34 spans by the end of last week with concrete deck finished on 11 of those.

Looking back toward shore where the concrete beams, coming from plants in Mississippi and Alabama “as fast as they can make them,” are lined up on Mack trucks, he says the hardest part of the job is dealing with sightseers who wander into his crew’s way and block the road with their cars.

But Baughman loves it out here where fishing pelicans dive-bomb the bay waters and the men see dolphins and alligators every day. He pauses to shade his eyes from the low morning sun. “If they stopped paying me, I’d probably stop coming out here, but I surely would miss it.”

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13 COMMENTS

I enjoyed article very much. I try to keep up the process of recovery in the Gulf Coast. I can see the danger of the work you are doing. Hope you and your sons are safe during the long hours of work. I am keeping a pics file and will continue to stay stay on watch after Katrina and Rita. Good luck

This kind of development is greatly encouraging to all the local residents--they need reason to celebrate the future.

Good story on the construction side of the rebuilding
if there is a good side to this distruction,is, what is rebuilt will be up-graded. Good luck to the crew and above all be safe.

I never thought that I would actually look forward to hearing the train whistles as the freight moved almost continously through Waveland/BSL. The task of getting this rail line repaired seems daunting seeing the miles of washed out track leading up to the bridge.

My husband is working on this job. He is the one hanging off the bridge swinging a slege hammer. These guys are sacrificing a lot to help rebuild this town and it is well worth it. I am proud of him for all his hard work to get these towns back in working order.

The other thing to remember about this reconstruction is that CSX Railroad is paying for the work itself. No Highway Trust Fund money, no federal money to rebuild airports. This is a private railroad paying its own money to rebuild its railroad and get it reopened for service. Norfolk Southern did the same thing to reopen its 5-mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain.

My Grandfather and father would be and are very proud of the work these dedicated, hard working and loyal men are doing.

This is electronic journalism at its best. I've been writing about the railroads for 50 years and am profoundly impressed by the eloquence of this piece.

I feel like I just had a nice visit with Billy Wayne Baughman.... he is a member of East Columbia Church here in Columbia and we have missed him and his family since he has been away working.. Nice to hear his voice.
Hello Billy and Martha and the kids.
We love you
Richard & Sylvia Sones

This is a sad story for railroaders to read. They have their own Bridge builders to do this work, yet CSX feels the need to contract their work out.

Thanks to all these hard workers on the bridge project. However, all this re-route traffic is killing me in Nashville. Please hurry up and finish the bridge!!!

Thanks to CSX most of the employees that worked on the NO&M, the line between Mobile and New Orleans, have been relocated to jobs on other Divisions on the CSX. I help to supervise 46 relocated employees in Meridian, MS, WE operate re-route trains between Birmigham and New Orleans on the NS Railroad. We are looking for progress reports about our own subdivision. Thanks for the Info

HELLO I LIVE IN MOBILE WAS HOPING TO GET INFORMATION IF POSSIBLE WHEN AMTRACK TRAIN WILL RUN AGAIN ACROSS MISS.?

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