The year in business: Last Navy ship departs from Avondale

Jed Lipinski, The Times-Picayune

The last Navy warship to be built at Avondale, known as the Somerset, departed the West Jefferson shipyard on Feb. 3 and joined a Navy fleet two months later in a commissioning ceremony in Philadelphia. The departure was deeply symbolic for the troubled shipyard, whose workforce has plummeted from around 5,000 in 2010 to just a few hundred today.

Sailors aboard USS Somerset leave Avondale on February 3, 2014 (Photo: Ted Jackson Times Picayune)

Sailors aboard USS Somerset as the ship leaves Avondale on February 3, 2014
Photo by Ted Jackson, Times Picayune

What happened: Avondale was once one of the largest private employers in Louisiana, peaking at around 26,000 workers. Created in 1938 to serve the maritime and oil industries, it delivered its first Navy vessel in 1951, and subsisted mainly off Naval contracts in recent years.

In 2010, however, defense contractor Northrop Grumman announced its intent to close the yard by 2013, and created a spinoff company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, to oversee it. Ingalls later announced its decision to seek out oil and gas contracts to keep facility open. But so far, no contracts have been secured.

The Somerset, a 684-foot amphibious transport dock ship, takes its name from the Pennsylvania county where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. It received a small but patriotic send-off, with dozens lining the boardwalk in front of Jackson Square as the vessel sailed past on the Mississippi River.

What’s next: At the time of the Somerset’s departure, Avondale had more than 600 employees. But without oil and gas contracts to sustain it, Huntington Ingalls has continued to lay off workers this year.

Today, a small maintenance crew and around 200 engineers, employed at the UNO-Avondale Maritime Technology Center, are all that remains. A spokeswoman for Huntington Ingalls said the company will continue to explore opportunities to develop the yard with Kinder Morgan in 2015.

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