To solve a decades old puzzle, sometimes you need to look at it from a different point of view. At 5′ 2″, Elizabeth Loniello, container crane senior manager at the Port of New Orleans, had just the right line of sight to find a solution to a tricky problem.
Since the founding of New Orleans in the early 1700s, the Port of New Orleans has slowly and steadily grown and expanded. Today, it is Louisiana’s only international deep-water container port, and as ships get bigger and bigger, port infrastructure must be continually upgraded. When it came time to install four new gantry cranes, each standing 240 feet tall, the port looked to a civil engineer who had a knack for getting things done.
Elizabeth Loniello came to the Port of New Orleans in 2018 with a civil engineering degree from Louisiana State University. Although small in stature, she oversees the work of 22 other managers and technicians – all male – making her an outlier in an occupation where men typically outnumber women 6 to 1, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
These four new cranes, built by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries (ZPMC), required more than a year of preparation. They are part of a three-year project and $140 million investment in the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal that will enable a nearly 50 percent expansion in the port’s cargo capacity to reach 1.5 million TEUs per year.
Every organization has inefficiencies that stick around for reasons few can explain or remember. Yet, as the only woman in the room, Loniello was less interested in making sense of a system she inherited and more interested in designing one that got the job done.
To make this happen, Loniello oversaw the complete reinforcement of the dock surface. This required pouring 5,300 cubic yards of concrete, driving over seven miles of pilings, laying two miles of electrical cable capable of delivering 5,000 volts, and installing 25 new mooring bollards each with a rated capacity of 330,000 lbs. But perhaps Loniello’s most lasting accomplishment during the upgrade process was the one that required no construction at all: reorganizing the outmoded dock numbering system.
Every inch of every shipping dock in the world is meant to make money. Because different ships arrive and depart at different times, the allocation of berths needs to be precise and well-planned. There was just one conundrum at the Port of New Orleans, the berth numbers were a remnant of incremental modifications over time – all well intentioned – that needed to be reworked.
Before Loniello got started on the project, container ship berths at the Port of New Orleans were identified and numbered according to the city streets that ran perpendicular to them. Names like Napoleon and Nashville are familiar to New Orleanians because these two avenues still serve as the main gateways onto the dock. But over time, as the wharfs grew, so did the need to add new berths, so the Nashville section was divided and expanded into sections A, B, and C. Years later, new Napoleon sections followed suit. However, because each subsection’s berths restarted from zero, the numbers began to repeat themselves.
Over time, as is understandable, people became accustomed to the numbering system at the port. Even if less than perfect, improving it became less and less of a priority. But the civil engineer in Elizabeth Loniello wasn’t satisfied. She knew a better way was possible.
From her standpoint, if the port was going to invest $140 million to upgrade its physical infrastructure, why not modernize its dock numbering system at the time? Under her leadership, and after a few meetings and memos, a new unified container section numbering system was born.
Every organization has inefficiencies that stick around for reasons few can explain or remember. Yet, as the only woman in the room, Loniello was less interested in making sense of a system she inherited and more interested in designing one that got the job done. Her contribution shows that any modernization project is greater than the sum of its concrete and steel. It is about leveraging the strengths of everyone at the table. And at the Port of New Orleans, that means embracing a diversity of perspectives to find the solutions hiding in plain sight.
Editor’s Note: Seaports Magazine is proud to feature the voices of a wide variety of thought leaders who care deeply about ports and supply chain resilience, funding, and success. This and forthcoming articles like it solely express the sentiments of the writer and may not reflect the beliefs of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) and its stakeholders or members.