US Gulf Platform Damage by Ike a Boon for Deep-Sea Divers

HOUSTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Sept. 17, 2008

Hurricane Ike, which left hundreds of thousands of people without power and caused billions of dollars of damage, is good news for Chris Hufham, a deep-sea commercial diver.

Ike made landfall early Saturday in Galveston, Texas, as a Category 2 hurricane, after churning through the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, home to a quarter of the nation's oil output and 15% of its natural gas production. Hurricane Ike had a remarkably wide wind band that touched production platforms throughout the Gulf. The accompanying storm surge also caused damage by washing over rigs and production facilities that are anchored to the sea floor.

Many energy companies operating in the Gulf are reporting damage and have begun repairs. BP PLC (BP), for example, said the drilling derrick of its massive Mad Dog platform, 190 miles south of New Orleans and one of the Gulf's largest projects in terms of production, was toppled over and is now lying on the ocean floor.

Enter 30-year-old Hufham.

The Houston resident expects to double his annual income, which is usually in the six figures, by repairing damaged underwater pipelines, rigs and platforms submerged in the deep, dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Neither the work nor the money is easy. While offshore workers bustle about on top of platforms, divers like Hufham work as many as 1,000 feet below the surface.

Deep-sea divers play an important role in getting the oil supply chain, in disarray after the hurricanes, back together. Their work on - or, rather, below - offshore platforms will allow companies to resume the production of hydrocarbons and their transportation to shore, where they're processed and distributed across the U.S.

Diving for the Money  

Hufham is an hourly employee for Deep Marine Technology, Inc., a privately owned company based in Houston that provides services to the offshore oil and gas industry.

He generally works shifts of 12 hours a day for two to eight weeks, with a couple weeks off in between his rotations, and can earn up to $900 a day. But when hurricanes come through the Gulf of Mexico, he gets especially busy, and can work for three or four months in a row with just a few days off.

After Ike, he was getting ready to start an intensive and lucrative project repairing structures. Deep Marine Technology has contracted before with Chevron Corp. (CVX) and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC).

"I love to dive, but I really do this for the money, like everyone else," said Hufham, who has much of his body inked with colorful, intricate tattoos and wears round, tribal-type earrings in each lobe.

His friend and co-worker Erick Frawley, 30, who is going Thursday on a planned vacation to Netherlands with his girlfriend, is disappointed he will miss the first assignments coming from Ike's destruction, which he expects will be as generous as the jobs after other storms.

"After (Hurricane) Katrina, I doubled my salary," Frawley said of the infamous storm three years ago.
Deep Sea Risk and Reward  

Frawley said companies like Deep Marine look for people with a specific psychological profile who are suited for the demanding and risky work. Frawley said he has had just one life-threatening accident during his six years as a commercial diver. When he was at diving school, his diving hat filled with water, and he almost drowned, he recalled.

"The riskier part of the job is when you are learning," Frawley said. "After that, everything gets easier."

The risk and the payment increases according to the depth divers have to reach.

For repairs or inspections below 250 feet, they have to go through a decompression process. For every 100 feet of depth they dive, they are required to spend one day in a small capsule on top of a boat where they slowly return to atmospheric pressure after having breathed compressed air in the diving bell that submerged them in deep waters. Generally, while two divers are decompressing on the boat capsule, another two are working in a bell down in the ocean.

Once they are deep under the sea, one diver leaves to fix the structures for six hours, while the other stays in the capsule, generally reading a book waiting for the next shift, Frawley said.

"Thanks to Ike, we are going to make good money and read a lot," he added.

Copyright (c) 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.