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NOAA Responds to Irene in Hampton Roads


NOAA hydrographic vessels respond in Hampton Roads. Dashed red lines show where the vessels are surveying over 200 linear nautical miles to speed resumption of full shipping operations.

NOAA’s role in hurricanes does not end with forecasting. Days before Hurricane Irene hit the U.S., the Office of Coast Survey mobilized assets and personnel, getting ready to respond to navigational needs of the 192 ports in Irene’s path along the Eastern Seaboard. Coast Survey stationed navigation response vessels from North Carolina to Rhode Island, ready to search for underwater debris and other submerged hazards in critical port areas and shipping lanes. That advance preparation made a particularly vital difference to shipping in and out of Hampton Roads, Va.

“Time literally means money for the U.S. economy when it comes to navigation through U.S. ports,” said Capt. John Lowell, Office of Coast Survey director. “Delays in shipping, even minor ones, cost the economy millions each year, and NOAA’s emergency navigation mobilization paid dividends in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where an average of $5 million worth of cargo is shipped in or out, every hour.”

On the heels of Irene, NOAA conducted hydrographic surveys around the clock in Hampton Roads, applying its state-of-the-art assets to restoring the port to its full capacity. Three NOAA vessels are surveying 200 linear nautical miles within 48 hours, looking at seafloor changes and searching for underwater hazards that would pose a danger to ships.

A robust and expanding export business is an important potential growth area for the U.S. coal industry, and Hampton Roads is a world leader in coal export shipments. Navigation disruption can obviously have severe economic consequences, especially when reductions in ocean shipping cascades to stoppages of train shipments from coal mined in the Appalachians. Coal exporting terminals at Norfolk shut down on Friday while the industry awaited passage of the storm. Following Irene, port officials imposed vessel draft restrictions until NOAA hydrographic vessels could survey the shipping channels, checking depths for shoaling as a result of the storm.

A physical scientist on the Bay Hydro II captures hydrographic data from surveying Hampton Roads

As soon as conditions allowed on Sunday afternoon, NOAA began surveying the deep draft channels needed to facilitate a quick lifting of the draft restrictions and resume coal shipments. While NOAA hydrographers are measuring depths and looking for hidden dangers to navigation, survey technicians are simultaneously processing the soundings data acquired by the NOAA sonar. NOAA sends the sounding plots information to the U.S. Coast Guard so authorities know which areas have been surveyed, and which are next on the list of priorities. The information feeds into the decisions to remove shipping restrictions.

Ports are critical arteries for American commerce, with the maritime transportation system contributing more than $1 trillion to the national economy and providing employment for more than 13 million people. Just as a car accident can snarl traffic for miles, shipping delays can snarl the both the maritime system and land-based shipping that feeds into the ports. NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has been surveying and charting the nation’s coastlines since the 1800s, after President Thomas Jefferson ordered a survey of the coast to protect the young nation’s shipping industry.

The Hampton Roads area is also home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval base. Keeping Hampton Roads ocean channels open is critical to our nation's defense.

August 30, 2011

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