Ever wonder what it’s like to be a member of the NOAA Coast Survey team? We use the Coast Survey spotlight blog series as a way to periodically share the experiences of Coast Survey employees as they discuss their work, background, and advice.
John Doroba, physical scientist
“Once I saw the mission I was hooked. It was the best job a recent graduate who loved being in the field could ask for, especially when you get to travel all around the country. Where else could I practice my love for science, utilize my education, solve real world problems that serve a purpose, and directly impact people in a positive way?”
After quickly gaining the strength of a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Michael reached the panhandle of Florida on Wednesday, October 10. With maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and storm surge reaching 15 feet, this storm wiped out coastal communities and closed ports to all traffic in the area. Dangerous winds and storm surge can shift sands and pull large objects beneath the waves, creating hazards to navigation. Before ports can reopen and safely resume vessel traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard must be aware of any underwater dangers so they can either be properly charted or removed. Continue reading “NOAA detects navigation hazards following Hurricane Michael”
By Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
Almost one year following the passage and destruction of Hurricane Maria, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson has returned to Puerto Rico. Following the storm, Thomas Jefferson deployed in September 2017 for hydrographic hurricane response work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (PR/USVI). The ship and crew surveyed 18 individual port facilities to ensure safety of navigation and help re-open the region for maritime commerce. Thomas Jefferson’s second major project of 2018 has brought the ship back to Puerto Rico from August to November, conducting follow-up survey work along the north and south coasts. Continue reading “NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson presents survey work to Puerto Rico South Coast stakeholders”
“But, sir, what does the country want in the coast survey? They want a very useful work done, a very important work done, and they want it done in the best manner.” – U.S. Senator John Davis (MA), 1849, explaining the importance of the coast survey to safety and the U.S. economy during the 30th Congress, 2nd Session
As the nation’s nautical chartmaker, NOAA Coast Survey provides critical emergency response information to coastal communities and waterways. Each year, Coast Survey prepares for hurricane season in order to perform the work in—as the late Senator Davis put it—“the best manner.” Last year’s string of powerful hurricanes underscored the importance of coordinated efforts for storm preparation, response, and recovery. With the official start of the 2018 hurricane season just around the corner, Coast Survey’s regional navigation managers spent the large part of April and May meeting with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), port authorities, NOAA National Weather Service, and communities to prepare emergency response capabilities. Continue reading “Coast Survey prepares to serve nation during 2018 hurricane season”
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is the federal leader in emergency hydrographic response. Consecutive strong storms during the 2017 hurricane season made response efforts challenging, and emphasized the importance of having a well-trained and versatile staff. Coast Survey’s regional navigation managers, navigation response teams (NRTs), and mobile integrated survey team (MIST) worked with partners before and after the storms to quickly and safely reopen ports and waterways.
The MIST equipment is a mobile, quick-install side scan and single beam sonar kit that can be quickly set up on a vessel of opportunity. Recently, Coast Survey sent the MIST team to Astoria, Oregon to conduct a hydrographic survey of the Mott Basin area, which the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) requested to confirm charted depth and obstruction data. Continue reading “NOAA mobile integrated survey team prepares for hurricane season”
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was powerful, with the strongest storms occurring consecutively from late August to early October. The sequential magnitude of four hurricanes in particular—Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate—made response efforts challenging for NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. Coast Survey summarized this season’s response efforts along with the efforts of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson (operated by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations) in the following story map.
Official hurricane season doesn’t start until June 1, but Coast Survey’s navigation managers are heavily involved throughout April and May in training exercises with the U.S. Coast Guard, ports authorities and NOAA’s National Weather Service.
Why is Coast Survey involved? With our expertise in underwater detection, NOAA navigation response teams and survey ships are often the first ones in the water after a hurricane, looking to make sure that no hidden debris or shoaling poses a danger to navigation. The faster we can advise “all clear” to the Captain of the Port, the faster the U.S. Coast Guard can re-open sea lanes for the resumption of shipping or homeland security and defense operations. So our East Coast and Gulf Coast navigation managers – who are NOAA’s “ambassadors” to the maritime public – engage with response partners during hurricane exercises. Their reports of NOAA survey capabilities and assets are an important factor in testing federal response options.
Tim Osborn, the navigation manager for the east Gulf Coast, has been organizing hurricane response for 15 years – since Hurricane Lilli in 2002 – and he brings NOAA priorities to the table.
“Ports and waterways are huge parts of our nation’s economy,” Tim says. “Our core mission at NOAA is to safeguard them and work – literally at ‘ground zero’ – to respond and reopen these very large complexes and job bases as quickly and safely as possible.”
Coast Survey navigation managers are planning to participate in hurricane exercises in Hampton Roads (Virginia), Charleston (South Carolina), Savannah (Georgia), Jacksonville (Florida), and in port locations all along the Gulf Coast. Additionally, a joint hurricane task force meeting, organized by the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association and USCG District 7 office in New Orleans, will include pilots, federal agencies, port authorities, and the navigation community from Panama City (Florida) to south Texas. Plans are also in the works to engage with Puerto Rico and American Virgin Islands hurricane response teams.
“We are fast approaching another hurricane season,” said Roger Erickson, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “We have now gone five years in Louisiana and nine years in Texas without a land-falling hurricane, but there is always work to be done to keep our communities prepared.”
The people along the Atlantic coast can readily attest to Erickson’s observation. In the five years since Coast Survey navigation managers and survey teams responded to Hurricane Isaac’s fury at Port Fourchon, our men and women have worked to speed the resumption of shipping and other maritime operations along the East Coast after hurricanes Matthew and, of course, Sandy.
Hurricane Danny is churning in the Atlantic. NOAA hurricane models are churning through data, and two NOAA sensor-packed Hurricane Hunters — a Lockheed WP-3D Orion and a Gulfstream IV — are in Barbados, flying into the storm to collect storm data. Over the next few days, scientists on the ground and in the air will help us determine where Danny will go, and how big the hurricane will get.
In the meantime, NOAA Office of Coast Survey is tracking the NOAA forecasts and making initial preparations for deployment of hydrographic survey equipment to Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, if needed.
Coast Survey mobilizes survey teams to search for underwater debris and shoaling after hurricanes, to speed the resumption of ocean-going commerce. When we can’t reach the area with our navigation response team vessels, we send a special mobile integrated survey team (MIST) with the equipment. Then we find a “vessel of opportunity,” install the equipment, and the team goes into the water as soon as it is practicable. (A MIST operation in Maine, deployed for a different set of reasons, demonstrated its effectiveness when it assisted the fishing fleet out of Cobscook Bay.)
At almost the first suggestion that Danny would turn into a hurricane, the U.S. Coast Guard in San Juan was determining Coast Survey’s response capabilities. Does NOAA have the assets available to help re-open ports in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, they asked Mike Henderson, Coast Survey’s navigation manager for Florida, PR, and USVI. Yes, he answered. The MIST is ready to go to any Caribbean location. In addition, the Navigation Response Branch chief, Lt. Cmdr. Holly Jablonski, reports that navigation response teams are preparing for possible mobilization on the Gulf Coast and East Coast, in case Danny maintains strength and heads to the mainland.
Additionally, Coast Survey’s coastal modeling experts are preparing to test a new storm surge model for predicting coastal flooding from Danny. This model, in experimental use this summer, would predict the flooding caused by the combined effects of hurricane-driven storm surges and tide signals. With a large, flexible grid that extends from South America to Canada, it provides an unprecedented scope for tracking the impact hurricanes have on coastal water levels as these storms cross the Atlantic Ocean and impact the U.S. coastline.
We hear about the infrastructure investments that often follow major disasters like hurricanes ‒ the “hard” port resilience strategies necessary in the wake of catastrophic human, environmental, and economic loss. But the sturdiest, most flood-proof building is just one part of a larger system of assets in coastal resilience. We don’t hear much about the “soft” resilience strategies ‒ those that build and maintain ties among the people responsible for responding to a hurricane, for instance ‒ that are important to a successful response. Those strategies are part of the social capital between communities and government, and among government agencies.
Coast Survey navigation managers invest in important soft resilience strategies during their ongoing preparations for hurricane season, building relationships with the private and public partners with whom they will work in a crisis. To quote a spokesperson for the New York Office of Emergency Management, “You don’t want to meet someone for the first time when you’re standing around in the rubble.” Or surveying a dangerous coastal debris field, as the case may be.
Coast Survey navigation managers and navigation response teams have the opportunity to build those relationships when they meet with emergency responders from NOAA and other agencies throughout the year for planning, drills, and tabletop exercises. Navigation managers also sit on U.S. Coast Guard Marine Transportation System Recovery Units, which comprise the experts in maritime mobility, incident response, and port operations who work with stakeholders to reopen ports following a natural or manmade disruption. The units provide a single contact and a clear, efficient pipeline for relaying information to and from Coast Guard and NOAA headquarters to ensure that resources are available at the right place at the right time.
The “right time” is well before a storm hits its coastal target. After a damaging storm, ports may restrict ship travel or shut down completely ‒ so deploying survey ships, navigation response teams, and navigation managers before the storm arrives is critical. For example, four days out, as it becomes more obvious where a storm will hit, the Marine Transportation System Recovery Units assess the likely severity of damage in the forecasted areas. Two to three days out, Coast Survey teams are on the move to pre-position before the storm’s arrival. Because they have been pre-positioned, navigation managers can work directly with the Coast Guard, pilots, and port officials to create a survey plan for detecting underwater debris in order to rapidly “clear” priority areas for the resumption of shipping.
Tensions are high after a hurricane, and resources may be scarce. When people from several agencies are trying their best to get operations up and running, under difficult circumstances, pre-established individual relationships can help to ease the strain and strengthen team bonds. Of course, nothing beats team building like a successful response to an actual storm. (See this excellent report on port recovery in the aftermath to Sandy in 2012.) The lessons learned in one response can be transferable to future responses. As an added benefit, the respect and trust among cooperating agencies, at all levels of government, gives life to the motto of the United States. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.
As NOAA’s National Weather Service adjusts the track of Tropical Storm Isaac, so Coast Survey adjusts pre-response planning and deployment. (BTW, the New Orleans/Baton Rouge NWS Tropical Weather Briefing is a great resource for maritime observations, as is nowCOAST.) Based on updates in the hurricane models, and after multiple briefings with Coast Guard officials, Coast Survey is moving to pre-position two of the navigation response teams closer to the expected impact areas. (See response asset graphic, below.)
Major ports along in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana will likely be closed later today, if they aren’t already. With over $153 billion in ocean-going trade through New Orleans annually, and another $31 billion a year in and out of Mobile, it is essential to get shipping channels cleared for the resumption of traffic as soon as possible after a storm. Just as important, the Gulf produces 23 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and 7 percent of natural gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The resumption of operations at ports serving the energy industry is essential to keeping supplies flowing.
Several of Coast Survey’s regional navigation managers are gearing up coordination with state and port officials, and with the U.S. Coast Guard. Florida navigation manager Mike Henderson has been working since early Saturday morning at the State Emergency Center in Tallahassee. Gulf Coast (East) navigation manager Tim Osborn is relocating to the Louisiana emergency response center in Baton Rouge, and navigation liaison Patrick Fink will be working out of NOAA’s new Disaster Response Center in Mobile. Gulf Coast (West) navigation manager Alan Bunn, based in Texas, is moving to Lafayette to better handle on-the-ground logistics for the Rapid Maritime Response. The navigation managers coordinate requests for NOAA’s navigation response teams, as the NRTs are needed to help re-open shipping lanes and port areas by searching for underwater debris and shoaling.
Navigation response team 4, which is surveying off the coast of Galveston, will deploy to Lafayette, Louisiana, on Tuesday morning. NRT4 will survey in Louisiana, as needed according to priorities established by the Captain of the Port (COTP).
Also on Tuesday, NRT2 will join NRT1 in Panama City, Florida, to be ready for deployment as soon as Hurricane Isaac moves away from the coast. These teams will each survey areas in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana – again, as requested according to U.S. Coast Guard COTP priorities.
Some of NOAA’s major survey assets are the private contractors who conduct hydrographic surveys to acquire data necessary for nautical chart updates. Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Surveys Division is working with the contractors currently surveying in the Gulf, to ascertain their current locations, determine how they may be impacted by the storm, and their potential response capabilities.
Coast Survey’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team remains ready to move as necessary, once Isaac has made landfall and we have assessed the storm damage and navigational needs. When called to action, the MIST will mobilize on a vessel of opportunity.
Coast Survey is more than surveying, charting, and maritime response. The Coast Survey Development Lab is providing visualizations of experimental storm surge simulations to the National Hurricane Center for each forecast cycle of Hurricane Isaac. These simulations are being created in partnership with several federal agencies and research groups, and show the significant storm surge threat Isaac poses to the Gulf Coast.