Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 21, as a strong Category 4 hurricane. The storm brought sustained winds of 150 mph and dropped over 18 inches of rain in some areas. Although these islands have seen their fair share of hurricanes and tropical storms, the last storm of this intensity to hit Puerto Rico was the San Felipe Segundo hurricane in 1928. The widespread flooding, winds, and storm surge from Hurricane Maria devastated the islands leaving them without power and their critical ports paralyzed as debris, shoaling, and damaged infrastructure prevents large vessels from entering safely.
“The people of Puerto Rico are suffering and will need unprecedented levels of support from their fellow Americans to rebuild their homes, businesses, and communities,” said Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of the NOAA Office of Coast Survey. “The ports are currently unsafe for large ships, and it is necessary to restore Puerto Rico’s maritime commerce to make rebuilding possible.”
NOAA conducts emergency hydrographic surveys following hurricanes at the request of the USCG to ensure there is no hidden debris or shoaling that pose a danger to navigation. Once our teams notify the USCG of our findings, the quicker ports can re-open and resume shipping, bringing critical equipment and goods to the areas in need.
As Hurricane Maria made its way toward the islands, NOAA Coast Survey monitored it closely. Kyle Ward, NOAA’s southeast navigation manager, worked with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) District 7, USCG Sector San Juan, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate response efforts prior to the storm. This laid the groundwork for positioning our assets in strategic locations ready for deployment
NOAA’s mobile integrated survey team (MIST) (Mike Annis, Lt. Cmdr. Jon French, John Doroba, and Michael Bloom) completed hydrographic survey work in Key West, Florida, following Hurricane Irma and was transported via USCG C-130 from Naval Air Station Jacksonville to the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. The team then traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, via USCG Cutter Venturous and arrived on Saturday, September 23. The MIST is currently surveying the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port.
Update: MIST completed hydrographic surveys in the Port of Arecibo and is traveling back to the continental United States on Thursday, September 28.
NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is enroute from Port Everglades, Florida, to Puerto Rico and is expected to arrive on Thursday, September 28. Thomas Jefferson will work with USCG to identify port priority to begin survey operations upon arrival. Navigation response team 2, in Fernandina Beach, Florida, defueled their vessel in preparation for potential deployment via USCG aircraft to Puerto Rico.
Once emergency hydrographic operations are complete and ports re-open in Puerto Rico, the work is far from done. During a hurricane, the shoreline can change significantly, marine debris may not have been detected in initial response surveys, and shoaling may have occurred in the approaches to ports. Survey work and chart updates must continue so that the accuracy of NOAA Coast Survey’s suite of nautical charts are restored to pre-storm conditions.
This blog post will be updated as we receive further information from the field.