Have you ever wondered what it is like to work on a NOAA navigation response team (NRT) or what makes our team members experts in their field?
The Office of Coast Survey deploys NRTs across the country to conduct emergency hydrographic surveys requested by the U.S. Coast Guard, port officials, and other first responders in the wake of accidents and natural events that create navigation hazards. In their day‐to‐day, non‐emergency role, the NRTs work in the nation’s busiest ports, surveying for dangers to navigation and updating nautical chart products.
Meet Erin Diurba, a NOAA navigation response team member homeported in Galveston, Texas. Her self-described “survey wanderlust” has taken her across the globe to gain hydrographic surveying expertise on diverse teams and in unique environments. She tells her story here in this story map.
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.
Matthew became a hurricane on Thursday, September 29, and it was soon clear that NOAA’s navigation services would be called into action. Coast Survey knew they would be needed for the maritime transportation system’s rapid recovery operations, to search for underwater debris and shoaling. That Saturday, while Hurricane Matthew was still three days away from hitting Haiti, Coast Survey was already ramping up preparations for assisting with reopening U.S. shipping lanes and ports after Matthew’s destruction. By Monday, as NOAA’s National Hurricane Center zeroed in on a major hit to the southeast coast, Coast Survey’s navigation service personnel began moving personnel and survey vessels for rapid deployment. Calling in survey professionals from as far away as Seattle, teams were mobilized to locations outside of the hurricane’s impact zones, so they would be ready to move in and hit the water as soon as weather and ocean conditions allowed.
Coast Survey prepared two navigation response teams – small vessels with 3-person crews – and NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler for survey work prioritized by the U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ports, terminal operators, state officials, and local emergency responders. Two navigation managers, Kyle Ward (Southeast) and Tim Osborn (Central Gulf of Mexico), were augmented by Lucy Hick and Michael Davidson, navigation services personnel in Silver Spring, Maryland, to coordinate personnel safety, property protection, and navigation service delivery before, during, and after the storm.
Port Canaveral, Florida
Tim Osborn, who deployed to Port Canaveral from Baton Rouge, is a veteran of NOAA’s many hurricane responses in the Gulf of Mexico ports. Osborn lent his expertise and experience to the Port Canaveral pilots, port officials, and U.S. Coast Guard, as they quickly resumed operations. While the port re-opened on October 8 for cruise ships during daylight hours, they needed a Coast Survey navigation team, working in coordination with a private survey company contracted by the port, to search for dangers to navigation for the deeper draft vessels. Navigation Response Team 4 (Dan Jacobs, Mark McMann, and Starla Robinson) worked through the day on October 9, and the port was subsequently opened for full operations.
Port of Charleston, South Carolina
As luck would have it, NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Jaskoski, was surveying the approaches to Wilmington, North Carolina, this fall. They broke off survey operations and headed to Charleston as Hurricane Matthew approached, so they were in position to assist with reopening that port. Knowing they would need additional technical help for around-the-clock operations, physical scientist James Miller drove from his NOAA office in Norfolk to Charleston (the normally six-hour trip taking over 14 hours, due to flooded roads) to augment Hassler‘s normal complement of scientists. As soon as conditions were safe, on October 9, Hassler went to work. From 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Hassler surveyed 50 nautical miles. They processed their data, checking it for dangers to navigation, and got their report to the U.S. Coast Guard by 6:40 that evening. Armed with Hassler’s report, along with data from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard was able to reopen the port with restrictions by about 7:00 p.m.
Port of Savannah, Georgia
Ferdinand R. Hassler’s next assignment was to assist with survey operations at the Port of Savannah. After waiting for safe transit conditions in departing Charleston, they arrived in Savannah in the late afternoon of October 11, joining Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Team 2 (James Kirkpatrick, Lucas Blass, and Ian Colvert), who had been surveying there since October 9. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) also surveyed, as shown below. With offshore conditions too choppy for small boat survey operations, Hassler went to work surveying Savannah’s entrance channel, planning to survey for about ten hours into the night. They hope to deliver their report to the Coast Guard before daylight on October 12.
UPDATE (10/13/2016): Hassler finished the Savannah survey at about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 11, and started transiting to their next assignment ten minutes later. The ship’s physical scientists continued working on the Savannah data, and were able to deliver their report to the Coast Guard at about 11:45 p.m.
Port of Brunswick, Georgia
Next, Hassler will join with Navigation Response Team 4 for surveying at the Port of Brunswick, to work with the Georgia Port Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard, the harbor pilots and the USACE to reopen the port to commercial vessel traffic. NRT4 completed inshore survey operations on October 11, and Hassler will survey the offshore area on October 12.
UPDATE (10/13/2016): Hassler arrived at Brunswick at about 3:00 a.m. on October 12, but the sea was too rough for surveying the approach and entrance channel. Ultimately, conditions did not improve during the day, and Hassler had to demobilize and return to Charleston.
On this date in 1996, twenty years ago, the crew of NOAA Ship Rude completed her special mission and headed back to regular survey duties. Throughout the previous two weeks, Rude’s officers and crew were pivotal in finding the wreckage of – and helping to bring closure to – one of the worst aviation disasters in U.S. history.
From a 1996 report by then-Cmdr. Nick Perugini, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, we have this description:
“When TWA Flight 800 exploded out of the sky this summer, NOAA hydrographic survey vessel Rude began a dramatic journey which would test to the limit skills and resources of its officers and crew, and bring to national attention the agency’s hydrographic capabilities.
“Rude was the second U.S. government rescue vessel to arrive at the scene and contributed information critical to the subsequent recovery effort and ensuing investigation…
“The day after the TWA crash, President Clinton pledged all resources the federal government could bring to bear to determine why a Boeing 747 fell out of the sky in a blazing fireball, killing all 230 aboard. By that time, Rude was already on the crash site, eight miles off the coast of Moriches Bay, Long Island. Reports over the marine radio of a plane crash in that area prompted Cmdr. [Sam] DeBow to contact the Coast Guard and offer assistance.
“The Coast Guard directed Rude to the crash site immediately. The ship steamed all night and arrived on site about 7:00 a.m.
“Rude immediately began assisting in the search… Rude’s people knew what had to be done. The job entailed running a series of systematic side scan sonar lines over an area in search of a feature who position was approximate… DeBow and his crew felt that no vessel or group of people were better qualified to meet the task.”
The narrative of the crew’s actions over the next two weeks is fascinating. GPS World has given us permission to post their extensive article from February 1997, “Sounding the Depths: Mapping the Wreckage of TWA Flight 800.” It’s well worth a read, to follow along as Rude makes the initial discovery of the debris field, and then works to works to document hundreds of contacts, guiding divers as they retrieve bodies and pieces of the jetliner. As Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said after the event: “Accurate mapping of the wreckage on the ocean floor was essential… The sonargrams provided by the Rude proved invaluable to the recovery effort.”
The dedication of the crew, the smart use of technology, the long hours of processing data and interpreting it – it’s awe-inspiring. But something else touches the heart about this operation. The Los Angeles Times, on July 24, 1996, headlined an article, “11-year-old inspires searchers.”
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang reported from aboard Rude, off Long Island: “In a picture taped to a blue metal case that houses sophisticated navigational equipment on this ship, 11-year-old Larkyn Lynn Dwyer smiles broadly, her dimples deep and her bangs hanging almost into her eyes.
“’This is what we’re here for, guys,’ Cmdr. Sam DeBow, skipper of this 90-foot hydrographic survey ship, told his crew Tuesday as he posted the picture on the case that houses the vessel’s global positioning system, which can pinpoint its location within a few feet on a featureless sea.
“As the ship plows the Atlantic water in the recovery zone where TWA Flight 800 crashed in flames last Wednesday, Larkyn Lynn, who was the aboard the airplane bound for Paris, has come to personify the 230 victims for the vessel’s 11-member crew.
“’I have a daughter that age. That’s what really hit home for us,’ said DeBow.”
Rude’s crew was honored for their heroic work in the tragedy’s aftermath. In a speech at a ceremony honoring the critical contributions to search and recovery efforts, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Frederico Pena said, “As horrible as this ordeal has been for all of you, it has reminded our nation of two simple truths.
“We’re reminded, first, that America always pulls together in times of need. Everyone out there was part of the team… Whatever problems arose, people stepped in to solve them – together. For that, the President and I are proud, and the nation is grateful.
“Second, we’re reminded that our nation’s heroes are not just famous names. Our nation’s heroes are ordinary people, called on to do the extraordinary. As you searched the sea, making yourselves special to the families of the loved ones, you made yourselves special to America. You moved our spirit. Everyone in the country knows of your heroics. And they thank you.”
Officers and crew of Rude during the TWA response: Cmdr. Sam DeBow, Lt. Cheryl Thacker, Lt. Jonathan Klay, Lt.j.g. Nathan Hill, chief engineer Lance Klein, engine utilityman Ed Watson, chief steward Eward Jones, chief boatswain Gordon Pringle, seaman surveyor Jeffrey Brawley, survey technician Charles Neely, survey technician Mark Lathrop, electrical technician Clovis Thompson; with augmentors Lt. Don Haines, Robert Wint, and Charles Karlsson. The NOAA Shore Support Team, who input and portrayed the data: Cmdr. Nick Perugini, Lt. Eddie Radford, Lt.j.g. Shepard Smith, Lt. Cmdr. Emily Christman, Lt.j.g. Edward van den Ameele, and Lt. Gerd Glang.