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.
The Inner Harbor Navigation Channel in New Orleans facilitates the transportation of tens of millions of tons of cargo each year. Since the channel was recently closed for repairs, a temporary Chandeleur Sound Alternate Route was established to ensure the flow of commerce between the western and eastern reaches of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. NOAA experts assisted with the alternate route development in various ways, collaborating with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the maritime industry.
Navigation manager Tim Osborn represented NOAA on the Coast Guard’s weekly conference calls on the alternate route, asking for industry suggestions on how we could assist. Based on these collaborations, Coast Survey updated the nautical charts with the newly installed Aids to Navigation, while the National Weather Service began providing localized weather forecasts and warnings along the route. In addition, Coast Survey contracted David Evans and Associates (DEA) to survey the southern 33 miles of the total 66-mile proposed route. The survey required object detection survey coverage, with DEA submitting all observed soundings or obstructions shoaler than 12 feet as dangers to navigation. DEA found three dangers to navigation, and they were subsequently announced in the Local Notice to Mariners and applied to the applicable nautical charts.
NOAA will continue to support the tow industry using the alternate route by adding new navigation data to the chart as we receive it, as well as by providing specialized weather reports along the route throughout the estimated three-month closure of the Inner Harbor Navigation lock in New Orleans.
Coast Survey has been discovering and marking the locations of underwater dangers since our surveyors took the nation’s first official ocean soundings in 1834. We’ve used or developed all the technological advancements – lead lines, drag lines, single beam echo sounders, towed side scan sonars, and post-1990 multibeam echo sounders – and now we can point to a new major advancement for fast deployment and quick recovery. In February, Coast Survey’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) used an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to locate a submerged buoy that was interfering with anchorages in the Chesapeake Bay.
“You and the crew of the HASSLER put us right where we needed to be!” said a confirmation email from the U.S. Coast Guard to NOAA Lt. Ryan Wartick, one of Coast Survey’s navigation managers. “Thanks for the great work!”
The problem began in early February, when an outbound tug struck and dragged a very large buoy and its anchor to an unknown location in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay’s Thimble Shoal Channel. The U.S. Coast Guard closed adjacent anchorages because of the potential danger to navigation posed by the submerged buoy, affecting commercial vessel operations in the area.
On February 9, Lt. Wartick sat down with the U.S. Coast Guard, and other local and federal agencies, to arrange for Coast Survey mobilization in a collaborative effort to find the missing G “11” buoy. The Coast Guard asked Coast Survey to search Anchorage “A” on Friday, February 12, and provided a 45-foot vessel for our use.
Coast Survey’s MIST responders Robert Mowery and James Miller were able to pack up the AUV in Maryland and drive to USCG station on Naval Little Creek amphibious base, where they set up, calibrated, and hit the water on February 12 – and promptly located five potential targets, one of which looked especially promising.
This side scan imagery, acquired by the Hydroid REMUS 100 AUV during the Coast Survey MIST initial search on February 12, shows the sunken buoy – although, at that time, the team was not 100% confident it was the buoy. The intensity of the sonar return and the dimensions of the target strongly supported their suspicion that this was the buoy, but the target was at nadir on the side scan profile, which introduces uncertainty in this type of system. They did, however, deem it the most likely among the five possible targets revealed by the AUV data.
Fortunately, NOAA Ship Ferdinand Hassler was departing Norfolk on February 17, on their way to their survey project for the approaches to the Chesapeake, and so they made a slight adjustment in their route. The ship’s hydrographers used their multibeam echo sounders to check the targets, based on the MIST AUV data, and they confirmed that the top AUV target was indeed the buoy. The multibeam data also verified that none of the other search targets pose a danger to navigation or risk fouling an anchor for ships in the anchorage.
With the confirmation, the U.S. Coast Guard was able to remove the buoy and re-open the area for maritime traffic.
The Coast Survey Development Lab has been evaluating the use of autonomous underwater vehicles as tools for hydrographic surveying in support of NOAA’s nautical charting mission. The use of AUVs, in collaboration with NOAA’s manned survey fleet, could greatly increase survey efficiency. Additionally, as this response confirmed, their flexible deployment options make AUVs a valuable tool for marine incident response.
What do pilots see on the navigation laptop displays of their portable pilot units (PPUs) when they guide deep-draft ships to dock? Often, they aren’t seeing all that is actually out there in the navigation channel.
NOAA Coast Survey’s navigation manager Tim Osborn recently observed the problem when he accompanied one of the pilots from the New Orleans Baton Rouge Pilots Association in a ship transit on the Mississippi River.
As demonstrated by the pilots, some of the dredges working on the river ‒ in and adjacent to the very busy navigation channel ‒ had no automatic identification system (AIS) units onboard, so they weren’t showing up on the pilot’s navigation laptop display.
“Many of these dredges on the river are hard to see with radar, and it’s very difficult to see them at night or in bad weather,” Osborn says. “With the Mississippi River experiencing more ship traffic and more terminals on and along the river, the risks of moving ships safely are growing each year.”
Osborn worked with the pilots and the U.S. Coast Guard in support of the Coast Guard’s new rule requiring dredges, working on and around navigation channels, to start carrying and operating AIS devices.
“This added safety measure is an example of the continuing collaboration between the nation’s pilots and NOAA Coast Survey, as we work together to improve the safety of vessels moving throughout the marine transportation system,” Osborn observes.
The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, 164.46, now provides that “a self-propelled vessel engaged in dredging operations in or near a commercial channel or shipping fairway in a manner likely to restrict or affect navigation of other vessels” must have an AIS Class A device on board.
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.