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.
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.
Coast Survey’s research vessel, Bay Hydro II, was diverted from its regular hydrographic mission this week to help the U.S. Coast Guard determine if there was a new danger to navigation in the Chesapeake Bay.
On June 13, 2016, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads was notified that the barge WEEKS 179 lost a large portion of its cargo near the Virginia-Maryland line, in a charted traffic scheme area that takes ships around Smith Point in the Chesapeake Bay. The WEEKS 179, carrying construction materials to New Jersey, lost approximately 25 concrete beams and bridge deck pieces, ranging from 10 ft. to 15 ft. long. While the Coast Guard diverted ship traffic around the area, Bay Hydro II deployed to the site, to establish the cargo’s exact position and determine if it posed a hazard to navigation.
By early the next morning, Bay Hydro II was conducting the search. The survey technicians used side scan sonar to locate the sunken cargo, and then followed it up with their multibeam echo sounder to collect bathymetric data over the field of debris. (While the side scan sonar is typically a better search tool for locating objects in large areas, the multibeam is best for obtaining precise position and depths over the items so the hydrographers can determine if dangers to navigation exist.)
Within hours, the Coast Survey vessel had located the cargo and, even better, had determined that the beams were so deep that they did not pose a danger. The Coast Guard was able to use Bay Hydro II’s information to quickly re-establish normal shipping patterns through the area.
Coast Survey’s navigation response teams have proven their value, time and again, especially after hurricanes when ports suspend operations, and shipping (or naval movements) cease until Coast Survey’s small boats can locate underwater dangers to navigation. But what do the six navigation response teams (NRTs) do during those long periods between deployments for maritime emergencies? They are busy, mostly year-round, collecting hydrographic data for updating nautical charts.
Plans for 2016
Responding to requests from mariners around the country, Coast Survey has set some aggressive projects for the NRTs this year. Starting from Northeast and working our way around the coasts…
Beginning in June and throughout the summer, NRT5 will survey the Hudson River, with a focus on the area from Albany to Kingston. This is a continuation of the project started at the request of the Hudson River Pilots (as reported in NOAA plans multiyear project to update Hudson River charts). We are planning to have Coast Survey research vessel Bay Hydro II join the NRT for most of the summer, to get as much new charting data as possible. In October, NRT5 will move to Eastern Long Island Sound, to finish up some shallow survey work adjacent to recent NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson’s extensive survey project. The officer-in-charge of NRT5 is NOAA Lt. Andrew Clos. The officer-in-charge of Bay Hydro II will be NOAA Ensign Sarah Chappel.
In March, NRT2 starts a 16-month survey project in Saint Andrew Sound. The area, which has significant traffic from small boats, tugs, and barges, is reportedly experiencing small boat groundings, and Coast Survey’s navigation manager in the area has received several requests for a modern survey. Coast Survey will use the data to update NOAA chart 11504 and ENC US5GA12M, as well as other charts covering portions of the specific surveyed areas. The existing charted soundings are from partial bottom coverage surveys dating back to the early 1900s. NRT2 is led by Erik Anderson.
EASTERN GULF OF MEXICO – BILOXI AND MOBILE
NRT1 will spend March and April acquiring data off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi, to update the Intracoastal Waterway chart 11372. They will then move to Alabama for some long-overdue “chart clean up” work at the northern end of the Mobile Ship Channel, outside of the area controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Mobile project will investigate charted items, verify reported depths, and update older NOAA bathymetry (vintage 1961) that is depicted in the inset area of NOAA chart 11376. Since the Mobile survey probably will not take the entire rest of the season, depending on interruptions for hurricane response, we are assessing additional survey needs in the area. NRT1 is led by Mark McMann.
WEST GULF OF MEXICO – TEXAS
NRT4 will spend all of 2016 surveying in Galveston Bay, including the bay entrance and newly charted barge channels along the Houston Ship Channel. The team is working with Coast Survey’s navigation manager for Texas to identify additional charted features that require investigation to reduce localized chart clutter and improve chart adequacy. NRT4 is led by Dan Jacobs.
NRT6 is slated to survey the Suisun Bay anchorage used by MARAD’s National Defense Reserve Fleet, to acquire updated depths. Afterwards, NRT6 will move throughout the bay area to address charting concerns reported by the San Francisco Bar Pilot Association near Pittsburg, Antioch, San Joaquin River, and Redwood City. Coast Survey will use the data to generally update NOAA chart 18652 and ENC US5CA43M, as well as larger scale charts of the specific surveyed areas. NRT6 is led by Laura Pagano.
It has been a while since Coast Survey has had an operational NRT presence for Oregon and Washington, but this is the year we are bringing NRT3 back on line. Team lead Ian Colvert is shaking the dust off NRT3 and preparing to restart survey operations. He is working with the Coast Survey navigation manager to develop survey priorities for this summer and fall.
Charting the data
Once the navigation response teams process and submit the data acquired during the surveys, the information is further processed in Coast Survey’s Atlantic and Pacific hydrographic branches, and then submitted to our cartographers for application to the charts. The turnaround time for updating the chart depends on the update calendars for each regional cartographic branch. If the NRTs find any dangers to navigation, the information will be relayed to mariners through the Local Notice to Mariners postings and will be applied to NOAA’s electronic navigational charts (NOAA ENC®), online products, and print-on-demand paper charts. Critical updates will be applied to charts more quickly than normal depth adjustments.
To a marine pilot looking forward to a long-awaited nautical chart update, a white NOAA survey ship “mowing the lawn” of the approaches to a port is a gorgeous site. The ship slowly moving back and forth, collecting hydrographic data from the ocean floor, is easily recognizable.
Less well known are Coast Survey’s smaller survey vessels, operated by navigation response teams (NRTs) situated strategically along the U.S. coasts. These vessels are hard worked by two- or three-member teams of physical scientists and technicians who must know everything about the vessel, the specialized survey equipment, and the science of collecting and processing data. On top of all that, they must be expert sailors.
Recognizing the value that these teams and vessels bring to our survey and charting responsibilities — not to mention their essential work in locating underwater debris after hurricanes — NOAA is “recapitalizing” the NRT fleet, building new small boats specifically designed for hydrographic surveying. The first two boats, built by Lake Assault Boats of Superior, Wisconsin, were delivered this week to navigation response teams surveying ports in California and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
“All of the navigation response team survey boats are nearing or have exceeded their designed service life,” said Russ Proctor, chief of Coast Survey’s Navigation Services Division. “A phased program to replace the navigation response team boats over the next three years will help NOAA maintain the program’s crucial capacity for inshore surveys and rapid response in emergencies.”
Coast Survey’s phased retirement of its current fleet of NRT vessels has prioritized the replacement of boats experiencing the highest escalating maintenance costs.
Navigation response teams protect navigation while they wait for new vessels
In the last 30 days alone, Coast Survey’s navigation response teams have located potential dangers in Georgia and California waters.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit Savannah asked for Coast Survey assistance in locating a fishing vessel that sank on Sunday, September 6. A Coast Survey navigation response team, led by Erik Anderson, located the wreck off Cumberland Island in St. Andrew Sound, pinpointed its position and depth, and delivered images of the vessel.
It was important that the team move quickly. A dive team sent by the Coast Guard on September 7 was unable to locate the wreck — and time was of the essence, since there were indications that the vessel had approximately 700 to 1,000 gallons of diesel onboard. In addition to needing a report on the condition of the vessel (was it intact or in pieces?), the Coast Guard had to find out if the wreck was obstructing a navigable waterway.
The navigation response team hit the water early on September 8. By 10:40 a.m., within two hours of operations, Anderson reported that his team located the wreck with side scan sonar and developed it with their multibeam echo sounder.
“The boat appears to be sitting on its port side with the least depth [26 feet] coming from its mast that is located on the top of the wheelhouse,” Anderson reported. “The least depth is based on preliminary tides but will most likely stick as the tide station data looks to be solid for today,” he explained.
On August 26, a navigation response team in Richmond, California, (led by Laura Pagano) was putting the finishing touches on upgrades to Coast Survey’s MIST kit — a mobile, quick-install side scan / single beam sonar kit that can be quickly set up on a vessel of opportunity. While they were taking the MIST through its paces, they found a potential danger to navigation in the Richmond Channel. After the California navigation manager notified appropriate authorities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed the obstruction before it could do any damage.
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.