Safeguarding ports from natural disasters

The Coast Guard's maritime transportation system management program ensures safe, efficient, secure and environmentally sound waterways essential to the flow of goods and commerce. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

The Coast Guard's maritime transportation system management program ensures safe, efficient, secure and environmentally sound waterways essential to the flow of goods and commerce. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Approaching the midpoint of this year’s Atlantic Hurricane season the first eight named storms failed to reach hurricane strength. This of course ended when Hurricane Irene became the first hurricane of the season and impacted more than 1,000 miles of U.S. coastline, effecting millions of citizens and 46 U.S. ports. Little noticed by many but invaluable to all, was how quickly ports along the East Coast opened for business in the wake of Irene, in some cases only hours after she left the city. The Coast Guard, working with partners and the shipping industry, readied these ports for the threatening storm and thereby minimized economic disruption for everyone regardless if the city was situated in the south where tropical cyclones are generated, or as far north as Maine.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano asks a question of Capt. Peter Gautier, commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans during a tour of the New Orleans port, Aug. 8, 2011.  The Coast Guard provides oversight along the Mississippi River port system, which is among the largest in the world.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano asks a question of Capt. Peter Gautier, commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans during a tour of the New Orleans port, Aug. 8, 2011. The Coast Guard provides oversight along the Mississippi River port system, which is among the largest in the world. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

In every one of America’s ports, the Coast Guard has plans in place to protect lives and property from the threats of a natural disaster. This preparedness begins in seasons when severe weather is less likely, and continues just hours before a storm’s impact. The Coast Guard cannot do it alone, however, and each captain of the port works with maritime stakeholders and industry partners to use lessons learned from previous storms to hone existing plans or create them for circumstances where no prior ones existed.

“We start with the foundation of working with government and stakeholders on a daily basis,” said Capt. Peter Gautier, sector commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans. “Anywhere from the brown water towing industry to the blue water mariners to the offshore drilling and production industry. We know each other very well and we start with a mutual understanding of what we do and what expertise we have.”

As sector commander, Gautier is also captain of the port for New Orleans and is responsible for protecting port facilities, merchant vessels and the maritime transportation system itself. The multibillion-dollar industry depends on its ability to recover after storms but this does not come without challenges. For Sector New Orleans, situated in the heartland of America, planners have to analyze an array of unpredictable natural disasters.

Consumers, businesses and military forces in the U.S. and around the world rely on America’s ports and waterways every day. Even the slightest disruption can have global economic impacts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Consumers, businesses and military forces in the U.S. and around the world rely on America’s ports and waterways every day. Even the slightest disruption can have global economic impacts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

“We get everything here because it’s where everything meets,” said Gautier. “This reality presents a challenging circumstance. We have 300 miles of Mississippi River shoreline to cover; then 200 miles of offshore coverage, including the most concentration of offshore platforms anywhere in the country.”

Each of our nation’s ports is unique and so to are the challenges they face in preparing for storms. Coast Guard Sector Boston safeguards the Port of Boston, one of the East Coast’s principal facilities dedicated to cargo, petroleum and liquefied natural gas shipment and storage. In moving tankers and sheltering port infrastructure in Boston, Cmdr. Paul Arnett, Boston’s deputy sector commander, counts on industry partners to tackle their main challenge.

“Keeping situational awareness is the greatest challenge,” said Arnett. “We collect layup plans from vessels and discuss with each facility how their operations will be affected by the incoming weather. These plans are dependent on the projected conditions; as the predicted weather changes, so do the plans.”

Arnett also depends on a group of Coast Guardsmen whose sole focus throughout heavy weather is on storm preparation.

“To overcome the situational awareness challenge, we set up an Incident Management Team to take the lead on overseeing storm preparations and post-storm recovery if needed,” said Arnett. “By having a singularly focused team over the duration of the event, we can spread the workload and ensure that all the details are captured.”

The Port of Boston, above, is a major seaport located adjacent to the city of Boston. It is the largest port in Massachusetts and a principal port on the East Coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo illustration by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Shinn.

The Port of Boston, above, is a major seaport located adjacent to the city of Boston. It is the largest port in Massachusetts and a principal port on the East Coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo illustration by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Shinn.

One of Boston’s Incident Management Team members is Lt. Garrett Meyer who assisted in preparing New England’s harbors for Hurricane Irene. His experience has shown, that despite the precision in forecasting storms and our certainty in preparations, we can never be too sure.

“We stress not to become complacent; preparing for a storm takes a tremendous amount of preparation and effort and when a storm ends up being less than predicted for a specific area it takes discipline to ensure that the next storm receives the same focus,” said Meyer. “Just because the previous storm unexpectedly decreased in strength does not mean that the same will happen every time.”

U.S. cities contend with the threat of hurricanes and heavy weather every year and a major port taken out of commission for a lengthy period could devastate local businesses and ripple into the national economy. Coast Guard captains of the port face this reality when protecting maritime infrastructure and port facilities and it is through their careful planning and coordination that the maritime transportation system is protected and kept open for business.

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