Opening U.S. ports after disaster: An all-hands on deck evolution

Ensign Lindsey Norman retrieves the side scan sonar that NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson used to survey the Hudson River, so fuel barge traffic could resume. NOAA photo.

Ensign Lindsey Norman retrieves the side scan sonar that NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson used to survey the Hudson River, so fuel barge traffic could resume. NOAA photo.

In every one of America’s ports, the Coast Guard has plans in place to protect lives and property from natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. U.S. cities contend with the threat of natural and manmade disasters every year as a major port taken out of commission could devastate local businesses and ripple into the national economy.

Preparing U.S. ports for disaster is a year-round effort that often goes unnoticed. In the case of Sandy, the Coast Guard, working with local partners and the shipping industry, readied ports on the Eastern seaboard to minimize disruptions. Regardless of how well prepared each port was, Mother Nature took her course, causing damage to many ports.

Vice Adm. Robert C. Parker, Atlantic Area commander, assess the area along the New Jersey coastline Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. Parker and Rear Adm. Richard T. Gromlich, director of Operational Logistics, conducted an over-flight of the New Jersey coastline, New York Harbor and Long Island Wednesday to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick.

Vice Adm. Robert C. Parker, Atlantic Area commander, assess the area along the New Jersey coastline Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. Parker and Rear Adm. Richard T. Gromlich, director of Operational Logistics, conducted an over-flight of the New Jersey coastline, New York Harbor and Long Island Wednesday to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick.

Despite some ports opening just hours after the storm had passed, there is still work to be done in harder hit areas. Currently, the Coast Guard is focused on getting the ports of New York and New Jersey back to full operations.

The service’s priorities are safety of life, to restore the marine transportation system and rapid reconstitution of operations in the affected areas. Coast Guard crews continue to conduct assessments to ensure ports are safe and ready for business, despite damage to Coast Guard stations themselves.

“The United States is a maritime nation and we rely heavily on the ports for commerce – 95 percent of our goods come to us by way of sea. Just about everything you purchase on an average trip to store, from yesterday’s Halloween candy to the shirt on your back, most likely came through a seaport somewhere at sometime. The port of New York and New Jersey is vital to our nation’s economy and we are doing everything humanly possible to get the port back to full operations. This is an all-hands on deck evolution,” said Vice Adm. Robert C. Parker, Atlantic Area commander.

The Coast Guard captain of the port works with maritime stakeholders and industry partners to use lessons learned from previous storms to execute regional plans. The foundation of local and federal governments working with stakeholders occurs on a daily basis but is amplified during emergencies. As captain of the port in New York, Capt. Gordon Loebl is responsible for protecting port facilities, merchant vessels and the maritime transportation system itself.

“My primary focus is getting the port and waterways open for business and that requires we accurately assess the safe navigation of the channel and the ability of the port infrastructure to receive and support vessel traffic,” said Loebl. “Even though a navigable waterway can be transited, the vessel will still need a facility to moor at safely.”

An MH-65T Dolphin helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City conducts an overflight assessment of New York boroughs impacted by Hurricane Sandy, Oct 30, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photos by Air Station Atlantic City.

A Dolphin helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City conducts an overflight assessment of New York boroughs impacted by Hurricane Sandy, Oct 30, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photos by Air Station Atlantic City.

Progress is already being made. Just this morning NOAA worked with the Coast Guard to restore the fuel flow to the area. Sandy’s damage to metropolitan New York flooded port terminals, halting fuel deliveries and leaving many filling stations unable to run their pumps. The barges and tank ships carry tens of millions of tons of petroleum products through the Port of New York and New Jersey but barge deliveries were hampered by these obstructions.

NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, which had transited to New York Harbor overnight, conducted a hydrographic survey of the Hudson River to search for sunken containers, debris and shoaling. Using high-tech side scan sonar equipment, Thomas Jefferson provided critical safety information to Loebl and the port was re-opened to fuel barge traffic.

Restoring fuel flow into the New York was a success, but there are still waterborne obstructions and parts of the port remained closed. The Coast Guard will continue to partner with the maritime industry and stakeholders to ensure the marine transportation system is fully restored. The multibillion-dollar industry depends on its ability to recover after disasters like Sandy and the Coast Guard will not stop until the ports of New York and New Jersey are open for business.

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