Remembering Katrina: Port recovery and lessons learned

This blog is part of a series that reflects upon the tracking, landfall, response and long-term recovery 10 years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Throughout each stage, Coast Guard men and women played an integral part in the immediate rescue and recovery efforts. Follow along this weekend as Coast Guard Compass remembers Katrina.

Written by Capt. Andrew Tucci

Motor vessels Sea Wolf and Sea Falcon found themselves high above ground in Empire, La., after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the area Aug. 29, 2005. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Johnson.

Motor vessels Sea Wolf and Sea Falcon found themselves high above ground in Empire, La., after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the area Aug. 29, 2005. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Johnson.

In the aftermath of Katrina, with the short-term rescue and recovery operations behind them, the Coast Guard began to look at the long road ahead, a road which would promote recovery and return the region to ‘business as usual.’  The storm, which caused destruction from Texas to Florida, required the collaborative efforts from the Coast Guard, federal, state and local agencies, private industry and countless volunteers.

For the Coast Guard, recovery meant helping New Orleans and other port areas resume commercial maritime operations. New Orleans was, and continues to be, a major port, handling grain from America’s heartland, petroleum from the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, steel, coffee and a wide range of commercial and consumer products from around the world.

Port and maritime related industries support over 150,000 jobs in the region.

Flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

Flooded roadways can be seen as the Coast Guard conducts initial Hurricane Katrina damage assessment overflights. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.

The storm caused extensive damage to port infrastructure, scattered port workers and vessel crews, shut down the port for two weeks and interrupted supply chains stretching around the world. Ship and port operators quickly began asking when the channel could be surveyed and marked, when the port would be open for navigation, what terminals were in operation, and who was going to prioritize the many activities needed to allow ships and cargos to move.

The Coast Guard, leveraging relationships across the port community, established and integrated a port recovery task force into the incident command system managing the incident. While this effort undoubtedly speeded port recovery, maritime commerce in New Orleans did not return to full capacity for almost a year.

Recognition of the importance of port recovery and resilience was one of the primary lessons learned from Katrina.

In 2006, Congress passed the Safety and Accountability For Every Port, or SAFE Port, Act, which included a provision for salvage response plans at the port level – essentially plans to promote rapid recovery after a security incident. The Coast Guard quickly met that requirement, and has been improving the ability to promote port recovery and resilience ever since.

For example, the Coast Guard has:

  • Created a GIS based system to track and display the status of waterways and port infrastructure after an incident.
  • Expanded salvage plans into all hazard port recovery plans
  • Established full time port recovery specialist positions
  • Developed port recovery training programs
  • Conducted workshops, exercises, and drills to improve our recovery skills

 

The Coast Guard also developed marine transportation system recovery units, or MTSRU. These are public-private partnerships that include a wide range of port stakeholders. They operate within the Coast Guard’s existing Area Maritime Security Committees and are dedicated to port recovery operations.

The Coast Guard was able to use lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in the response to Hurricane Sandy, which impacted regions of the Northeast in 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Erik Swanson.

The Coast Guard was able to use lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in the response to Hurricane Sandy, which impacted regions of the Northeast in 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Erik Swanson.

These recovery plans were put to the test years later when Hurricane Sandy impacted the New York City region in 2012. The local MTSRU, recovery plan and other recovery resources more than proved their worth. Overcoming severe impacts to Coast Guard and other port infrastructure, the port community came together and prepared the port for business in an orderly manner. Despite their success, the port still faced constraints from non-maritime factors, such as damage to electrical infrastructure and the loss of trucks and rail cars. This interdependence showed that government and business need to approach recovery from a broad transportation and energy perspective, rather than looking at the various elements in isolation. To that end, the Coast Guard has been working with the Department of Energy, other agencies, and the business community on recovery planning.

More recently, recognizing the growing importance of technology in maritime commerce, the Coast Guard has been addressing cyber aspects of recovery in the maritime transportation system. Terrorist attacks, natural disasters and accidents all could impact these systems, requiring both emergency response and longer term recovery actions.

The Coast Guard is also working through the International Maritime Organization to promote port recovery planning and supply chain resilience.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, 225 years after our founding in 1790, the Coast Guard is still learning, and still improving our ability to serve the American people.

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