The past two years have been unusually busy for Coast Guard District 8, headquartered in New Orleans, La., which is saying a lot for the district that was – and still is – at the heart of dealing with Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit the United States.
Since spring 2010, District 8 has served as the on-scene coordinator for a host of federal, state, and local agencies still working to clean up and repair damages caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. District 8 also played a major role in disaster relief efforts after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti in early 2010.
In 2011, while efforts related to those major disasters continued, District 8 found itself, once again, at the heart of some of the worst that nature could produce, from a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast along the edge of the district’s area of responsibility, to historic flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, to evaluation of safety systems of the nation’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility at Port Arthur, Texas.
All that in addition to a major multiagency exercise dealing with a possible recurrence of the New Madrid earthquake of 1812-1813, the largest in the recorded history of North America and centered around the Bootheel area of Missouri. District 8 deals with the day-to-day efforts involving nearly all of the Coast Guard’s 11 major missions.
Rear Adm. Roy A. Nash, who spent much of 2010 as the deputy Federal On-scene Coordinator (FOSC) in the continuing Deepwater Horizon clean-up in the Gulf, relieved retiring Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry as the 8th District commander on June 1, 2011 – the first day of hurricane season and the day after the Mississippi River spring floods crested in New Orleans.
“Those floods were historic compared to the flooding we experienced in 1927. It was a combination of heavy rains and record snow levels upstream, resulting in unprecedented water levels that were off the chart,” Nash said. “I’d also have to say Deepwater Horizon continued to be a major effort by all levels of government, with the Coast Guard as the lead on-scene coordinator, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. Even now [late August 2011], we’re still doing some beach cleaning.”
Geographically, District 8 is the largest of the Coast Guard’s nine districts, covering all or part of 26 states, more than 1,200 miles of Gulf coastline from Florida to Texas, and 10,300 miles of inland waterways, including the entire navigable lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee river systems. It also is home to two of the nation’s busiest ports – New Orleans and Houston – and, by tonnage of cargo moving through them each day, 15 of the 40 busiest ports.
Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee River in the east, to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from the Mexican border and Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in North Dakota, the district’s 4,400-plus active-duty and Reserve members, assisted by some 1,800 auxiliarists and more than 300 civilians, are responsible for marine safety protocols at more than 6,500 oil- and gas-producing wells – and another 130 offshore in the Gulf – and five of the nation’s top seven fishing ports, which account for about 40 percent of the nation’s annual commercial catch.
Preventative safety missions include thousands of ship and barge maintenance inspections, the aids to navigation (ATON) system, passenger vessel inspections, and recreational and small craft examinations. Response activities include more than 6,300 search and rescue (SAR) cases annually involving recreational vessels, fishing vessels, and many other waterborne activities. Accomplishing that requires the assets of four air stations, 15 SAR stations, 14 ATON teams, 19 river tenders, one 225-foot buoy tender, two 175-foot coastal buoy tenders, and three 64-foot self-propelled barges – plus ongoing Coast Guard investments in new patrol boats, the Rescue 21 National Distress Radio System and GPS, and an assortment of other technologies.
For Nash, the major lessons learned from response operations in recent years boils down to a few key components: understanding the situation, communicating, and effective command and control, including widespread use of the Incident Command System.
“Everyone has their own expertise, and if you can bring all that together through an organizational structure that participants understand such as the Incident Command System, you can have a far better outcome,” Nash noted. “By communicating, often and early, everyone better understood the hard decisions that had to be made. With the river flooding, we worked with the River Industry Executive Task Force, which is made up of leaders from the towing industry, Coast Guard, and Army Corps [of Engineers], along with levee boards along the waterways, to communicate steps being taken to control the waters and traffic along the rivers.”
Even as the water levels increased, marine traffic still moved. But as the risk to the levees increased, communications among stakeholders was increasingly important to implementing safety zones around the affected waterways. When the Corps had to open spillways that put homes and residences at risk, the Coast Guard worked maritime traffic management as well as search and rescue, and helped keep citizens away from spillways when they were opened.
The long-scheduled New Madrid earthquake exercise proved serendipitous to the Coast Guard and every other agency involved.
“We use these exercises to determine how best to organize ourselves as a unified command and help return the population to normalcy. The New Madrid fault exercise in the spring coincided with the record high flooding in that same area. So we were working with almost identical partners on a real situation even as the district supported FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] on that earthquake exercise,” Nash said.
The ability to bring a disparate group of agencies and leaders together under the National Incident Command System, having operations, planning, logistics, and finance sections, is critical, whether it is an oil spill or a natural disaster. The focus for 8th District personnel is on professionalism and teamwork.
“I think the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated our ability to come together in a unified multi-agency effort and integrate the tools and personnel we have,” commented Nash.
With more natural – and man-made – disasters in the Coast Guard’s future, another major challenge for the district will be maintaining an interagency response capability in the face of future disaster situations.
“One thing we have to do strategically is always be mindful of changes happening around us and how we address the challenges of today to make us more ready for what happens tomorrow. Our new Centers of Expertise [CoEs] are part of that, such as the Towing CoE in Paducah [Ky.], which has brought in some very positive feedback from industry. Another center, for mobile offshore drilling unit examinations in Morgan City, La., participated in the Deepwater Horizon spill,” Nash concluded. “And, of course, the LNG CoE at Port Arthur, Texas, has been very helpful in training our Coast Guard officers on inspecting vessels and evaluating safety.
“We take good care of the Coast Guard assets and equipment we have, but we also have new national security cutters being built, with the third recently delivered, and our new fast-response cutters are beginning to come online. In addition, Rescue 21 is helping us find people in trouble much more quickly. I think we’re doing OK, working hard to effectively and proficiently use every resource we have been given.”
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.