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U.S. Coast Guard District 8: Guardians of the Heartland

Demonstrating tremendous flexibility and unity of effort

For the U.S. Coast Guard District 8, headquartered out of New Orleans, La., the first half of 2010 brought demands on personnel and resources on a scale and scope that eclipsed 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck.

The year opened with disaster relief and maritime safety and coordination efforts in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, which drew heavily on all Coast Guard assets, especially those closest to the scene. Just as those demands were declining for the Coast Guard, the explosion and sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling unit in the Gulf of Mexico put District 8 solidly in the center of the response.

On the evening of April 20, 2010, the mobile off-shore drilling unit (MODU) Deepwater Horizon, with 126 workers and 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board, exploded 45 miles southeast of Venice, La.

The CGC Sturgeon, homeported in Grand Isle, La., patrols the Mississippi River in New Orleans, during an increased security presence for the Mardi Gras season, Feb. 15, 2010. In a joint effort to keep New Orleans’ citizens and visitors safe on and around the water, the Coast Guard, along with the New Orleans Police Department and the New Orleans Harbor Police, increased their security initiatives during the festivities. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann

With the volume of activities that take place year round in this district, all 8th Coast Guard District members are accustomed to responding quickly. They are also adroit at working collectively with both the private and public sectors to respond in the safest and most effective, and efficient manner to save lives, protect property, and minimize environmental damage.

The response to Deepwater Horizon began with the 8th Coast Guard District Command Center staff coordinating search and rescue (SAR), and Marine Safety Unit Morgan City (a sub-unit of Sector New Orleans) leading the response to the pollution case, as well as the marine casualty investigation.

By early April 21, District 8 personnel remained actively involved in SAR. Nearby good samaritan vessels fought the rig fire, and the courageous actions of Coast Guard aircrews, Damon B. Bankston crew, and others rescued 115 of 126 crewmembers from the vicinity of the MODU. In addition to the numerous survivors reported aboard the Damon B. Bankston, the District 8 command center reported seven critically injured survivors had been airlifted ashore to hospitals.

District 8 was also in the first steps of establishing a unified command with Coast Guard, Department of the Interior (DOI), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), BP, Transocean, and other federal partners.  Doctrine from the Oil Pollution Act  of 1990 (OPA 90) required preparing for a worst-case scenario, and the federal government and BP, as a responsible party, were mobilizing resources for response.

As the district commander for the 8th Coast Guard District, Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry oversees the activities of the pre-designated Federal-On-Scene Coordinators (FOSC) within the District. “Since the Deepwater Horizon spill impacted multiple Captain of the Port zones,” she stated. “I asked and received approval for designation as the Federal-On-Scene Coordinator by the commandant of the Coast Guard. My discussions by phone with the then-commandant, Adm. [Thad] Allen, then-Atlantic Area commander, Adm. [Robert J.] Papp, and others early that morning centered on the potential for a worst-case situation: that the blowout preventer could have failed and that safety features designed to shut in the well could fail to operate as designed.”

Additionally, the 8th District staff was undertaking the field response under the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP), working with regional partners through the Regional Response Team, which included DOI, the EPA, department of Commerce including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and all potentially affected states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas.

On April 22, the Deepwater Horizon rig sank. With 115 of the 126 persons accounted for, District 8 maintained an active SAR case through Friday in the hopes that survivors might still be found. Tragically, 11 were lost at sea.

The Coast Guard and agency partners formed a Unified Command in response to an oil spill (seen here) in the port of Port Arthur, caused by a collision between the towing vessel Dixie Vengeance and the two barges it was pushing, and the 807-foot tank ship Eagle Otome, Jan. 23, 2010. The Coast Guard established a perimeter around the vessels in the vicinity of the spill to ensure the safety of the vessels involved as well as the safety of the responders. U.S. Coast Guard photo

On April 24, the first leaks were discovered in BP’s damaged riser pipe.  As the event continued to unfold, the Coast Guard established a robust Incident Command System (ICS) response in accordance with the NCP. On April 29, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano declared the event a spill of national significance (SONS) and appointed Allen as the national incident commander (NIC) to coordinate the response.

All members involved in the Deepwater Horizon response worked diligently to meet the requirements and demands of this historic event by applying and implementing the existing elements of the response structure while adapting to the novel and evolving requirements associated with a response of this scale, scope, and complexity.

As the FOSC, and in discussion with other federal agencies, Landry understood the gravity of this incident and the critical importance of federal documentation, data collection, and rigorous oversight of the responsible party as well as all response activities.  “As I signed documents for funding data collection, science, and research in areas such as seafood safety testing, scientific monitoring of impacts from dispersants, air and water quality monitoring, and other necessary actions by the federal government, it was with a clear understanding of our obligation to the American people that this response met the highest standards and capabilities which could be brought to the incident,” she said.

On June 1, Landry returned to her duties as the 8th District commander for the onset of hurricane season.  She was succeeded in the FOSC role for Deepwater Horizon by Rear Adm. James Watson who had served as her deputy from the very early days of the incident. The commandant also assigned Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft and Rear Adm. Roy Nash to assist in the response. Zukunft eventually succeeded Watson and currently serves as FOSC with Nash acting as his deputy.

Because of their experience responding to hurricanes and smaller oil spills, which are common in the Gulf, District 8 personnel were able to move swiftly on Deepwater Horizon, though sometimes not in ways the public – or even Gulf Coast governors – understood.  This led to heightened tension and misunderstandings. In addition, the response plan written to deal with a spill on the scope of the Exxon Valdez proved insufficient for what was occurring in the Gulf. “As a result,” Landry said, “a number of lessons learned are being looked at for future responses. The Coast Guard remains committed to supporting the citizens of the Gulf Coast states and the American people in preserving this important ecosystem and way of life.”

In many ways, Landry added, the Coast Guard and overall government response to the scope and impact of Deepwater Horizon reminds her more of 9/11 than the Exxon Valdez spill.

“Look at what we did then on port security, where people worked to decide what we needed to do before the new security regulations were written. Those were born out of trial-and-error work with local and state governments and the private sector – and that’s just what you are seeing here,” she said.  “OPA 90 and the NCP provided a great foundation, but the complexity of the Deepwater Horizon incident brought novel aspects to the response.”

Despite the strain the Gulf spill put on the 8th District’s assets and personnel, the requirement to pursue all 11 Coast Guard missions and conduct its normal activities across the broad expanse of their area of responsibility (AOR) continued without pause. And while the previous hurricane season had been unusually light, the district’s other activities were, in some cases, unusually active – such as standing up four new National Centers of Expertise (NCOEs):

  • Towing Vessel Center, Paducah, Ky;
  • Liquefied Gas Carrier Center, Port Arthur, Texas;
  • Outer Continental Shelf Center, Morgan City, La.;
  • Marine Casualty Investigations Center, New Orleans, La.

“Paducah is a hub of river traffic and a big fleeting area for some of the major towing companies,” said Landry. “The LNG [liquefied natural gas] Center is co-located with our Marine Safety Unit in Port Arthur, which also is home to the Lake Charles LNG facility and associated with two other new facilities in the Port Arthur AOR. So, Port Arthur went from one LNG facility to four, which I believe is the most of any AOR in the country, making it a good location for that COE.

U.S. Coast Guard Seamen Erik Dahl and Adam Peers position for setting a buoy along the Allegheny River, Sept. 24, 2009. The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Osage set the buoys early that morning to give mariners a visual boundary of the Maritime Security Zone established along the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers in support of the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel

“Morgan City was a logical choice for the third center, dealing with offshore oil and gas, because of the large number of vessels coming in and out of their AOR. The fourth, for casualty and investigations, is co-located with Sector New Orleans, which probably has the highest number of casualty investigations of any unit in the country due to the high volume of traffic and number of waterways it covers.”

District 8 also kept busy with port security for the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pa.; assisted in the second consecutive year of flooding along the Red River; supplied a helo and crew to assist with port and waterfront security for the Super Bowl in Miami; conducted port and waterfront security for Mardi Gras in New Orleans; and responded to the collision of a barge and ship at the confluence of the Intercoastal Waterway with the Sabine and Neches rivers, which impacted not only energy and barge traffic but also significant military shipping out of Port Arthur.

“In the coming year, we are going to look into whether we are right-sized, where our resources are now, what has changed in the operating environment that may require a change in those resources. I’m very strategic and calculated in balancing everyone’s equities among all our stakeholders and units,” Landry concluded.

Former first lady Laura Bush crosses the brow of the CGC Harry Claiborne, a 175-foot coastal buoy tender homeported in Galveston, Texas, to watch King Rex, king of the Krewe of Rex and “King of Carnival,” give his proclamation to the city of New Orleans during Lundi Gras festivities Feb. 15, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tom Atkeson

Geographically, the 8th District is the largest U.S. Coast Guard district, covering all or part of 26 states, including those often referred to as America’s Heartland. Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, from the U.S./Mexico border and Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in North Dakota, it encompasses 1,200 miles of coastline and 10,300 miles of inland navigable waterways.

District 8 also is home to two of the nation’s busiest ports, New Orleans and Houston, through which pass more than 2 million barrels of oil and 1 million tons of cargo every day. District 8 also encompasses 15 of the nation’s 40 busiest ports, by tonnage.

The district’s 4,045 active-duty and Reserve members, 6,000 auxiliarists, and 288 civilian personnel also enforce marine safety protocols on more than 6,500 oil and gas producing wells and 130 mobile offshore drilling units in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, five of America’s top seven fishing ports are located in the district, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the annual catch by U.S. commercial fishermen.

The 8th District is also home to: four air stations; 15 search and rescue stations; 14 aid to navigation teams; three vessel traffic services; two 210-foot medium-endurance cutters; 17 87-foot patrol boats; 19 river tenders; one 225-foot buoy tender; two 175-foot coastal buoy tenders; and three 64-foot self-propelled barges. There are also three Coast Guard auxiliary regions in the 8th District’s area of responsibility – New Orleans, La., St. Louis, Mo., and Louisville, Ky.

 

Geographically, the 8th District is the largest U.S. Coast Guard district, covering all or part of 26 states, including those often referred to as America’s Heartland. Stretching from the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, from the U.S./Mexico border and Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in North Dakota, it encompasses 1,200 miles of coastline and 10,300 miles of inland navigable waterways.

District 8 also is home to two of the nation’s busiest ports, New Orleans and Houston, through which pass more than 2 million barrels of oil and one million tons of cargo every day.  District 8 also encompasses 15 of the nation’s 40 busiest ports, by tonnage.

The district’s 4,045 active-duty and Reserve members, 6,000 auxiliarists, and 288 civilian personnel also enforce marine safety protocols on more than 6,500 oil and gas producing wells and 130 mobile offshore drilling units in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, five of America’s top seven fishing ports are located in the district, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the annual catch by U.S. commercial fishermen.

The 8th District is also home to: four air stations; 15 search and rescue stations; 14 aids to navigation teams; three vessel traffic services; two 210-foot medium-endurance cutters; 17 87-foot patrol boats; 19 river tenders; one 225-foot buoy tender; two 175-foot coastal buoy tenders; and three 64-foot self-propelled barges. There are also three Coast Guard auxiliary regions in the 8th District’s area of responsibility – New Orleans, La., St. Louis, Mo., and Louisville, Ky.

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...