Many of us have been preparing for, responding to, or beginning to recover from hurricanes for more than four weeks now. Tragically, Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of at least 30 people, leaving communities devastated across the Caribbean. Immediately after the storm, we were able to account for all of our personnel in the affected area. But we also recognize that the safety of our staff members working and living in areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria continues to be a concern in the face of high temperatures, receding water, and limited basic resources. FEMA’s websites for Harvey, Irma, and Maria provide information for people impacted by the storms as well as ways that individual citizens can help those in need.
I am so proud to work with people who consistently demonstrate unwavering commitment to our mission. Here are examples of recent activities supporting response and recovery to these storms.
The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) continues to provide scientific support and assessment of pollution in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Areas of focus are South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Principal tasks include vessel and hazardous waste identification in marine waters, sensitive habitat and species mapping, and prescribing best practices for environmental protection during vessel and hazmat removal operations. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is supporting recovery efforts by collecting and coordinating information on marine debris, including that of grounded and sunken vessels, orphan containers, household hazardous wastes, and general structural debris. OR&R staff have also been working at FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC, for agency-level coordination support, and at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Florida.
The Office of Coast Survey’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 23, via the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) C-130 aircraft and USCG Cutter Venturous, to support the response to Hurricane Maria and its impact on the island’s ports. The MIST completed survey work in the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port, and returns to the continental United States today (September 28). Meanwhile, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is en route from Port Everglades, Florida, to Puerto Rico, and is scheduled to arrive today. The vessel plans to drop supplies for the National Weather Service before proceeding to St. Croix, USVI, for hydrographic survey operations in Christiansted, the largest town on the island.
From September 22-25, the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) used the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations Beechcraft King Air 350 CER aircraft to collect more than 12,000 aerial oblique images covering more than 1,500 square kilometers affected by Hurricane Maria. In addition to the U.S. Virgin Islands, covered areas of Puerto Rico include Culebra Island, Vieques Island, the east central portion of the main island, and its south and north coasts. To date, NGS emergency response efforts to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have resulted in more than 1.7 billion requests for NGS images. In total, more than 65,000 images were collected, covering more than 24,000 square kilometers and utilizing 195 flight hours. Images can be viewed on NGS’s storm imagery website.
The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) issued Storm Quicklook postings throughout the duration of Hurricane Irma. The product provides a synopsis of near real-time oceanographic and meteorological observations at locations affected by the storm. CO-OPS issued 29 Quicklooks for Irma, matching the number issued for Hurricane Harvey. The highest water level recorded was at the I-295 Bridge, St. Johns River, Florida, at 5.26 feet above Mean Higher High Water (MHHW). Inundation is most likely to occur when water levels rise above MHHW. Peak observed water levels for Irma can be viewed online. In Virginia Key, Florida, water levels reached 3.66 feet above MHHW. If this is verified, it will eclipse the previous maximum of 2.58 feet from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. CO-OPS is also assessing potential damages to its observing infrastructure in both Florida and the Caribbean.
As of September 13, the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) had collected more than 10,000 aerial oblique images covering more than 2,695 square kilometers along the Florida coast. Using NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations Beechcraft King Air 350 CER aircraft, NGS covered the areas of Punta Gorda to Naples, Key West to Boca Chica Key, Boca Chica to Deer Key, Marathon to Key Largo, and Everglades City to Fort Myers. Flights will continue daily as weather allows. Images are processed and posted online within hours. The imagery can be used for a variety of purposes, including recovery strategies, search-and-rescue efforts, hazard identification, vessel locations, and damage assessment. Irma images can be viewed online. NGS also collected more than 25,500 aerial images images following Harvey. The office conducts surveys as requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or a state, territory, or tribe in coordination with FEMA.
Office of Coast Survey (OCS) navigation managers are positioned in Norfolk, VA, and Miami and Tampa, FL, coordinating efforts with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) District 7 and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District. OCS’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) traveled from the NOAA Disaster Response Center in Mobile, AL, to Miami on the first available flight after the storm. The team is surveying in the Port of Miami aboard a vessel of opportunity provided by the Miami-Dade Police Department. Navigation Response Team (NRT) 5 traveled from New London, CT, to conduct surveys in Tampa Bay. NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is transiting from Norfolk, VA, to survey near Savannah, GA.
The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) collected data and NGS aerial imagery of damage from both Harvey and Irma, and added it to OR&R’s ERMA® Gulf of Mexico web-based GIS tool as soon as it was available. Additional data, such as data for marine debris, is being added to ERMA as requested. OR&R is also communicating with partners including the USCG about their scientific support needs, and has assembled three scientific support teams for Irma pollution response. They will address issues including marine debris and oil and chemical spills in the coastal environment. OR&R also continues to provide scientific support in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
The Office for Coastal Management (OCM) continues to coordinate with state and territorial Coastal Zone Management, National Estuarine Research Reserve, Coral, and Sea Grant partners throughout the Southeast, Caribbean, and Gulf regions to identify facility, equipment, and other damages and operational needs, and make partners aware of NOAA resources for assistance. Staff in the U.S. Virgin Islands helped move hospital patients from St. Thomas to St. Croix, then on to Puerto Rico, and a staff member was deployed to the FEMA Joint Field Office in Austin, TX, to help implement Harvey recovery actions under the National Disaster Recovery Framework. The online Digital Coast platform is providing coastal communities with information and resources including lidar, elevation, and land cover data; risk and vulnerability assessment methods; and sea level rise maps, all of which can be used in recovery planning efforts. Additionally, OCM is working with state and territorial partners to explore how streamlining programmatic and environmental permitting might hasten both short- and long-term recovery.
The U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) is working closely with its Caribbean (CARICOOS), Gulf of Mexico (GCOOS), and Southeastern U.S. (SECOORA) regional associations to monitor and assist in the response. In-situ observing equipment includes high-frequency radars and gliders, which functioned as expected throughout both storms. Two radars near Venice, FL, operated continuously, while the remainder, in Puerto Rico and South Florida, experienced degrees of downtime. The equipment is being assessed and will be repaired as access becomes possible. Irma and Harvey data and information are available online via the GCOOS hurricane resources page and the SECOORA hurricane resources page.
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries reports that due to dangerous conditions still surrounding the Keys, there is still no update on the status of sanctuary resources or facilities in Key West nor for an intended date to resume operations. Power remains out, and water and sewage treatment are unavailable or problematic. Key Largo facilities suffered some water damage, but overall, the structure remains intact. The sanctuary’s small boats in the Upper Keys also appear to have survived the storm. The Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary campus near Savannah, GA, should reopen late this week.
Through its Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) is funding research to develop a modeling tool that will predict how barrier islands and sand dunes function and recover following storms. The goal is to enable coastal managers to better evaluate how these natural and managed islands recover from storms and change through time under various sea level rise and management scenarios. By comparing changes between managed and natural barrier islands, researchers hope to better inform coastal communities on how to maximize the ecological and societal benefits of these habitats.
As we continue our post-hurricane response efforts, I can't overstate how humbled I am by the commitment of NOS staff to serve the people and places facing tremendous adversity in the aftermath of these historic storms.
Nicole R. LeBoeuf
Deputy Assistant Administrator Ocean Services and Coastal
Zone Management, National Ocean Service