Hurricane Maria made landfall as a high-end Category 4 storm on Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. The massive storm—the 10th most intense Atlantic storm on record—devastated the U.S. territory, and communities there will be recovering and rebuilding for years to come. In Fiscal Year 2017, staff from across the National Ocean Service supported the impacted communities by delivering coastal science, management, and operational expertise. Following is a summary of some of those activities.
The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) collected more than 12,000 aerial oblique images, covering more than 1,500 square kilometers affected by the storm. Using NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations Beechcraft King Air 350 CER aircraft, NGS covered areas of Puerto Rico including Culebra Island, Vieques Island, the east central portion of the main island, and its south and north coasts. Portions of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) were also covered. Images were processed and posted online within hours. The imagery is used for a variety of purposes, including recovery strategies, search-and- rescue efforts, hazard identification, vessel locations, and damage assessment. NGS conducts surveys as requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or a state, territory, or tribe in coordination with FEMA.
The Office of Coast Survey (OCS) Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, via the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) C-130 aircraft and USCG Cutter Venturous, to support the response to Maria and the storm’s impact on the island’s ports. The MIST completed survey work in the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port. NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson delivered supplies to the National Weather Service at the USCG small boat pier in San Juan and provided equipment to repair the NOAA tide gauge station. At the request of USCG, the vessel then traveled to Ponce, Roosevelt Roads, and Bahia de Puerca on the island’s southern shores, where OCS hydrographers conducted surveys to locate hazards to navigation and help the ports resume operations. The USCG requested hydrographic services next in St. Croix, USVI, where the ship surveyed Christiansted, Limetree Bay, and Krause Lagoon, locating multiple submerged shipping containers and shoaling. Thomas Jefferson then surveyed in the vicinity of a fuel terminal near the St. Thomas airport and worked with the USCG on other hydrographic survey priorities for the islands.
The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provided scientific support and assessment of pollution in the aftermath of Maria. Principal tasks included 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 supported 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 also worked at FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC, for agency-level coordination and support.
The U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) worked closely with three of its regional associations—the Caribbean Regional Association for Coastal Ocean Observing (CARICOOS), the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS), and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA)—to monitor and assist in the response to Maria. In-situ observing equipment included high-frequency radars and gliders, which functioned as expected throughout the storm. Storm data and information are available online via the CARICOOS Hurricane dashboard. One buoy, deployed near Rincon, Puerto Rico, was cast adrift during the hurricane, but continued transmitting data via cloud connection and was recovered by NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson 420 nautical miles from its station. Through IOOS’s Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed, two new tools assisted hurricane forecasting and response in the region. A Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) and wave model configuration established surge and inundation forecasting capabilities in reef-fringed islands like Puerto Rico. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center shared the models’ forecast information with FEMA to help prepare for the post-hurricane response. Additionally, Puerto Rico was incorporated into the National Storm Surge Hazard Map for the first time, enabling four-to- seven-day forecasting of hurricane impacts.
The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) issued 23 Storm QuickLooks for Hurricane Maria. The hurricane caused widespread station outages, making it difficult to determine peak water levels at many locations across the USVI and Puerto Rico. The tide station at Yabucoa Harbor, Puerto Rico—located precisely where the storm made landfall—survived and measured a peak water level of 5.32 feet above Mean Higher High Water (MHHW). Inundation is most likely to occur when water levels rise above MHHW. The peak wind speed (70.8 knots) and gust (98.0 knots) were also recorded there. CO-OPS issued a graphic highlighting peak water levels along the path of the storm. CO- OPS also provided critical information on tides to OCS as it responded to emergency hydrographic survey requests in the hurricane’s wake.