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Office of Coast Survey Navigation Response Teams

National Ocean Service: Responding to Hurricanes


NOAA’s Navigation Response Teams – Rapid Response for Disasters

Navigation response team boat

When hurricanes make landfall, they often bring with them stronger-than-normal ocean currents that can shift navigational channels and bring debris that can threaten the ability of vessels to navigate safely along the coast. 

With U.S. ports being America’s lifelines for receiving critical supplies such as food and fuel, NOAA’s Navigation Response Teams work around-the-clock after a storm to speed the reopening of ports.

Teams Ready to Move

response team personnel

The teams are three-person mobile emergency response units equipped and trained to survey waterways immediately following a hurricane.

Following a tropical storm or other type of coastal disaster, navigation response teams, part of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, conduct hydrographic surveys of the ocean floor, monitoring for changes in depth or hazards below the surface of the water that could pose great danger to vessel traffic above. 

The information these teams collect informs officials of navigational hazards and helps mariners find alternative routes for commercial and military ships.  NOAA also uses the survey data to update NOAA’s national suite of nautical charts—“roadmaps” for mariners.

NOAA has six navigation response teams, each consisting of three NOAA surveyors and one small boat that they can tow to coastal communities. The teams are placed strategically on the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, or Great Lakes coasts, ready to move at the first hint of trouble.

'Seeing' the Sea Floor

nautical chart

NOAA’s navigation response teams use sonar technology to locate and chart obstructions that may threaten safe navigation. The type of sonar that is used most often – side scan sonar – provides photograph-like imagery of the sea floor to view wreckage and debris below the surface. Side scan sonar is an echo sounding technology that captures images from the sea floor.

Some teams also use multi-beam sonar, a technology that provides full bottom coverage to create a three-dimensional image of the sea floor – providing measurements that can denote ocean depths on nautical charts.

Speeding the Resumption of Maritime Commerce

hurricane damage

Speed and accuracy of NOAA’s hydrographic surveys are critical for making decisions to remove ship restrictions and re-open ports.

Time literally means money for the U.S. economy when it comes to navigation through U.S. ports. Delays in shipping, even minor ones, cost the economy millions each year.

In the hours and days after Hurricane Irene, NOAA’s emergency navigation mobilization paid dividends in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where an average of $5 million worth of cargo is shipped in or out, every hour.”

As soon as conditions allowed, NOAA began surveying around the clock in Hampton Roads, providing the information necessary to restore the port to its full capacity. Three NOAA vessels surveyed 200 linear nautical miles within 48 hours, looking at seafloor changes and searching for underwater hazards that would pose a danger to ships.

Non-Hurricane Response

The sophisticated technology used by NOAA’s navigation response teams can support many other non-hurricane response efforts. Vessel groundings may require underwater investigations. For instance, in 2009, one team responded to requests from a Maine fishing community that had lost several vessels, and five men, over the course of a year. The team searched for underwater obstacles that may have contributed to the lost vessels.

When not responding to hurricanes and other emergencies, NOAA navigation response teams provide valuable assistance to navigation safety by checking the accuracy of NOAA’s electronic navigational charts and responding to survey requests.

Some examples of how NOAA's navigation response teams make a difference include:

  • A fishing community in Cobscook Bay, Maine, lost their fishing vessel All American at sea in 2009. Using side-scan sonar in treacherous tidal waters, a navigation response team located the wreckage.
  • U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River near New York City in 2009. A response team supported passenger rescue, assessed the risk of contamination to the environment, and surveyed the river for the wreckage from the plane.
  • Navigation response teams from across the country responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Within a matter of days, the teams located obstructions in the shipping channels, assuring the U.S. Coast Guard that channels could be reopened with confidence.
  • The teams have responded to damaged ports after many hurricanes – including Dolly, Edouard, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike – locating obstructions so that maritime commerce could resume.

NOAA’s navigation response teams dramatically improve navigation safety, protect homeland security, and speed economic recovery.