Coast Survey Navigation Response to Hurricane Irene Speeds Resumption of Shipping in Hampton Roads

August 31, 2011
NOAA Research Vessel Bay Hydro II

NOAA Research Vessel Bay Hydro II searches for dangers to navigation in Hampton Roads following Hurricane Irene.

NOAA's role in hurricanes does not end with forecasting. Days before Hurricane Irene hit the U.S., the Office of Coast Survey mobilized assets and personnel, getting ready to respond to navigational needs of the 192 ports in Irene's path along the Eastern Seaboard. Coast Survey stationed navigation response vessels from North Carolina to Rhode Island, ready to search for underwater debris and other submerged hazards in critical port areas and shipping lanes. That advance preparation made a particularly vital difference to shipping in and out of Hampton Roads, Va.

"Time literally means money for the U.S. economy when it comes to navigation through U.S. ports," said Capt. John Lowell, Office of Coast Survey director. "Delays in shipping, even minor ones, cost the economy millions each year. 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."

On the heels of Hurricane Irene, NOAA conducted hydrographic surveys around the clock in Hampton Roads, applying its state-of-the-art assets to restoring the port to its full capacity. Three NOAA vessels surveyed 200 linear nautical miles (370.4 kilometers) within 48 hours, looking at sea floor changes and searching for underwater hazards that would pose a danger to ships.

Speed and accuracy of the hydrographic surveys were critical for Hampton Roads operations. The area is home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval base, and re-opening ocean channels was critical to our nation's defense. It was also vital for economic reasons.

Speeding the Resumption of Coal Shipments

A robust and expanding export business is an important potential growth area for the U.S. coal industry, and Hampton Roads is a world leader in coal export shipments. Navigation disruption can obviously have severe economic consequences, especially when reductions in ocean shipping cascades to stoppages of train shipments from coal mined in the Appalachians. Coal exporting terminals at Norfolk shut down on Friday, Aug. 26, while the industry awaited passage of the storm. Following Hurricane Irene, port officials imposed vessel draft restrictions until NOAA hydrographic vessels could survey the shipping channels, checking depths for shoaling as a result of the storm.

As soon as conditions allowed on Sunday afternoon (Aug. 28), NOAA began surveying the deep draft channels needed to facilitate a quick lifting of the draft restrictions and resume coal shipments. While NOAA hydrographers measured depths and looked for hidden dangers to navigation, survey technicians simultaneously processed the soundings data acquired by the NOAA sonar. NOAA sent the sounding plots information to the U.S. Coast Guard so authorities would know which areas were surveyed, and which were next on the list of priorities. The information was used in the decisions to remove shipping restrictions.

Capt. Mark Ogle, the Coast Guard's captain of the port, opened the port at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30, after NOAA inspected the channels for shoaling and debris, and buoys were repositioned.

Ports are critical arteries for American commerce, with the maritime transportation system contributing more than $1 trillion to the national economy and providing employment for more than 13 million people. Just as a car accident can halt traffic for miles, shipping delays can snarl both the maritime system and land-based shipping that feeds into the ports. NOAA's Office of Coast Survey has been surveying and charting the nation's coastlines since the 1800s, after President Thomas Jefferson ordered a survey of the coast to protect the young nation's shipping industry.

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