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Making Waves: Episode 68 (Feb. 03, 2011)

You're listening to Making Waves. I'm your host, Troy Kitch.

Today, we're going to tell about NOAA's new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, now under construction in Mobile County, Alabama. The Center is the first of its kind, and it promises to change the way people respond to … and prepare to respond to … the many hard-hitting storms, spills, and other events that too often strike this fragile region.

Charlie Henry is with us today. He's served as NOAA's scientific support coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico region for the past 13 years, and he's the acting director of the new Center. I began by asking him how the idea for the Disaster Response Center came about.

[Charlie Henry] "You have to go back a little in time, back to the 2005 hurricane season. I think that's what really identified the vulnerability of the Gulf of Mexico to certain types of threats -- hurricanes is one example. And 2005 was one of the worst hurricane seasons that we had seen."

Hurricane's Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf coastline and took thousands of lives in 2005. And in the aftermath of these giant storms, Congress decided that something more was needed to help people in this area prepare for and better respond to these types of natural disasters. So in 2008, Congress appropriated funds to build the Disaster Response Center. But while the idea for the Center came from this terrible hurricane season, it has a bigger purpose:

[Charlie Henry] "Hurricanes aren't the only threats. If you at all heard anything on the news in the last nine months, you've heard of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the economic impact and the environmental impact that caused to the Gulf of Mexico region. This Center is also designed in concept to provide additional assistance and coordination on those types of events as well. So it's an all-hazards response Center. "

So to really get at what the Center is going to offer, we have to step back and look at how NOAA does business today. As I mentioned when I introduced Charlie, he's been the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the Gulf region for over a decade. There are eight other people like Charlie around the nation that help coordinate scientific support for all of the U.S. coastal and territorial waters when manmade or natural disasters strike.

What do I mean by scientific support? Well, take the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Coast Guard led the response to this crisis, but to do this job, they needed information … things like oil spill trajectories, models that would predict what was happening underneath the waves, and real-time weather and water data. These are the kinds of things that NOAA provide … the science that helps responders, well, respond smartly and efficiently. So if we have these support coordinators in place around the country, how will the Gulf Center be different? It comes back to this: we need something more robust and permanent in place in the Gulf, because the Gulf of Mexico is a place that's especially prone to severe hazards.

"The Disaster Response Center provides an extension to a lot of the coordination work we already do. What changes is that the Disaster Response Center -- because it's a physical building and location -- it provides like a hub to coordinate a lot of these activities, and what we think will add value to the resources we can bring on-scene. It provides coordination through that hub, additional training through that hub, a staging area through that hub, as well as improving communications through that hub through the IT infrastructure in being able to provide a lot of NOAA products and services in real-time in a building that's been rated to withstand storms, up to Category Five hurricanes and force five tornadoes."

Yeah, this is going to be one tough building. And it needs to be, because when a disaster strikes is exactly when the information the Center will provide is most needed. The new building is in Mobile County, Alabama, roughly at the center of the Northern Gulf of Mexico coast. It's not located down by the waterfront in the Bay, but up on high ground near a Coast Guard air station, so it's close to a lot of Coast Guard support and it's out of harms way from storm surges. I asked Charlie what's going to be inside the new structure.

[Charlie Henry] "This building is 15,000 square feet. It will house 30 full-time staff. It has a very large room that we can use either for training or can be reconfigured to an operations command center with breakout rooms and additional conference rooms. It has a video wall."

And it's rated to withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour. And there's also a vault on the inside to protect the people working there that can withstand winds up to 200 miles per hour. Oh, and it's also green.

[Charlie Henry] "It has solar water heating to support the facility, to rain water recovery systems to support a lot of the water needs of the building and the landscaping, and it's designed to be highly energy efficient, so it's really a state-of-the-art building that's very hardened and is very flexible in how we can configure it to either provide training, or provide workshops, or to configure it for actual emergency response."

So as Charlie just said, the Center is for much more than just responding to emergencies. In fact, he said the day-to-day job of the Center will be contingency planning and training so all the players in the region -- NOAA people, other federal responders, and state and local partners -- will be ready for the next event … and to make sure that the next time, mistakes made during past crises are not repeated.

[Charlie Henry] "You know, one of the most important things you learn in an emergency response is that sometimes mistakes happen, and often those are driven by the fact that they're unique events that people really don't understand and they're happening in real-time. There's no time to study it, the events just happened. You know, there's no value to be gained by the second kick of the mule, you know you don't want to make the same mistake twice. So we really want to provide that catalyst in a physical location to host those workshops to say, OK, how can we improve what we did in the past, so that the next time we're in a similar situation, we have a better understanding."

Charlie said that in emergency response, the key thing to keep in mind is that every action taken has potential consequences on the environment, on people who live in the region, or on reducing the impact of the event. So each time we respond to a hurricane or spill, it's sort of like an experiment in a natural laboratory. Because NOAA is a science agency, he said that experts at the Center can play a critical role in using science to learn from past events.

[Charlie Henry] "We actually learn more from every event that we want to incorporate into our planning for the future. These are not events that you can simulate or reproduce in a laboratory. You may be able to do some computer modeling, but the computer modeling is really driven by what we learned from past events anyway. So what we have to do is take advantage -- not only doing our due diligence to do the best response we can during that event -- but learn from that event on how we can do better in the future. Since we are scientists, and we study events, and we try to learn from events because that's what scientists do, is to take that science perspective on helping assist the states, the local municipalities, and the other federal agencies develop a better response plan in the future. It doesn't mean the old one was bad, but we can always improve."

NOAA is slated to take ownership of the new Disaster Response Center on the 25th of April. If you'd like to see what it looks like now, we'll have a link to an image gallery in our show notes. And that gallery is also where you'll find a lot more background on the new Center, it's mission, and it's vision for the future. Let me just mention where to find that now in case you're at a computer … it's on the NOS website at … that hazards, backslash, D-R-C.

Of course, once NOAA takes over the building from the contractors, there won't be any furniture or equipment in it. Charlie said that'll take several more months. The plan is to open the doors for work in June. While the Center will have offices to support 30 staff members, it'll originally start off with a small cadre of key personnel.

That's not stopping Charlie and his team, though. They're already virtually open for business. He said that even though they don't have the building yet, they're now working the mission of the Center with partners in the region to improve response in the Gulf of Mexico.

And they even have their first workshop planned for later this year.

[Charlie Henry] "Our first workshop that we're going to host at the Disaster Response Center -- even before the building is fully operational -- is going to be a surge model workshop related to hurricane storm surge. And this is to basically provide the latest, best information from the folks that develop those models that predict how much can inundate those coastal zones so that we can improve planning for this years hurricane season."


It sounds like they're off to a good start.

That was Charlie Henry, NOAA scientific support coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico region and the acting director of the new Disaster Response Center.

And thank you for joining us this week. Write to us as if you have any questions or comments and visit us online. Our home on the Web is And don't forget that you can subscribe to this podcast on our website so you'll never miss an episode … We serve up a feed for your feed reader and we're also on iTunes. You can get those links on our website.
See you next time.