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Diving Deeper: NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center

Episode 50 (July 25, 2013)

HOST: Join us today on Diving Deeper as we visit the NOAA Disaster Response Center! I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Our guide for today's tour is Charlie Henry who's joining us by phone. Charlie is the director of NOAA's Disaster Response Center. Hi Charlie, welcome to our show.

CHARLIE HENRY: Hi Kate, thank you for inviting me.

HOST: So Charlie, first, can you tell us briefly what the Disaster Response Center, also known as the DRC, what this is?

CHARLIE HENRY: OK, the Disaster Response Center in many ways is a facility, it's a building, it was built in Mobile, Alabama, and I'll tell you more about the Center as we go along, but really I like to think of the program as two different parts. One is the resource that the Center provides and the resource that the staff provides in addressing emergency response issues in the region.

The Disaster Response Center, which officially we call the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, because of its physical location in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. We look at the Center as providing a physical asset, a hardened asset, and a resource for federal response to a disaster. At the same time, the DRC provides a home for a group of folks that provide different types of support in planning for emergency operations and building resiliency to the Northern Gulf of Mexico. That's what I think of as the program elements to the Disaster Response Center.

On one hand we have a very new, high tech, hardened facility, 15,000 square foot, built to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. Has a Force 5 tornado shelter built into the facility. It's purposely built on high ground so it's not in any risk or danger from storm surge or any flooding events. And it's designed and built to be able to withstand what hopefully is the worst that nature can dish out and be a physical resource to assist in the response to that disaster after the fact. And then second is the people that make up the DRC that work day to day trying to look at building a better response posture, a better response community in the Gulf of Mexico. The two together is what encompasses what we call NOAA's Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

HOST: And why are you located in Mobile, Alabama?

CHARLIE HENRY: Mobile, Alabama was selected as the home for NOAA's Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center primarily because of its central location along the Northern Gulf of Mexico coastline. If you took an 'X' and made an 'X' kind of dead center across the Northern Gulf of Mexico coast, you'd be pretty close to where Mobile, Alabama is. And Mobile, Alabama also was an area that was fairly void of a lot of other NOAA resources so it fills a gap in our continuous coverage across the Gulf of Mexico.

HOST: So Charlie you touched on this a little bit there at the end of your last response, but why did NOAA need to have such a facility?

CHARLIE HENRY: Well, I think the question's actually even larger, it's why did the federal government believe that they needed additional federal resources to plan for and to assist in disaster response. And this goes back to the history of the NOAA Disaster Response Center, in that after the 2005 hurricane season, it was identified that there was a need for additional federal resources in the Gulf of Mexico in the event of the next disaster and we know that incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and Rita are going to reoccur. The history of the Gulf of Mexico is the vulnerability to hurricanes, so we knew that those types of events would reoccur.

And you kind of put in perspective, why do we need a something like a hardened facility like the Disaster Response Center. After Hurricane Katrina when we responded, most of us were working out of tents or out of make-shift trailer facilities or anything that we could find to be able to set up and manage different field command posts to work on that federal response. And that's in part because the nature of a disaster. When there's a disaster, a lot of facilities that may normally be available are no longer available. Having a hardened facility like the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center provide a resource that's available not just to NOAA, NOAA owns it and maintains it, but we see it as a facility that we use jointly with our partners such as FEMA and the U.S. Coast Guard and the state of Alabama and other federal agencies to assist in response.

HOST: That's a great segway to our next question. So the word "disaster" is part of the Center's name. What do you mean by disaster? Are you focused solely on things like hurricanes?

CHARLIE HENRY: Disaster is kind of a buzz word and really I like to think that we provide, in our thinking and planning we look at all hazards, not just natural disasters such as hurricanes, but also manmade incidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But when you think of what is a disaster, incidents and accidents happen every day that have an impact to a family and to them, that's a disaster. So it's really a matter of scale or magnitude. When we think of disasters, we're thinking about events that have an impact to a series of communities, towns, states, such as you would with a large event such as Hurricane Katrina or Rita or with a major oil spill such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. So when we think of disasters, we really think of something that because of the scale and magnitude, it's impacting or exceeding what a local community could respond to and it requires an intervention or the assistance of the state and the federal government to assist in that response and recovery activities.

HOST: Charlie, I imagine that your daily operations at the DRC, that it changes leading up to and then of course following a storm. Can you tell us what the DRC looks like at this time?

CHARLIE HENRY: Well, today actually we have a training activity going on. We have a four-day workshop that's being hosted by us, but it's actually being put on by the U.S. Coast Guard on incident command system and this is how they manage emergencies and disasters. And so we have about 40 people that are actually running drills and activities as part of that training event in our big operations center and using the break-out rooms, it's set up pretty much how you would during a response because they're simulating that to do training in what's called the incident command system. So if you walked in today you'd think there might be an event going on, but there isn't, it's just a training activity.

We do know that this time of year we're in, the hurricane season and we look at those storms, and we look at what the potential trajectories may be of those storms and what might be the impact and then as they get closer, usually three to four days out, we have a better idea of what might be at risk and then the nature of the Center may change because then we'll be activating a lot of our agreements with our partner agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and others on where we might be pre-positioning people and equipment to be in the right structure to manage those response operations after the fact.

An example would be after Hurricane Isaac last year which was actually right after we dedicated the new facility. We provided support to the Coast Guard on the front end to relocate a lot of their assets to high ground to have it in the right posture to respond and then after that tropical storm passed and the flooding events, we supported a large amount of the FEMA recovery efforts directly within the facility, housed their people, and helped them manage their operations. We were primarily providing the host in that situation with FEMA personnel, but we provided that environment for them to work in and do their job effectively.

HOST: And Charlie, what can you tell us about your staff?

CHARLIE HENRY: The office side complex is actually very small. I only have a total of four staff including myself. And then we have staff that are co-located within the Center from other program offices such as NOAA's Marine Debris Division, National Marine Fisheries Restoration Center, and we have other staff that programmed to come in. We want the co-located staff to reflect those folks across NOAA that are actively involved in planning for, assisting during responses. And just as importantly, building that resiliency so that we have less issues in the future. And that's the ultimate goal of the Center itself as far as staffing is those staff that are co-located here that work collaboratively together for the same goals.

HOST: That's great so it's a really unique position then that you all provide as that hub and being that central facility that all of the right folks can come together...

CHARLIE HENRY: Yeah, and let me point out that I think that that is really what makes the Disaster Response Center kind of a unique entity in that it never was really thought of to be a program office on its own. It is really to provide that environment that we can have folks from different program offices and different line offices within NOAA and connections with other federal agencies that we work together for a common goal. So the program staff will always be small, but hopefully the impact that we have to the larger response community will have a great effect.

HOST: Great, thanks. So Charlie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself maybe - how did you get to this position as director for NOAA's Disaster Response Center?

CHARLIE HENRY: Well, I guess first I had to apply for it, but I think you're asking in a broader sense. Actually I really feel fortunate to have this position in that, I think it really builds upon my history working with NOAA over the last 25 years. My background is in chemistry and marine science and I started out working with NOAA actually when I was at Louisiana State University as a scientist under contract to NOAA to respond to emergencies and I worked spills such as the Exxon Valdez and the Kuwait oil fires and many other disasters as basically a contractor to NOAA.

But I really loved NOAA, I thought NOAA was a great organization and I was fortunate enough at the time a position opened up in the Gulf of Mexico for what is called the Scientific Support Coordinator and the Scientific Support Coordinator is part of the Office of Response and Restoration and their number one role is to be that front line in the field support providing decision making support and technical support to the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal on-scene coordinators during emergencies. And I did that for 13 years and kind of as things moved along, I thought it was the best job in NOAA, in fact I know it was the best job in NOAA and I never had any thought or intent to change jobs and I thought that was how I was going to continue my career within NOAA.

And then there was an incident that happened called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and I responded very quickly to the Deepwater Horizon in fact I was called probably two and a half hours after the initial explosion and went on-scene working with the Coast Guard and as the response grew and as the NOAA response, which was a critical element throughout the whole incident grew, I really recognized that there was a real role in building a stronger and better response posture across NOAA. Not that we don't have a great team of scientists that do work that just blows my mind all the time, but I could see that role that we could provide additional coordination and connections between different groups that we can leverage the expertise that we have with NOAA to apply it to different emergencies.

And so through that process of working the Deepwater Horizon oil spill where I had a huge team of brilliant people just doing things that was exciting, the opportunity for the director for the Disaster Response Center opened up and thinking about it, I thought that would be a position that would really have an impact. My real role, my real goal is to be able to have an impact that we do things better and I always believe that you can always improve and even though you can look back at the history of our organization and the history of response, we have a lot of things that we can hang our hat on. Every time I look at it, I go, yeah, but we could do it a little bit better and that's really what we do. We do that with our forecasting for hurricanes, we do that for our forecasting for tornadoes, we do that on how we provide forecasting for oil trajectories, we do that on how we coordinate with different agencies to build that better response and better educated response community.

And I saw that the Center, the DRC, as a real opportunity that could add value to activities that were already going on and build upon the successes that we already had in NOAA and how NOAA connects to our other federal partners. And I saw that it was a vehicle to really expand and improve across not only the Gulf of Mexico but the experience that we had to build the response posture across the United States. And so I applied for the job and I was fortunate enough to get it and I've been the director now for almost two years and we're coming along and building a program to do just that.

HOST: Thanks Charlie - what an amazing career you've had so far. You mentioned earlier that the DRC may host trainings, kind of like what you have going on this week. And I wanted to find out more how your facility is set up for these kinds of trainings?

CHARLIE HENRY: That's a good question. One of the things that we look at is trying to create an environment that's very conducive to provide that training. Our main training facility is actually also our operations center and we think that you basically respond as you train so doing training in an operating center type environment we think is a very good thing, very conducive to the activities we do. It's also very flexible space. We have a very large room with adjacent break-out rooms and adjacent conference rooms. It has ability to connect to the internet all through the facility so that we're very well wired. We also have, which I think is very unique, we have a 24 screen video display system on one wall that provides, during operational events, a situational awareness wall, but at the same time during training events, it provides a very valuable asset to assist in training. We could have multiple screens showing different types of information, feeding a variety of information.

But my goal is, my vision is, that being the hub, being kind of a center hub, that we coordinate a lot of these activities whether it's a actual disaster where we're actually linking in different elements within NOAA and other federal agencies so that we can make sure that we're on the same page on what the threats are and how we're responding to those threats. That that same technology we can use to then link people together in training environments and training venues, whether it's drills or even just training activities, such as a lecture series or whatever, but build that almost as good as being there in person type of feeling to make that very effective and that's a very big challenge.

HOST: So let's do a little training right now for our listeners as part of this visit to the Disaster Response Center. Given that we are in hurricane season, what advice can you give folks to help us all better prepare before the storm?

CHARLIE HENRY: Well, that's a simple one in that always have a plan. People sometimes let the oncoming storm get ahead of them, but the number one thing that anyone can do is always have a plan and the plan is not just for themselves and their immediate family, but you should plan also for your pets and plan for your property. Kind of the golden rule of emergency response is you want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. And that applies to every member of the public as well. If they have a good plan, if they've safely put themselves in a location that they're safe, they're protected, then that doesn't take resources away from the other response needs. So that's the number thing that you have to do is that you have to have a plan in advance.

Finally Charlie, to close out our episode for today, what do you want to leave folks with, what do you want us to remember about the Disaster Response Center?

CHARLIE HENRY: That's a good question. I think what I leave people with is that the Disaster Response Center is a state-of-the-art facility, but it's just a facility. It's a resource that we hope will add value when there is an event. That we can make a difference because I want to make a difference and that's what NOAA does, we try to make a difference, but I think the unique thing about the Disaster Response Center is that it's a concept of pulling people together from different groups with the common goal in trying to build a better response community and a better response posture so that the end result is that we have more resiliency and less impact from storms and that's our ultimate goal is to build a resilient community that when there's a threat from hurricanes or other disasters, that we're prepared for and that we weather those storms and that we recover with the least amount of threat to the public and to property and the environment.

HOST: Thanks Charlie for joining us today on Diving Deeper as we explored NOAA's Disaster Response Center. To learn more, please visit

That's all for today's show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if you're on social media, don't forget you can find us, it's usoceangov, on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube; and noaaocean on Twitter and Pinterest. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.