Five Years Post-Katrina, It’s Smoother Sailing in Gulf’s Busy Ports

Boats piled on top of each other on land following Hurricane Katrina.

Boats piled on top of each other on land following Hurricane Katrina.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

It was Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into southeast Louisiana, unleashing her fury on America’s Gulf Coast. In her wake, she razed whole neighborhoods, destroyed bridges, and tore up roads, taking more than 1,000 lives along the way.

Gulf Coast ports and waterways — critical thoroughfares for shipping and commerce — also sustained extensive damage. Displaced piers blocked channels, and wrecked and sunken boats, presented daunting navigational challenges.

Keeping our ports and waterways safe and navigable after a severe weather event is serious business.

Just ask Howard Danley, chief of NOAA’s Navigation Services Division. In the five years since Katrina, Danley has been working to ensure that the Gulf’s marine transportation infrastructure is not crippled by the next big storm:

What were some of the first steps taken to safeguard marine transportation in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?

NOAA Navigational Response Team can survey waterways in very tight spots.

NOAA Navigational Response Team can survey waterways in very tight spots.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Within two days of Katrina’s landfall, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey set to work helping the U.S. Coast Guard find and clear obstructions from shipping lanes and channels and reopen ports along the Mississippi River, so that ships could deliver desperately needed supplies to disaster areas.

The lessons learned from both storms are what have shaped the maritime hurricane response in the Gulf we have today. Shortly after Hurricane Rita passed through the Gulf, NOAA met with its partners from the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, and Gulf marine transportation officials to share what they had learned after the two storms and plan for future disasters. The team developed a specific protocol that outlines the steps necessary to ensure safe passage of commercial and recreational vessels through the nation’s busiest ports before, during, and after hurricane or other severe storm.

Every May, NOAA and these partners hold an annual meeting in New Orleans where we discuss all the assets we have in the Gulf region — manpower, response vessels and supplies — and update our emergency communications plan.

In terms of safeguarding ports and waterways, how does NOAA Coast Survey prepare for a hurricane?

Navigational Response Team surveying waterways in the Gulf Coast.

Navigational Response Team surveying waterways in the Gulf Coast.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

One of the things we do each and every morning is to check NOAA’s National Hurricane Center forecasts for word of any potential storms that might be forming off the coast of Africa and crossing over into the Atlantic. During hurricane season, which starts in June, we conduct monthly phone tree drills that simulate the calls we would make in preparation for a real storm projected to hit the coast.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has two branches that stand at the ready to respond to hurricanes and tropical storms:

What happens to ports when a hurricane approaches land?

The Coast Guard will close a port when there are sustained gale-force winds from a hurricane-force storm predicted within 12 hours.

We then move our response teams to a safe and secure location before the storm comes ashore. During this time, NOAA headquarters personnel and the Gulf navigation managers hold twice-daily telephone conferences with our partners to ensure effective survey operations.

What happens after the storm hits?

Using sonar to survey.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Once the port is closed, the Coast Guard will not reopen it until our navigation response teams and the Army Corps of Engineers complete hydrographic surveys Typically, this research employs different types of sonar to detect changes in water depth or submerged debris — such as sunken ships or barges— that could pose great danger to boats and ships.

However, hydrographic surveys cannot be conducted until the sediment in the water has settled and the sea is calm; this is typically within 24 hours after the storm passes. Our boats cannot survey in turbid or choppy water; if we tried to survey immediately after the storm, the data results would likely be inaccurate.

Once water conditions are safe, surveys can commence. When we find obstructions or debris, the Army Corps of Engineers takes up the task of removing it quickly, so that ships can move through the waterway again.

What does improved hurricane planning mean for maritime commerce across the Gulf, in terms of dollars and cents?

Navigational Response Team navigates around a propane barge in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina smashed through the region.

Navigational Response Team navigates around a propane barge in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina smashed through the region.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The economy is heavily dependent on ships moving goods and people through the nation’s waterways and ports. Commercial vessel traffic contributes more than $1 trillion to the economy each year. 

In fact, the ports across the Gulf Coast are some of the nation’s busiest largest port complexes. They support millions of jobs and are the gateways to global markets. With a rich tradition of maritime trade dating back to 1718, the Port of New Orleans lies at the nexus of the world’s busiest port complex, Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River; it generates nearly 160,000 jobs and $8 billion in annual earnings.

Hurricane impacts to these complexes can be tremendous. Just one storm can disrupt the nation’s economy as well as global trade in massive numbers. It is estimated that Katrina cost the Port of New Orleans alone nearly $250 million, with $20 million due to interrupted commerce and tens of millions more for damages to port facilities, roads and bridges.

Being at the ready to respond to these storms and getting these ports back ‘online’ saves billions of dollars and millions of jobs. NOAA logo.