By Kurt Nagle
American Association of Port Authorities
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation along the U.S. Gulf Coast this month there has been much finger pointing and blaming of federal authorities regarding slow and/or inadequate emergency response. However on behalf of the members of the American Association of Port Authorities including the dozen or so Gulf Coast seaports most impacted by the storm I would like to point out several federal agencies that should be recognized as heroes in the struggle to save lives mobilize relief services and supplies prevent additional property losses and keep America’s commerce moving.
Within hours of the hurricane’s departure from the Gulf public port authorities from Louisiana to Florida began working around the clock; first to assist in the search and rescue effort then to assess damage to their marine facilities harbors and waterways; and finally to make repairs to their operations. Thankfully they weren’t alone. These ports were aided by a number of invaluable federal partners including the U.S. Coast Guard National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (with assistance from the U.S. Navy) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Maritime Administration.
First on the scene was the Coast Guard. In addition to conducting nonstop search and rescue missions by helicopter and boat providing desperately-needed relief supplies and evacuating critical need patients this front-line federal agency also took on the task of getting the waterways reopened to maritime traffic as quickly and as safely as possible in cooperation with other federal partners.
At the request of the Coast Guard Corps of Engineers and the local ports NOAA’s Navigation Response Teams (part of its Office of Coast Survey) jumped in to provide emergency hydrographic services for the port areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. This included data collection sonar surveys to update government navigation charts coordinating Navy dive teams to check for hazardous obstructions in the waterways and providing mapping support. The Coast Guard with assistance from NOAA began repositioning repairing and replacing aids to navigation such as signal buoys and channel markers so that ships and barges could operate safely. In one example NOAA performed a survey that identified a channel obstruction in Mobile Ala. This survey proved crucial to the timely delivery of a shipload of coal to a fuel-starved power plant in southeast Mississippi. Having detailed information about the obstruction and available channel depth enabled Drummond Company Inc. to load and navigate its coal vessel in a safe and timely manner ensuring electricity for customers who need it to recover in one of the hardest hit areas of the Gulf.
Corps of Engineers employees contractors and retired military officers also arrived quickly and in force to help with navigation flood and storm water management as well as construction and engineering. Examples of the Corps’ initial undertakings included distributing ice and water to evacuees mobilizing emergency power for hospitals and pumping stations making levee repairs repairing damaged roofs at warehouse sites for material storage and performing or contracting for the pumping of flood waters from New Orleans and the greater metropolitan area. The Corps is also tasked with landside debris removal and clearing and disposing of sediments from clogged rivers canals and other waterways as needed to ensure safe navigation.
The Maritime Administration or MARAD which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation is another federal agency that has come through with flying colors during the Katrina disaster. Under the direction of Acting Maritime Administrator John Jamian MARAD has tapped seven ships from its National Defense Reserve Fleet to serve hurricane-affected areas. These ships are used for transporting cargo and other provisions as well as providing temporary housing for displaced port and petroleum workers electricity to run shoreside equipment at ports such as in New Orleans and Gulfport and cranes to offload cargo when port facilities aren’t operable. Two of the seven ships are homeported in New Orleans one of which is now serving as emergency headquarters and operations center for Port of New Orleans staff.
Katrina and its tragic aftermath have brought in to focus the critical nature of our seaports; not only for trade but for the mobilization of critical supplies and services after major disasters. The U.S. is served by more than 360 commercial ports. The ports in the states most affected by Hurricane Katrina (Louisiana Mississippi and Alabama) alone handle nearly a quarter of the country’s overseas imports and exports and more than a million annual cruise ship passengers a year. While the annual economic impacts that these ports provide the country extends well into the billions of dollars their service as the base for the rebuilding effort in crises like we have just experienced is priceless.
So the next time you hear broad-based criticism of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina remember the ports and the federal agencies I have just highlighted which moved quickly and effectively to help save lives restore services and keep supplies and commerce moving. Without the help of the public port authorities and agencies such as the Coast Guard and the Corps NOAA and MARAD the crucial services needed in times of crisis and the goods we depend on in our everyday lives may not be available with the timeliness that consumers and manufacturers require. Please join us at the American Association of Port Authorities in saying thanks.