In Hampton Roads, Port Partnership Speeds Up Post-Storm Recovery

With a simple agreement, a strategic region gets more resilient waterways

hampton roads
Joint exercise with Coast Guard and local first responders, 2016 (USCG file image)

Published Dec 25, 2020 4:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books, with 30 named storms and 12 that made landfall in the United States. Every one had an impact on maritime stakeholders, even without considering physical damage: any time lost in a port shutdown means lost economic activity for businesses on the waterfront. It's up to the U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port in each locality to get waterways reopened safely and efficiently after a storm, and at large ports, the cost of a shutdown is measured in millions per day. This year, Sector Virginia found a way to speed up the process: it formalized a partnership with its neighbors, bringing all assets to bear in a planned and coordinated effort - and it worked.

Damage surveys

Storm preparation and search and rescue activity get lots of attention, but after the storm has passed by, there's still a lot to do before ships can start transiting to and from their berths. Calm waters can still hide dangers for shipping, even though the winds and rain have subsided. "It's a picture perfect blue sky day, and to a lay person it would appear great," says Capt. Samson Stevens, Captain of the Port for Sector Virginia. "But reopening safely requires a surge of resources."

First, the Coast Guard brings back any assets that were repositioned out of harm's way before the storm - helicopters, small boats, buoy tenders, and other essential equipment. Search and rescue operations take first priority as these assets come back online. Then it's a matter of executing a careful port survey, above the water and below it, for anything that might be out of place. On the surface, buoys may have been pulled out of position, dayboards wrecked, or lights or beacons damaged. Barges and vessels that broke loose from their moorings may have fetched up in hazardous locations. Fuel may have spilled from a damaged or sunken vessel. Below the water, shoaling, shifting sandbars and hidden obstructions may pose hazards that aren't readily apparent.

The survey and response effort requires lots of assets - small boats and launches for visual surveys, sonar-equipped vessels for bottom surveys, helicopters for overflights, buoy tenders to service ATON and (depending on the damage) dredgers, tugs and spill response vessels. The Coast Guard captain of the port works with partner agencies to put together the resources and carry out the task, and it's a tall order. Depending upon the extent of any damage, a full reopening can take days or weeks.

At Sector Virginia, the Coast Guard implemented a formal agreement to speed up this process. This year, in advance of hurricane season, Capt. Stevens asked the main stakeholders in Hampton Roads - the pilots, the Port of Virginia, the Navy, the Army Corps, NOAA, and an array of state and local first response agencies - to sign an agreement to contribute their resources to post-storm recovery. "We have a one page charter that basically says, 'when the bad stuff happens, we commit to a shared resource approach and commit to a shared response effort to bring the poor back online," said Capt. Stevens.

These partners have big resources to bring to bear, and they each play a key role. The Virginia Pilots are out early, surveying the harbor entrance channel and checking the position of marker buoys. Naval Station Norfolk - the biggest naval base in the world - can contribute helicopters, dive teams, side-scan sonar survey vessels, and heavy lift and salvage vessels for debris removal if required. NOAA and the Army Corps provide additional high-resolution sonar survey capability to detect and confirm any anomalies on the bottom. The local Maritime Incident Response Team - a part of the Port of Virginia - has access to 30-50 small boats operated by police and fire departments across the region, and its mobile command center serves as a key operations center for the post-storm recovery effort.

This partnership was tested in real life for the first time when Hurricane Isaias passed through the Mid-Atlantic this August. With Norfolk's warships requiring open channels and clear access to the sea - and the Port of Virginia waiting to restart cargo movement - the partners had an incentive to reopen the entrance channel and the harbor quickly. With their combined effort, it took just a few hours to complete the survey and reopen the port.

The spirit of cooperation extended beyond the all-clear, too. "The Navy said, 'we'll stay out a little longer while you bring your commercial ships in and we'll do some drills that we want to do,'" said John Reinhart, CEO of the Port of Virginia. "So there wasn't congestion from trying to bring all of the ships in at one time. That's cooperation. They understand that we're one of the largest economic engines in Virginia."

Good governance

This kind of success is less flashy than a helicopter rescue or a drug bust, but stakeholders in Hampton Roads say that it is another critical way that the Coast Guard adds value. It's measurable, too: the Port of Virginia generates $250 million worth of economic activity every day, and it needs open and safe waterways to do it. At Sector Virginia, the Coast Guard has helped minimize the hurricane season's impact on the regional economy, simply by helping everyone work together.

"The first time you want to meet somebody is not when you get your hand out and ask for help. It's that foundational building block of relationships and partnerships that Capt. Stevens has enabled for all of us that makes communications in a crisis very easy," says Rear Adm. Charles "Chip" Rock, Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. "You have to give a shout out to the Coast Guard - they are an absolutely critical partner for us."

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.