Hurricane Michael: An Unprecedented Response

By Charity Gourley, Aukema Associates

As an organization dedicated to being ready and responsive, the U.S. Coast Guard certainly understands there are always lessons to be learned. In any response to a disaster, the educational moments gleaned from previous times of crisis carry over to create a more efficient and successful operation. This was clearly witnessed last October during the Coast Guard’s coordinated response to the declared disaster and devastation left behind by Category 4 Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle.

Once the storm had passed and the critical actions to ensure life and safety were completed, FEMA and the state of Florida worked together to issue an Emergency Support Function-10 (ESF-10) Mission Assignment to the Coast Guard. FEMA’s Emergency Support Functions provide the structure for coordinating Federal interagency support for a Federal response to an incident. ESF-10 specifically provides support to respond to a declared emergency with an ongoing or potential release of oil or hazardous materials into the marine environment. In the response to Hurricane Michael the ESF-10 mission served to mitigate the environmental threat posed by the many vessels sunk or damaged during the storm.

At the outset the Coast Guard office for Emergency Contracting (SILC) was immediately engaged to support the mission. Response personnel and contractors were identified and deployed to survey conditions and set up an Incident Command Post. A Federal/State Unified Command and Incident Management Team were established to oversee the initial assessment actions conducted by field teams made up of personnel from Florida Wildlife Commission, Coast Guard and NOAA to determine and document the extent of the damage.

ADCI member Global Diving and Salvage, Inc. (Global) was selected by the Unified Command to serve as the primary contractor responsible for managing all aspects of the response operations. Integrated into the IMT, Global and the agencies worked together to develop operational plans, identify and secure resources. The Unified Command provided procedural oversight and the overall guidance required to execute the mission safely and efficiently.

In its wake, Hurricane Michael left behind 1,277 wrecked or displaced vessels, 544 of which were determined to be targets requiring ESF-10 action. As the targets were identified and classified by the IMT they were assigned to Global for action. Response to the wide variety of vessel types, with lengths ranging from 12’ to 147’, required careful planning, close coordination and skilled execution to ensure safety for the crews and to prevent any additional environmental impact.

To the best extent possible Global worked to engage local resources equipped and qualified to support operations. Many of the vendors in the immediate area were severely impacted by the storm and were either not in operation, or were working at greatly reduced capacity. To address the immediate environmental threat posed by actively leaking vessels Global engaged Moran Environmental Recovery (MER). MER was employed to provide fast boat “hot shot” dive and environmental response crews to react to actively leaking vessels, conduct pre-salvage surveys and conduct defueling operations in advance of the salvage team arrival.

Using lessons learned in the complex 2017 Hurricane Harvey and Irma operations Global assembled a fleet of salvage platforms utilizing flat deck and modular barges equipped with cranes, dive capability and rigged for salvage. Vendors providing critical services including environmental response, commercial diving, cranes, barges and vessel transport were subcontracted. As operations progressed and the landscape of the response changed, Global was able to expand and contract resources and personnel to match. Safety of personnel was the prime concern. Daily meetings and continuous interaction between Global, subcontractors and the agencies was crucial.

In the Spring – 2019 edition of the American Salvage Association’s magazine Soundings US Coast Guard CDR Kelly Thorkilson, currently the Deputy Commander of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force, and the primary Incident Commander for the Hurricane Michael ESF-10 response, was quoted, “This was truly an unprecedented and impressive response. As in any response, our primary concern is protecting and saving lives. After that, our objective is to preserve and protect the environment. Given the scale of the event, and pristine shoreline conditions, we required much more than a typical pollution response. We needed to address complex salvage operations, making use of cranes, barges, pollution containment resources, commercial dive capabilities and a variety of vessels. Efficient communication, the ability to leverage available technologies, pre-planning, and working with established partners to provide access to equipment and specialized teams were all essential to ensuring safe and effective operations.”

A key component in the ESF-10 response to Michael was NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that overlaid aerial images obtained immediately after the storm with other information sources detailing environmentally sensitive areas, target locations and other critical elements. Throughout the mission the survey teams on the ground and the Global crews conducting operations used mobile devices equipped with the powerful Survey123 for ArcGIS application to input, update and receive target data in real time. This comprehensive data management system was used to identify environmentally sensitive areas and tracked all of the vessel targets from cradle to grave.

Hurricane Michael impacted an area of the Florida Panhandle nearly 150 miles wide with an estimated 2,940 miles of shoreline in countless bays and backwater bayous where thousands of acres of sensitive oyster beds and shallow shoals of sea grass critical to an enormous variety of sea life are bound together in expansive near shore plateaus. To manage the scope of vessel recovery operations the IMT divided the immense area into a 576 square mile grid consisting of 48 three by four mile blocks. Analyzing each block in the grid allowed scientists from NOAA and FWC to evaluate each target vessel and the risk to the environmentally sensitive areas with an easily defined location protocol. Best Management Practices (BMPs) developed to address the response to each specific target were recorded into the ERMA database and made available to field observers and Global salvage teams. Use of the grid system allowed for efficiency in communication, planning and deployment of the manpower and equipment required for the recovery operation.

This was truly an unprecedented and impressive response. As in any response, our primary concern is protecting and saving lives. After that, our objective is to preserve and protect the environment.

– Kelly Thorkilson, Deputy Commander of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force

As residents were able to return into the storm ravaged areas many of those owning impacted vessels self-performed or worked with their insurance carriers to resolve the situation. These efforts created a dynamic, ever changing landscape as the status of ESF-10 targeted vessels was constantly being updated by the field teams as vessels were recovered, or as owners threw in the towel and turned to the ESF-10 mission for assistance. The fluid nature of the situation required that all members of the response — the data base managers, the IMT, the agency ground teams and Global crews in the field — needed to be extremely flexible and working together in constant and close communication.

In the Soundings article CDR Thorkilson was quoted, “You never want to meet partners for the first time after a response. The Coast Guard, other federal, state and tribal agencies as well as stakeholders are all part of an area’s Regional Response Team and Area Committees. It’s crucial that partners meet in a joint environment for pre-disaster preparation and planning. Then, when there is a catastrophic event, we are better prepared, having worked through known issues in meetings and exercises. Because of this pre-planning, we were able to be ready and respond as a joint entity.”

The ESF-10 response to Hurricane Michael was a success, in large part due to the shared experience and lessons learned by Global and the agencies during previous hurricane response efforts and other diverse and complex operations. Adherence to safety standards including those of the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI) and the American Salvage Association (ASA) and the teamwork between the agencies and Global and our partners led to a safe, efficient and environmentally responsible operation. The lessons learned in the Hurricane Michael ESF-10 Mission will serve all who were involved well during future responses.