Hurricane Katrina: 10 Years Later - NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey looks back


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Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina off the coast of Louisiana
Hurricane Katrina reached a maximum intensity of Category 5 status, with 175 mph sustained winds. Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the morning of August 29, 2005.

Crossposted from NOAA's Office of Coast Survey

On August 29, 2005, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were struck by one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters to hit the United States. With sustained winds during landfall of 125 miles per hour, over 1,800 people were killed, thousands of lives were disrupted, and damage estimates exceeded $150 billion.

This disaster brought together all of Coast Survey’s capabilities on an unprecedented scale to help in response and recovery efforts in the storm’s aftermath.

In the wake of a disaster, NOAA’s Coast Survey is the federal leader in emergency hydrographic response. Before and after a storm event or other disaster, Coast Survey's regional navigation managers and navigation response teams (NRT) work with other NOAA offices, port authorities, maritime industries, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and state and local governments. Coast Survey's response helps to ensure safe navigation in our nation’s oceans and waterways. 

Ten years later, Coast Survey reflects back on the planning and response to Hurricane Katrina, and looks to their progress in developing tools to aid in coastal resilience.

The Forecast

The storm that would become Hurricane Katrina appeared on radar on Tuesday, August 23, and strengthened to a tropical storm by Wednesday, August 24. The storm initially made landfall over Florida on August 25 and continued across the state into the Gulf of Mexico.

Coast Survey headquarters, located in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the regional navigation managers kept a close eye on the forecast. In the early afternoon of Friday, August 26, the National Hurricane Center changed the forecasted track of the hurricane from the Mobile, Alabama, area to the Mississippi/Louisiana state line. Given the speed at which the storm was traveling, responders were caught in a short response time, with three days to coordinate efforts in New Orleans.

“For a navigation manager, this puts you in overdrive and there is very little downtime. We wondered what areas would be hit the worst. Response plans must be prepared and coordination must happen not only within NOAA but with other agencies. There are also things we must take care of personally, like securing your own office and making final preparations at home with the family.” –Tim Osborn, NOAA’s Central Gulf Coast navigation manager

Late in the morning of Sunday, August 28, the New Orleans/Baton Rouge National Weather Service office issued an urgent warning: HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.



As Coast Survey headquarters and the Gulf Coast navigation managers followed the forecast, planning for the recovery effort was in full swing.

The navigation managers worked diligently to coordinate a large-scale response effort, participating in meetings and conference calls several times a day with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Navy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and state and local governments. NOAA held daily internal meetings and conference calls to coordinate with the National Weather Service, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS), and the National Geodetic Survey, for weather, tide and current data, and aerial photography of the shoreline. A Coast Survey liaison was also posted to the Florida emergency coordination center.

Prior to making landfall on the Gulf Coast, Coast Survey's navigation response team, located in Savanah, Georgia, was placed on alert. Another team, located in the Gulf of Mexico region, was pre-positioned in Ft. Walton, Florida. Navigation response teams in California and Chicago, kept a watchful eye on the storm. They were not expecting to play any role in a storm that was happening over a thousand miles away, but they were soon put on standby.

“By the time Katrina had strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane, the expectation of responding to a major catastrophe was a worry. As Katrina was making its final approach to the mouth of the Mississippi River, I was communicating with Plaquemines Parish emergency operations center officials to see how bad the actual conditions were south of the city of New Orleans, along the river. Communications with the center were lost around 3 a.m. on Monday morning and almost all of Plaquemines Parish and the river itself disappeared under a very large coastal surge as the hurricane made landfall. For myself and all emergency responders at the time, loss of life and loss of any situational awareness was a major concern.” –Tim Osborn, NOAA’s Central Gulf Coast navigation manager

The Destruction

Katrina hit with deadly force, devastating coastal areas of the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including the city of New Orleans. It was among the greatest natural disasters the United States has ever experienced.

As navigation managers, we are often asked how quickly we can respond. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, we were almost too early. The National Guard had not yet allowed access to some areas and we were prepared to roll in. While most people were fleeing the area, we were driving in the direction of the storm.” –Alan Bunn, NOAA’s Western Gulf Coast Navigation Manager

The Response: Navigation Response Teams and NOAA Ship Deployments

Coast Survey deployed four navigation response teams (from Georgia, Florida, Chicago ,and California) and four hydrographers to meet the two regional navigation managers at the impacted port areas. The navigation response team from Chicago immediately mobilized, driving the boat and trailer 1,000 miles straight to the affected area.

“Traveling south to New Orleans, I remember when we crossed the threshold to the impacted area. We reached the last gas station that actually still had gas and needed to fill up. People in line were very nervous, stressed, and agitated. I received a phone call from a team member that said violent acts were beginning to take place across the city. We asked the owner of the gas station if we could possibly move to the front of the line because we were conducting response work but he seemed scared to let us, fearing the reaction of everyone else in line.” – Lucy Hick, navigation response team member

The navigation response team from California drove from Long Beach to Louisiana in two days, covering 1,800 miles with the survey launch in tow. They eventually joined the Ft. Walton team under the I-10 highway bridge in Baton Rouge, where the navigation managers had stationed a 40-foot motor home. This became the lodging and processing center for the initial response effort in the area. The California team was ultimately moved to a small shipyard and with no operable launch ramp within reasonable distance, the response vessel was launched with ship yard crane.

“We were relieved the shipyard had a 500-gallon fuel tank available as we had previously had to buy fuel in five-gallon jerry cans. The employees of the ship yard went out of their way to accommodate us while at the same time their families where struggling to deal with the damage or loss of their homes miles inland. This was very hard on them and the feeling of concern for them was overwhelming for all of us.” – Edmund Wernicke, navigation response team member

The navigation response team from Savanah, Georgia, was deployed to Mobile Bay, Alabama, and the navigation response team from the Gulf was deployed to Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

NOAA's Marine and Aviation Operations deployed hydrographic survey vessels Thomas Jefferson and Nancy Foster. Thomas Jefferson was in Norfolk, Virginia, and Nancy Foster was in Key West, Florida, when Katrina made landfall. Both ships expedited a transit to the Gulf Coast.

The Response: Surveying

The navigation response teams responded to requests from the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct side scan sonar and multibeam echo sounder surveys to locate hazards to navigation, so waterways in the Gulf states could be reopened to commerical and emergency traffic.

The navigation response teams surveyed priority areas in the Mississippi River, Port of Pascagoula, Port of Biloxi, Port of Mobile, Port of New Orleans, Port of Pensacola, Port of Gulfport, Port of Houston, Port of Galveston, Port Arthur, and Port of Lake Charles. Coast Survey planned a dual approach to the response—one from the west of New Orleans moving east toward the city and the other east of New Orleans working towards the Mississippi ports and Mobile, Alabama.

“When we started surveying the river there was an eerie calm. What was left of vegetation looked like fields of trees turned into giant match sticks. There was essentially no vessel traffic due to the waterways closure. The waters had receded, but the evidence of the storm that passed littered the riverbanks with vessels and barges of all descriptions strewn high and dry up on the banks that normally never see water.” – Edmund Wernicke, navigation response team member

NOAA ships Thomas Jefferson and Nancy Foster concentrated their efforts on surveying the approaches to the Alabama and Mississippi ports. The hydrographic data services provider, SAIC, had a vessel in the area already under contract to NOAA and was immediately able to begin surveying the lower Mississippi River from the mouth to the New Orleans area.

The Naval Oceanographic Office also provided survey support in the Mississippi and Pearl Rivers.

“We experienced considerable challenges while surveying. We worked to avoid injury to response team members and loss or damage to equipment and vessels. Finding lodging, fuel, food, and supplies, and coordinating, planning, and reporting on the surveys of yesterday and today was very challenging." - Tim Osborn, NOAA’s Central Gulf Coast navigation manager

Click for multibeam sonar images of possible dangers to navigation found by NOAA during the response:

  • This obstruction had least depth of 15.2 meters and was to the right of a water intake for an oil refinery.
  • This obstruction had a least depth of 7.0 meters and was approximately 50 meters from the wharf face of Meraux Refinery Pier.

Reopening the ports

Opening ports and waterways following a major hurricane is always a crucial part of the relief effort. Access to ports means that supply ships are able to deliver desperately needed food, fuel, and medical supplies. Additionally, ports are the gateway to transport resources such as oil and coal within a region and the entire nation. 

Hurricane Katrina had the potential to greatly alter the sea bottom, rendering the depths and obstructions displayed on nautical charts obsolete. Working around the clock, NOAA’s navigation response teams, ships, and contractors surveyed waterways for underwater hazards to vessels. 

The U.S. Coast Guard used NOAA survey results to make decisions to re-open ports. While in some cases it took months and years to resume port and shipping operations, after two weeks of intense efforts, the Port of New Orleans received its first post-storm ship. 

“The logistics of getting multiple NRTs and their assets into catastrophically damaged areas requires the partnership and cooperative efforts of federal, state, local, and non-government maritime interests. This was necessary to arrange for fuel, food, lodging, and communication, for the teams in order to reopen waterways both for additional response and rescue efforts as well as ultimately resuming much needed commerce. Navigation Managers, familiar with area assets, needs, and EOCs and personnel, become brokers for the NRTs in arranging for the team supplies and requirements to operate in areas without power, fuel, water, and lodging. Years of working in the local communities, and becoming familiar with their constituents and their regional needs, becomes invaluable during such major response efforts.” - Alan Bunn, NOAA's Western Gulf Coast navigation manager.

“One experience I will never forget is leaving one devastated port area to go the next. We had the job to move in quickly, survey and report on hazards and conditions of waterways, and then move out to deploy to the next priority. However, every place we left was a community of people that had just lost everything to the storm. It was harder sometimes to leave an area than to get to the next. It certainly takes a toll after doing it over the two and half months responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” –Tim Osborn, NOAA’s Central Gulf Coast navigation manager

What we’ve learned

NOAA brings a wealth of expertise to aid in recovery following a hurricane. Since Hurricane Katrina, we have improved communication, preparations, and planned response efforts. Additionally, we found that better pre-staging of assets and arrangement of logistics would help us respond better to the next disaster.

This was demonstrated first-hand in the response to super storm Sandy in 2013. As we learned from the devastating storm surge experienced during Hurricane Katrina, the entire East Coast needed to know, with as much precision as possible, what to expect from Sandy. Coast Survey provided data and models to the National Hurricane Center to verify tidal data and give forecasters more realistic scenarios of the storm’s devastation. Coast Survey also pre-staged regional navigation managers, embedding them into command centers and setting up coordination for rapid deployment of survey assets necessary for resumption of maritime traffic at ports and anchorages.

Planning for the hurricane season each year continues. During the first four to five months of each year, there is a large emphasis on hurricane season planning, preparedness, and coordination within communities and with local and state emergency response agencies. Coast Survey assists with the annual effort to review and update response plans of federal partners and others in the maritime community. 

“Coast Survey has been a leader in surveying, assessing, and getting a port and/or waterway back into operation as quickly as possible. All the work and experience here in the Gulf was applied to the Northeast with Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. They proved to be valuable and very important in the recovery after these storms. –Tim Obsorn, NOAA’s Central Gulf Coast navigation manager

New tools for coastal resilience

Coast Survey is building tools to enhance NOAA’s preparedness and response, and build community resilience following a disaster.

Developing advanced storm surge model to drive total water predictions

Coast Survey is developing a new large-scale, high-resolution storm surge model for predicting coastal flooding from hurricanes. This system combines storm surge and tide data and dynamically models the ocean’s response as a hurricane tracks across the ocean and as it crosses inland. The model generates potential storm surge inundation scenarios based on the National Hurricane Center’s forecast. The model is scheduled to become available for the 2016 hurricane season.

Developing auto-detection tools to detect changes in the seafloor and marine debris that appear in post-storm surveys

The NOAA-University of New Hampshire Joint Hydrographic Center is developing analysis tools for multibeam echo sounder and topo-bathymetric lidar data to speed detection of changes in the seafloor and the location of marine debris in post-storm surveys. For post-storm surveys in the 2016 hurricane season, these tools will allow marine debris analysts to efficiently identify targets as likely debris and provide actionable information to the authorities responsible for removing this debris.

Charting Adequacy tools for rapid assessment of seafloor changes

Before and after a hurricane, decision-makers at all levels need to be able to direct assets to recovery and mitigate storm impacts on coastal regions. The Joint Hydrographic Center has also developed and operationalized satellite, aerial imagery, lidar, and other remote sensing tools to provide reconnaissance ahead of field surveys and better assess and characterize baseline conditions and post-storm changes in coastal bathymetry and shoreline configuration.

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Last updated: 2015-08-27 16:07

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