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HAZMAT CHALLENGES FROM HURRICANES BRING STRONG NOAA RESPONSE

NOAA image of damaged oil tank in Breton Sound, La., taken by a NOAA helicopter surveying the damage to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. The helicopter flew over the affected regions from an altitude between 200 feet to 500 feet for nearly a month.Oct. 6, 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have passed, but the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration will be on the scene for a year or more responding to the challenges faced in cleaning up the hazardous chemical and oil spills generated by the storms' destructive powers. (Click NOAA image for larger view of damaged oil tank in Breton Sound, La., taken by a NOAA helicopter surveying the damage to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. The helicopter flew over the affected regions from an altitude between 200 feet to 500 feet for nearly a month. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

"In terms of over-all impact, these two hurricanes have created the largest incidents to which NOAA has ever responded," notes David Kennedy, director of the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration.

As a consequence of Katrina and Rita, more than a thousand pollution reports have been received along the coastal waters of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. This includes five designated as major (spills greater than 100,000 gallons) and five classified as medium (spills between 10,000 and 50,000 gallons). Prioritizing oil spills in the region is vital. It is likely that the long-term affects to the heavily populated Gulf Coast will be tremendous.

NOAA image of Biloxi, Miss., beach after Hurricane Katrina struck, which fouled miles of Gulf Coast areas. Here 18-wheel trucks were tossed into the water along with pollutants.NOAA, along with the EPA, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been working, since the passage of the hurricanes, to assist in coordinating response and restoration efforts by positioning NOAA-trained "Scientific Support Teams" in each of the joint federal-state agency command posts established in Alexandria and Baton Rouge Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Austin and Houston, Texas. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Biloxi, Miss., beach after Hurricane Katrina struck, which fouled miles of Gulf Coast areas. Here 18-wheel trucks were tossed into the water along with pollutants. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

The NOAA teams, including staff from the NOAA's Office of Coast Survey and the National Geodetic Survey, provide a broad range of scientific and technical expertise and data. This information has been useful to the U.S. Coast Guard in making determinations of where and when to open navigational passageways to both emergency and commercial traffic.

NOAA image of oil slick seen from a NOAA helicopter in Breton Sound, La., after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.Even before Katrina hit land, NOAA employees were preparing for its effects. NOAA's Scientific Support Coordinators provided critical infrastructure assessments, discussed possible points of impact and began pre-storm staging of critical personnel in the region. (Click NOAA image for larger view of oil slick seen from a NOAA helicopter in Breton Sound, La., after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

In addition to personnel expertise, NOAA has been applying the latest technology in assisting officials making critical determinations on when responders can enter potentially dangerous areas. Through coordinated use of remote sensing and aerial photography, NOAA field teams have been able to produce maps of flooded areas as well as situation maps of pollution incidents and salvage operations.

One of the innovative technologies being applied is combining LIDAR (airborne laser used to measure topography) and satellite imagery to create maps of flooding in New Orleans. NOAA is assisting in tracking the progress in removing water from the flooded areas, as well as identifying location of contaminant spills and condition of critical energy industry infrastructure through various mapping techniques.

NOAA is conducting a systematic review of the petroleum facilities from the Galveston area on the west to as far east as Pensacola, Fla. Nearly 25 percent of the nation's oil and gas resources come from the region. NOAA's scientific support teams will be advising the U.S. Coast Guard on ways to control and clean up spills throughout the region, and ensuring that additional damage to the environment does not occur during the clean-up.

NOAA image of boats washed ashore in Bayou La Batre, Ala., after Hurricane Katrina roared across the U.S. Gulf Coast.Among the other challenges facing responders is how to deal with numerous sunken or grounded vessels which may be carrying potential pollutants. Priority will be given to salvage efforts dealing with those posing the greatest pollution and navigational threats. (Click NOAA image for larger view of boats washed ashore in Bayou La Batre, Ala., after Hurricane Katrina roared across the U.S. Gulf Coast. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA.”)

NOAA efforts reflect a federal response aimed at restoring the economic lifeline of the region. A NOAA-sponsored National Ocean Economics Program study, using 2003 Bureau of Labor statistics, shows that in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama 59 percent of the employment in the natural resource and mining sector, which includes oil and gas production, comes from the 80 counties most severely impacted by the storm.

"The NOAA commitment to the region will be long-lasting," notes William Conner, chief of the NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Division. "We have people in the impact zone and around the country working seven days a week to support and evaluate hazardous material spills."

Once spills are identified, prioritized and clean-up begins, NOAA's second response component begins as the NOAA Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, begins its work.

The program provides permanent expertise within NOAA to assess and restore natural resources injured by oil and hazardous substance releases as well as physical impacts, such as ship groundings.

DARP brings a multidisciplinary team of biologists, economists, attorneys, and policy analysts to work with other designated federal and state co-trustees to assess and quantify injuries; develop and evaluate restoration alternatives and implement restoration projects.

"The scope of the damage in the area is enormous," says Pat Montanio, chief of the NOAA Damage Assessment Center. "NOAA and its fellow trustees will need to assess both the short-term and long-term impacts to the sensitive ecosystems along this valuable coastline. As that process moves forward, we will make the determinations necessary, with both state and public input and guidance, on how best to proceed in restoring this environment with projects that will benefit both their communities and the natural resources of the region."

The Office of Response and Restoration is part of the NOAA Ocean Service, which is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation's coasts and oceans. The NOAA Ocean Service balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Damage Assessment and Restoration Program

NOAA Office of Coast Survey

NOAA National Geodetic Survey

Media Contact:
Ben Sherman, NOAA Ocean Service, (301) 713-3066 or cell (202) 253-5256
(Photos courtesy of NOAA Corps helicopter pilot Lt. Phil Eastman.)