NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Our Top 10 New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii's Midway Atoll. We're looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

In 2013, a NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Hawaii’s Midway Atoll. We’re looking forward to keeping our coasts clean in 2014 too! (NOAA)

With the end of 2013, many are reflecting on how the past year went. For NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, we think we handled things pretty well, despite seeing some unusual challenges come our way (e.g., grounded drilling rig, molasses spill, 70 foot stranded dock). After all, being prepared—and preparing others—for the worst is a major focus in our work.

Despite our many accomplishments of the last year, however, we know that we should always be striving to improve how we respond to oil and chemical spills, assess and restore damaged ecosystems, and reduce the threat of marine debris.

So, without further ado, here are our top 10 resolutions for 2014:

  1. Lose “wait.” That is, we’re increasing our capacity to process damage assessment cases and get dollars for restoration out the door more quickly.
  2. Get more mobile. We’re making several of our websites friendlier for mobile devices. In particular, stay tuned to response.restoration.noaa.gov and incidentnews.noaa.gov.
  3. Make more friends. We’re now on Facebook and Twitter, so don’t be shy about following us for the latest news and updates.
  4. Stay trendy. As trends change in what petroleum products America is importing and exporting, we’re working with the University of Washington to explore how this will affect our readiness to respond to the oil spills of tomorrow.
  5. Quit littering. Or rather, get others to quit littering. We’re always dreaming up better ways to change people’s behavior so that everyone’s trash, including plastics, stays out of our oceans.
  6. Get our ducks in a row. When Hurricane Sandy came racing toward the East Coast, it was bringing wind and waves that would literally reshape the shoreline. As a result, we’re updating our northeast Environmental Sensitivity Maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the value of these geographic summaries of vulnerable coastal resources when another disaster strikes.
  7. Help others. We’re partnering with states impacted by Sandy to assess and remove marine debris from the storm, so that means getting funding out fast to those who need it.
  8. Update our look. This spring, we’ll be releasing a major update to our mapping program MARPLOT, which allows emergency responders such as firefighters to create, customize, and download maps for offline use. Users will see very high-quality base (background) maps, including the familiar sight of Google maps.
  9. Listen more. We’ll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on restoration plans and projects around the country, starting with Deepwater Horizon public meetings across the Gulf of Mexico in January.
  10. Release a new GNOME. In 2014, we’ll be releasing GNOME 2, our next generation oil spill modeling system. GNOME 2 will offer a Web-based system for forecasting the path of spilled oil in pre-designated locations in the U.S., include better 3-D modeling support, and integrate our oil weathering model, ADIOS.

Thanks for helping us make 2013 a great year. We look forward to even more in 2014!


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Let Maps Open up the World Around You on GIS Day

Atlantic ERMA view of a grounded tanker after Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.

In our online GIS tool Atlantic ERMA, you can see NOAA National Geodetic Survey aerial photography showing the derelict tanker John B. Caddell grounded on Staten Island, N.Y., following Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy. Red markers show field photos such as the image seen in the pop-up window in Atlantic ERMA. (NOAA)

Happy GIS Day! Today, GIS events are being hosted around the globe to highlight and celebrate the transformational role of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.

GIS is mapping software that can display multiple sets of location-based information onto a single map. Viewing information this way can help you visualize lots of data and identify trends and relationships, such as the potential health impacts of living near power plants and major highways, or how many pizza places are within 10 miles of your house.

Like offices and agencies around the world, we in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration use GIS in our everyday work. Take a look at a few of the ways we use GIS—and you can too—to reduce environmental threats from coastal pollution.

Mapping Environmental Sensitivity

One of our teams is developing Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps using GIS technology to integrate and share information about sensitive shoreline resources, such as birds, wildlife, fisheries, and public beaches. Historically used for oil and chemical spill response and planning, these maps have become effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms, hurricanes, and other coastal disasters.

ESI data are published in a variety of GIS formats, including a file geodatabase and map document, that simplify their use within the GIS program ArcMap. Users can query data for their region to see what species are present in January, where threatened and endangered species live, what shoreline types are present, etc. You can download ESI data and ESI tools from our website and use them yourself.

Mapping Resources during a Disaster

MARPLOT is the mapping component in CAMEO, our software suite of tools for chemical spill response, which we develop with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s a free and easy-to-use GIS system that emergency responders and planners use to display information from other programs in the CAMEO suite. This could mean mapping estimates of high-risk areas for toxic chemical clouds (from ALOHA) or the locations of chemical production and storage facilities in relation to schools and hospitals (from CAMEOfm).

MARPLOT can also be used as a general mapping tool, which allows users to add objects, move around the map, and get population estimates. Some users have adapted MARPLOT, which operates without an Internet connection, for use during tornado response, search and rescue operations, and emergency planning. The development team is working on a major revision to MARPLOT, which will include access to global basemaps, enhanced web-based features, and additional data management capabilities.

Mapping Environmental Response

Web mapping for environmental response, such as oil spills, has come a long way in the past decade. NOAA is a leader in this digital mapping revolution with ERMA®, the Environmental Response Management Application, which we designed with the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center and the EPA. It’s an online mapping tool offering comprehensive access to environmental response information and is customized for many coastal areas of the U.S.

ERMA integrates both static and real-time data, such as ESI maps, ship locations, weather, and ocean currents, in a centralized map for use during a disaster such as an oil spill or hurricane. It provides environmental responders and decision-makers with up-to-date information for planning, response, assessment, and restoration activities. The application incorporates data into a convenient, web-based GIS mapping platform that can be accessed simultaneously by a variety of users via the Internet.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response is currently assisting with the ongoing response operations for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Data related to this oil spill is displayed here and updated daily. In the northeast, Atlantic ERMA provided support to the Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy pollution response along the coast of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

To the far north, Arctic ERMA has been used to integrate and display response-related information from oil spill technology demonstrations aboard an icebreaker in the remote Arctic Ocean and to display the data and high resolution imagery of the ShoreZone project, which seeks to map all 46,600 miles of Alaska’s coastal habitat and features. You can view all of the regional ERMA sites on our website.

Discover Your World

GIS DayYou can explore on the GIS Day website some of the amazing stories that GIS can help tell:


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After Sandy, Adapting NOAA’s Tools for a Changing Shoreline

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we have the most up-to-date tools and resources for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Vicki Loe and Jill Petersen.

While the beach season has come to an end for the East Coast, communities of the northeast continue to repair remaining damage from last fall’s Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy and prepare for future storms. As beachgoers arrived at the shore this past summer, they found a lot of repaired structures and beautiful beaches. But this was side-by-side with reconstruction projects, damaged buildings, and altered shorelines.

In addition to damaging manmade structures, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Tools for Coastal Disasters

In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update the Office of Response and Restoration’s existing northeast Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. Historically used mostly for oil and chemical spills, these maps have also proved to be effective tools in preparing for and responding to storms and hurricanes.

ESI maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that could be at risk in a disaster. Examples include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks). They are used by both disaster responders during a disaster and planners before a disaster.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast.

Segment of an existing Environmental Sensitivity Index map of the New Jersey coast. Used in conjunction with a key, this map provides valuable information to planners and responders on the wildlife, habitats, and geographical features of the area.

In the region affected by Sandy, maps will be updated from Maine to South Carolina. The ESI maps are produced on a state or regional basis. They typically extend offshore to include all state waters, and go inland far enough to include coastal biology and human use resources. In addition to the outer coastal regions, navigable rivers, bays, and estuaries are included. In the northeast, these include the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay, which are among those maps being updated with the Sandy funding, as well as Delaware Bay, which was already in progress before the storm hit.

The first region to be updated will be Long Island Sound. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is partnering with the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) in NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to develop the biological and human use information for this region. This partnership will take advantage of studies CCMA currently has underway, as well as contacts they have made with the biological experts in the area.

Keeping up with a Changing Shoreline

A large wildlife conservation area that is managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)

The coastal environment is constantly changing and ESI maps need to be updated periodically to reflect not just storm damage, but changes to resources caused by human use, erosion, and climate change. The new maps will be created with a broad range of potential disasters in mind. To support this goal, some additional data elements and layers are being considered for the ESI maps developed as part of our post-Sandy effort. These may include such things as flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites.

The end products will provide emergency planners and responders with a better tool for protecting the northeast and mid-Atlantic shoreline when the next coastal disaster occurs.

You can learn more about our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps in our blog post “Mapping How Sensitive the Coasts Are to Oil Spills,” and find more technical insights into our work with ESI maps and data on the NOAA ESI blog at noaaesi.wordpress.com.

Jill PetersenJill Petersen began working with the NOAA spill response group in 1988. Originally a programmer and on-scene responder, in 1991 her focus switched to mapping support, a major component of which is the ESI program. Throughout the years, Jill has worked to broaden the ESI audience by providing ESIs in a variety of formats and developing appropriate mapping tools. Jill has been the ESI program manager since 2001.


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Why Are Tropical Storms and Hurricanes Named?

This is a post by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Katie Krushinski.

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season's first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and up the East Coast. (NASA)

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season’s first named storm was Tropical Storm Andrea, pictured here on June 8 crossing over Florida and heading up the East Coast. (NASA)

Have you ever wondered why storms are named? Up until the early 1950s, tropical storms and hurricanes were tracked by year and the order in which each one occurred during that year.

In time, it was recognized that people remembered shorter names more easily. In 1953, a new approach was taken and storms were named in alphabetical order by female name. The process of naming storms helps differentiate between multiple storms that may be active at the same time.

By 1978, both male and female names were being used to identify Northern Pacific storms. This was adopted in 1979 for the Atlantic storms and is what we use today.

The World Meteorological Organization came up with the lists of names, male and female, which are used on a six-year rotation. In the event a hurricane causes a large amount of damage or numerous deaths, that name will be retired. Since the 1950s, when it became normal to name storms, there have been 77 names retired, including Fran (1996), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), and Sandy (2012).

To find out this year’s storm names and for a complete list of retired names, visit the National Weather Service’s website. And if you haven’t started your own severe-weather preparations, don’t delay; the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (predicted to be more active than usual) has already begun.

The Gulf of Mexico region, in particular, experiences frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and oil spills.

NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center aims to reduce the resulting impacts by helping to prepare federal, state, and local decision makers for a variety of threats, creating more adaptive and resilient coastal communities. Learn more about this valuable resource and center of NOAA expertise on the Gulf Coast.

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., where she is responsible for coordinating training events, producing external communications, and writing and editing. Katie has a background in emergency response and management. NOAA’s Disaster Response Center serves as a one-stop shop, streamlining the delivery of NOAA services that help the Gulf region prepare for and deal with disasters.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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Behind the Budget: A Look Ahead for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

Here, we take a peek into the world of science policy (and the budgets that make it possible) as we hear from Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, about what we can expect as a starting point for this office in the next fiscal year.

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Wetland grasses replanted in Texas after a successful damage assessment and restoration process. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

The White House recently released the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2014. This budget offers several exciting opportunities for research, development, and growth in response and restoration activities at NOAA. The budget contains close to $4 million in increases for the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R).

I am very proud of the work we do every day at OR&R and am very grateful for all the support that enables this work. In the last year we responded to 139 environmental incidents, including Hurricane Sandy, generated over $800,000 for restoration through the natural resource damage assessment process, opened NOAA’s new Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, and saw passage of the Marine Debris Act Amendments of 2012 (which expanded the scope of our office to deal specifically with large amounts of natural disaster debris).

While meeting the needs of those critical issues, we have continued to support the ongoing response and damage assessment for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, looked forward to address emerging challenges in the U.S. Arctic by launching an Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) online mapping tool for the Arctic region and contributed our expertise to interagency planning and preparedness in support of ongoing energy exploration in the Arctic.

I am eager to show you what OR&R can do with the latest budget from the President that will build upon our recent achievements:

The fiscal year 2014 budget proposes a $2 million increase for Natural Resource Damage Assessment to increase technical, strategic, and legal support so we can more quickly move more oil spill and hazardous waste site cases toward settlement and support the restoration process. We anticipate that this increase will more than pay for itself in settlement funds recovered from responsible parties and deliver significant return on investment for the American public.

There is an increase of $1 million for the NOAA Marine Debris Program to fund a variety of programs and efforts to reduce and prevent the impacts of marine debris. This includes funding for:

  • research programs and academic institutions with demonstrated expertise in the economic impacts of marine debris.
  • alternatives to fishing gear that pose potential marine threats.
  • enhanced tracking, recovery, and identification of lost and discarded fishing gear.
  • efforts to reduce the amount of baseline debris from ocean and non-ocean based sources.

Additionally, the Marine Debris Program’s regional marine debris coordination program will receive a funding increase to enhance regional efforts and develop response plans for states in the Northeast, Southeast, and Gulf of Mexico as described under the Marine Debris Act. These plans will help federal, state, and local authorities plan and prepare for the next major marine debris cleanup event, for example, a hurricane.

This budget also proposes funding increases for emergency response preparedness in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico and for our innovative ERMA tool to transition to a cloud computing platform.  These funds will allow OR&R to improve our services through participation in more regional response exercises with governmental and private partners and enhance scientific support for the Arctic through increased direct engagement with Arctic communities.

I invite you to review the NOAA Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Summary [PDF] for more detailed information on all of NOAA’s proposed activities in the President’s budget.

Each budgetary increase provides a significant opportunity to build NOAA’s capacity to assess future oil and chemical spill impacts, plan for increased maritime activity in the Arctic, and expand our scientific and tactical capabilities using state-of-the-art information management. The budget also will help NOAA to develop capabilities that will lead to more effective strategies to prevent and mitigate the effects of marine debris. I hope to work with our office’s many partners and supporters in the coming months to ensure OR&R’s capacity will continue to meet the rising tide of ocean and coastal challenges to protect lives, property, and the environment and to keep commerce moving.

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm

Dave Westerholm currently serves as the Director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Prior to NOAA, he had several years of corporate experience as both Senior Operations Director and Vice President for Maritime Security, Policy and Communications for Anteon Corporation and then General Dynamics. He is a retired Coast Guard Captain with over 27 years of experience in a variety of fields including maritime safety, port security, and environmental protection.


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Back to the Shore after Hurricane Sandy

GIS specialist Jay Coady, Environmental Sensitivity Index map specialist Jill Petersen, John Tarpley of the OR&R Emergency Response Division, and Jason Rolfe of the NOAA Marine Debris Program also contributed to this post.

: Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

Two boys take a break on the beach in Ocean City, Md., during the summer of 2012, before Hurricane Sandy. (Glenda Powell/all rights reserved)

With Memorial Day approaching and summer weather returning, folks in the northeast will once again be flocking to the shore, as they have for generations.  This summer season is the first since Hurricane Sandy hit the region in late October of 2012, with devastating effects to beaches from Connecticut to Virginia. Much of the damage has been repaired and many visitors likely will find their favorite beaches as enjoyable as ever, but there is much work remaining to do.

Headed for Calmer Shores

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A response team formed by the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command prior to an overflight during which the U.S. Coast Guard worked with NOAA to map areas of possible pollution threats in New York and New Jersey. LTJG Alice Drury of OR&R is in the middle of the group. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) responded immediately in the wake of the massive storm. OR&R’s Emergency Response Division provided scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard to contain a major diesel spill at the Motiva Refinery in Sewaren, N.J., next to New York’s Staten Island and Raritan Bay. We also provided support for the many smaller petroleum product spills in northern New Jersey and southern New York.  Aerial and ground surveys helped identify and prioritize the cleanup of pollution sources from boats, displaced hazardous material containers, and other debris.

OR&R was on scene working with other state and federal agencies to lead a preliminary assessment of natural resource impacts from the oil spills for possible Natural Resource Damage Assessment claims and restoration. In addition, the Coast Guard and other responders used OR&R’s collaborative online mapping tool, Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast, as the “common operational picture,” that is, the official “big picture” tool for coordinating pollution response activities.

Atlantic ERMA, which is customized for New York and New Jersey waters, was involved in mapping the Hurricane Sandy response and recovery efforts since before the storm hit land. In the days leading up to landfall, OR&R started populating Atlantic ERMA with storm-specific data, such as predicted storm surge models, hurricane track and wind speeds, and NOAA facility locations.

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A partially submerged vessel in Navesink River, N.J., Nov. 10, 2012. Boom was placed around the vessel to mitigate pollution during the response efforts. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic ERMA served as the common operational picture for the Hurricane Sandy pollution response. It aided the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinators (our pollution first responders), U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the removal and cleanup of identified pollution sources and threats.

Atlantic ERMA integrated these response efforts with environmental data (like locations of sensitive habitat) to give responders a better idea of how to deal with pollution threats while minimizing environmental damages.

As the common operational picture, ERMA provided a single platform for responders to view all of the storm-related data and imagery as well as various cleanup efforts by the states and other federal agencies. Our team of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists working on ERMA also helped provide data management support in tracking the progress made by the pollution response field teams.

Making it Safe to Get Back in the Water

In the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill, Congress provided the NOAA Marine Debris Program with funds to address marine debris issues resulting from Sandy. In addition, funds were allocated to OR&R’s Emergency Response Division to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps on the east coast, with particular emphasis on areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms over the past several years. These maps identify coastal shorelines, wildlife, and habitat that may be especially vulnerable to an oil spill and also include the resources people use, such as a fishery or recreational beach.

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Click on this map to view the complete Environmental Sensitivity Index map, created by OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. The map shows sensitive habitats and species that are typically present in the Staten Island area in November and December, the months following Hurricane Sandy. (NOAA)

Marine debris can be found in concentrations across the impacted region both on the shoreline and below the water surface.  These items pose potential hazards to navigation, commercial fishing grounds, and sensitive ecosystems.

We are using Atlantic ERMA to provide mapping support and tools to show aerial imagery, debris dispersion models, and identified marine debris locations supplied by stakeholders. Our mapping support also helps with the planning efforts for debris cleanup.

A combination of aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys are necessary to assess the quantity and location of marine debris in the impacted coastal areas.  These assessments will allow NOAA to estimate the debris impacts to economies and ecosystems, identify priority items for removal, support limited removal efforts, and help bring our northeastern shores back to a sunnier state.

Read about more examples of our work protecting and restoring the shores the nation loves to visit.


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Texas Restoration Projects to Transform Concrete to Marsh, Undoing Bayou’s Pesticide-laden History

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jessica White.

One of the restoration projects making up for the history of pesticide pollution at Greens Bayou, Texas, will create 11 acres of marsh at the Baytown Nature Center. But this park has a history of its own: here is the concrete pad of a former residence and the remains of a boat house from the once-ritzy but now-abandoned Brownwood subdivision. (NOAA)

One of the restoration projects making up for the history of pesticide pollution at Greens Bayou, Texas, will create 11 acres of marsh at the Baytown Nature Center. But this park has a history of its own: here is the concrete pad of a former residence and the remains of a boat house from the once-ritzy but now-abandoned Brownwood subdivision. (NOAA)

If, like most Americans, you live in a city, then you’re probably familiar with their crowds, busy streets, and steel-and-glass skyscrapers. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could occasionally break away from the city to watch wood storks fly by, or take a leisurely stroll on a trail surrounded by live oaks and tall grasses?

For the lucky residents of Houston, Texas, they can make this happen in as little as 45 minutes at the Baytown Nature Center and Spring Creek Greenway. But these natural escapes hold a few surprising secrets. The waters and greenery of Baytown have their origins in an abandoned waterfront housing development, and their transformation from concrete to marsh, along with the preservation of Spring Creek’s wetlands, actually owe some thanks to Greens Bayou, a previously pesticide-laden industrial site just down the interstate.

The Site

In the heart of Houston's industrial area, chemical manufacturers spent years dumping untreated waste and pesticides in ditches that eventually leached into Greens Bayou. Here, you can see the mouth of the Harris County Flood Control District Ditch where it enters Greens Bayou. January 30, 2009 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Tammy Ash)

In the heart of Houston’s industrial area, chemical manufacturers spent years dumping untreated waste and pesticides in ditches that eventually leached into Greens Bayou. Here, you can see the mouth of the Harris County Flood Control District Ditch where it enters Greens Bayou. January 30, 2009 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Tammy Ash)

The Greens Bayou site, located in Houston, is 217 acres of chemical manufacturing facilities, a flood control ditch that leads into the bayou itself, and the undeveloped land that surrounds all of this. Greens Bayou is a tidally influenced area whose brackish waters run into those of the well-trafficked Houston Ship Channel.

Historically, the area’s chemical plants disposed of untreated liquid waste and wastewaters from manufacturing operations in unlined, earthen ditches, which then flowed into Greens Bayou. These ditches were the primary way pesticides were able to leach into the soil, sediment, surface water, and ground water in this environment. In particular, DDT and its by-products were found at high levels, signaling to us the potential for adverse effects for the bayou’s bottom-dwelling invertebrates, fish, and aquatic-dependent wildlife.

The Investigation

I became involved with Greens Bayou in 2004. By this time, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had commenced the remedial investigation under the Texas Risk Reduction Program. This investigation included a detailed assessment of risk to the environment, which involved sampling and chemical analysis of sediment, soil, water, and fish tissue from Greens Bayou. The assessment’s results indicated that the natural resources found at this site were at risk of injury or loss. This prompted the natural resources trustees—NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TCEQ, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department—to initiate a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) in 2005. This meant we were performing our own assessment, which used information from the remedial investigation to quantify the harm done to the habitats, fish, birds, and wildlife there. As a result, our assessment continued on a parallel track to the remedial investigation. This collaboration helped us work more efficiently as we collected and analyzed data.

At the conclusion of the damage assessment, the trustees determined that this chemical facility site required ecological restoration to offset the past injuries to the forested wetlands and submerged mud bottom habitats. The next step in the NRDA process was to identify suitable restoration projects which would benefit the natural resources that depended on the injured habitats. Restoration is defined as the rehabilitation, replacement, or acquisition of the equivalent natural resources that were lost or injured. In this case, we trustees selected both the route of restoration and acquisition to compensate the public for the loss of these natural resources. (The final damage assessment and restoration plan is available online. [PDF])

The Restoration

The restoration project we chose for the submerged mud bottom habitat is the creation of nearly 11 acres of estuarine marsh at the Baytown Nature Center located in Baytown, Texas. To accomplish this, the existing shoreline and adjacent area will be re-contoured to a lower elevation. Further lowering the elevation of the shoreline will allow more water to infiltrate the land and support the addition of marsh plants. However, this also involves breaking up the concrete sidewalks and foundations remaining from the area’s past life as an upscale residential neighborhood known as Brownwood.

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In the 1940s and 50s, Brownwood became home to impressive two-story residences and their boathouses, framed by palm trees and the San Jacinto River. The death of this booming subdivision came slowly, delivered by local industry’s massive extraction of water beneath Brownwood, which caused the land to subside significantly. More than two decades of hurricanes and storm surges began flooding residents out of their sinking homes, and after Hurricane Alicia devastated the area in 1983, the city of Baytown worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to buy out the last of Brownwood’s homeowners. Baytown then agreed to transform the abandoned neighborhood into a public park and nature center. One of the few surviving signs of Brownwood will be a swimming pool the trustees have decided to leave amid the re-created saltmarsh.

Across town, on the north side of Houston, we will replace Greens Bayou’s lost forested wetland habitat with 100 acres of similar habitat, located in the Spring Creek Greenway. The acreage has already been acquired and placed under a conservation easement. This easement will protect the property, already surrounded by subdivisions, from development. It will also ensure the land is available for the public to enjoy through a number of activities such as nature hiking, biking, and bird-watching.

Settlement of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Greens Bayou case includes reimbursement for the trustee assessment and restoration oversight costs as well as the cost to implement the restoration projects (estimated at approximately $375,000 for the Baytown Nature Center project and $417,000 for the Spring Creek project). Both the Baytown Nature Center and Spring Creek Greenway are places where people can enjoy nature in the highly developed Houston area. By partnering with these existing initiatives, we trustees were able to ensure the restoration projects would build on the local momentum to protect and appreciate the natural environment while reversing the ecological damage done at Greens Bayou.

Jessica White.

While you can see here the kind of wildlife Jessica is comfortable around, she is fully dedicated to protecting the environment.

Jessica White is a Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has been working with NOAA in the Gulf since 2003 and recently relocated to the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Jessica has assessed and restored Superfund sites in Texas and Louisiana and has supported oil spill and marine debris cleanup. She has a B.S. in Biology from Texas Tech University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Texas.


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From Paper to Pixels: Mapping Pollution Response in the Digital Age

Just a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, U.S. Coast Guard Admirals discuss search and rescue strategies in front of a satellite image pieced together by NOAA Geographic Information Systems specialists. (NOAA)

Just a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, U.S. Coast Guard Admirals discuss search and rescue strategies in front of a satellite image pieced together by NOAA Geographic Information Systems specialists. (NOAA)

This is a post by Office of Response and Restoration Geographic Information Specialist Jill Bodnar.

The initial phase of responding to an oil spill or natural disaster can often be described as “organized chaos.” Being able to manage effectively the resulting influx of data is crucial during that time. Responders need to identify priority areas for cleanup, risks to the environment, and status of cleanup activities quickly and correctly. This enables both the response staff at the scene of the disaster and government leadership back at headquarters to make informed decisions about dealing with the event (whether it’s an oil spill, hurricane, etc.) and potential pollution.

Maps are one way to organize all these important data into a common picture that gives everyone the same “situational awareness” and tracks the progress of the pollution response over time. Traditionally, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists at the incident command post (the nerve center of the pollution response) would painstakingly create and then either print or email these maps to responders and government leadership. However, over the past few years, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, which provides scientific and technical support for marine pollution, have become leaders in using web mapping to revolutionize how people respond to these environmental emergencies.

The Past: Paper Cuts

My specialty is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) during pollution responses, and I’ve honed these skills in numerous drills and incidents over the past 12 years. Through the mid-2000s, NOAA’s information management team of GIS specialists like me would come to a pollution response with CDs full of base data as a starting point for the affected area. These CDs contained nautical charts, Environmental Sensitivity Index data showing natural resources at risk from oiling, state agency Area Contingency Plans, roads and waterways, and occasionally even aerial imagery. All of this information was fed into the GIS program on our laptop computers at the command post.

Next came the data pouring in from field observers working at the spill. This included the type and location of oil observed during overflight surveys, sightings of wildlife in the area, and strategies for placing oil containment boom. We then would build maps reflecting this information and showing the status of cleanup operations. Responders waited as their paper maps were created and printed out before they briefed the leaders of the response (the Unified Command) or headed back into the field, maps in hand. The process was time-consuming, and you often worked under very stressful conditions and late into the night. There was only enough time to get the basic information on to a map as soon as possible.

A big change in how maps were used at responses happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which was around the time Google Earth and its satellite imagery became accessible to people without expensive desktop GIS programs. Suddenly, everyone at the command post wanted to print large, poster-sized maps layered over satellite imagery, which helped visualize the flooded carnage of New Orleans, surrounding neighborhoods, and coastal areas. While the imagery provided unprecedented detail, printing it required a great deal of blue ink and plotter paper, which would quickly run out, hampering our efforts. Luckily I had a contact at Hewlett-Packard who sent us boxes and boxes of extra plotter paper and ink, and FedEx was able to deliver it to us despite their own issues with the hurricane. It was like Christmas (except with more paper cuts)!

But an even bigger change was in store when the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) unveiled the jump to modern-day web mapping for pollution response: the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®).

The Present and Future: Pixels

ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates and synthesizes data—often in real time—into a single interactive map, providing a quick visualization of the situation after a disaster and improving communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders. Developed by OR&R, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and University of New Hampshire, ERMA originally was released as a regional pilot project in New Hampshire in 2007. It has since expanded across the continental U.S., Caribbean, Arctic, and Pacific Islands.

The Deepwater Horizon/BP spill public ERMA site showing satellite imagery and bathymetry, forecasted paths of oil, command post locations, and sea turtle observations. Unlike a static map, the user is able to turn on any layers and zoom to their area of interest. (NOAA)

The Deepwater Horizon/BP spill public ERMA site showing satellite imagery and bathymetry, forecasted paths of oil, command post locations, and sea turtle observations. Unlike a static map, the user is able to turn on any layers and zoom to their area of interest. Click image to enlarge. (NOAA)

But ERMA’s most pivotal role has been in response to the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill in 2010. Federal, state, and local spill responders used ERMA to convey what was happening at the front lines of this massive spill: what shoreline had been oiled and how badly, satellite approximations of the spill’s extent, fishery closures, and stranded marine life. At the height of the response, there were six different command posts around the Gulf of Mexico and in Washington, DC. NOAA had GIS specialists in each of them, uploading data 24/7 so that ERMA could be used in briefings to the Unified Command, the White House, NOAA leadership, and to the public via the ERMA Gulf Response website (a public-access version of ERMA). Once released to the public, ERMA was highlighted and used by media outlets to show, for example, current fishing closure areas.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses ERMA during the response to Hurricane Isaac in September 2012. (NOAA)

The U.S. Coast Guard uses ERMA during the response to Hurricane Isaac in September 2012. (NOAA)

In addition, ERMA allowed hundreds of responders and thousands of public users to see the information they needed—coming from multiple sources—at any time, heralding a new era in response where access to data and maps wasn’t limited to a GIS specialist’s printing capabilities. Nearly three years later, our NOAA GIS team and other responders around the country are still working on the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, which includes documenting resulting environmental injuries, and ERMA is a key technology helping us do that job.

More recently, ERMA was put into action during the Hurricane Sandy pollution response in the fall of 2012. During that response, ERMA was used successfully to show federal and state responders and NOAA and Coast Guard leadership post-hurricane satellite imagery, dozens of priority pollution locations, and on-the-ground field photos of impacted areas. Throughout this high-visibility event, ERMA put the most important data they needed to see in their hands.

To some extent, paper maps will always have their place at a response, especially since there is often no Internet connection, say, on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico. GIS specialists will always manage data and create maps to tell a story, but more than ever, ERMA is placing data at the fingertips of responders, often reducing the number of paper maps printed. The emerging technologies behind ERMA and the power of the Internet are transforming how we collect and manage information and how we make decisions during an oil spill or hurricane response—resulting in more efficient and effective use of time, resources, and money. Not to mention saving my fingers from future paper cuts.

Jill Bodnar

Jill Bodnar, NOAA GIS specialist.

Jill Bodnar graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a Masters degree in natural resources, specializing in using GIS for oil spill response. She has been a geographic information specialist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for over 11 years and has responded to numerous incidents in that time, including Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Isaac, and Sandy, and the 2007 Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spills.


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Getting the Download During a Disaster: Mapping the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response

During a disaster, being able to keep track of the information flowing in about damages and operations can make a huge difference. Here, we give you some from-the-ground perspectives about how essential this can be during a response like the one to Hurricane Sandy.

Station New York aftermath from Hurricane Sandy

Coast Guard Station New York, located on Staten Island, sustains flooding damage and debris after Hurricane Sandy passes through New York Harbor, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Josh Janney)

NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator Ed Levine: The last weekend of October became very hectic for those of us in disaster response as Hurricane Sandy moved its havoc up the U.S. eastern seaboard. After the storm passed, initial reports indicated that coastal New York and New Jersey, especially around Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, were among the hardest hit.

When I arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard’s base of operations on Staten Island, N.Y., I was surprised to find that the building was on generator power and back-up lighting; was without heat or telephones; and had minimal computer access and cell phone connectivity. In other words, they were part of the disaster.

Fairly quickly, however, they managed to set up an incident command post. Soon I was able to survey the coastal damage and pollution threats in a Coast Guard helicopter.
Many areas were extremely impacted. There were oils spills in a national park, within the harbor, along the coast, and in the Arthur Kill waterway bordering Staten Island. Shipping containers had been washed off piers and docks into the water and others were strewn about on land, not far from the piles of smaller boats run aground.

Having previously responded to several hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, I realized how quickly data management would become a major issue for tracking the pollution response as it progressed. The Coast Guard and other responders need accurate, up-to-date information and maps to coordinate their planning, inform their decisions, and execute their operations. That’s where our team of information management specialists enter the picture.

In a city still plagued by power outages, supply shortages, and long lines for gasoline, our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists arrived to a hectic scene at the response command post. They began processing data coming in from field reconnaissance and feeding it into NOAA’s Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) for the Atlantic Coast. ERMA is an online mapping tool that integrates and synthesizes data—often in real time—into a single interactive map, providing a quick visualization of the situation after a disaster and improving communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders.

Welcome organizers of chaos, the team mapped high-priority locations of pollution and debris, displayed aerial imagery and on-the-ground photography, helped coordinate field team deployment, and identified areas of concern for environmental sensitivity and cultural and historical significance.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos and the aerial survey path taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina.

A view of Atlantic ERMA showing Coast Guard field team photos (red) and the aerial survey path (green) taken at Great Kills Harbor Marina on Staten Island, N.Y., during the post-Hurricane Sandy assessment and cleanup. The data are shown on top of NOAA National Geodetic Survey aerial images taken after the storm and show the impact along the shoreline. The photos were processed in the NOAA Photologger database at the Coast Guard incident command post on Staten Island, uploaded to ERMA, and used by the Coast Guard to prioritize cleanup and plan for the next day’s activities, as well as for briefing agency leaders and partners. (NOAA) Click to enlarge.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Jill Bodnar and her team: During the Hurricane Sandy pollution response, my colleagues and I divided the GIS work into two areas: general information management and ERMA support.
Information management is important because it becomes a source of accountability and for providing updates on the progress of cleanup operations and impacts to the surrounding natural resources. Well-run information management is crucial in identifying the priorities and status of pollution events quickly and correctly, which, for example, can help keep a leaking chemical drum from reaching a nearby estuary full of nesting birds.

the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the removal of a drum with unknown contents with New York City in the background. NOAA’s ERMA application helped responders prioritize the removal of pollution threats such as this one. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the Staten Island command post, Coast Guard field teams would arrive from a day of work and hand their cameras, GPS units, and often their field notes to our information management specialists. Then, we would upload photos, GPS coordinates, and field observations into software programs and spreadsheets, and the work of verifying the data would begin: Did we have all the data pieces we needed? Was it all correct?

Then, the information would get pulled into our central, web-based GIS application, ERMA. There are a few main roles for ERMA at a command post like the one on Staten Island. One of the foremost functions is to help Coast Guard operations field staff members visualize their field data, such as the pollution targets and field photos, and overlay them with post-hurricane satellite imagery onto a map.

NOAA Geographic Information Specialist Matt Dorsey: Field photos are very informative and give a lot of insight to some of the unique and complex issues for pollution prevention and removal following a hurricane or other emergency situations. Some of the less frequent but more challenging scenarios include vessels inside houses, vessels aground a mile away from the closest waterway, and many vessels swept out of marinas into sensitive marsh areas.

Vessels that had been swept into marshes were a big issue while I was there. The Coast Guard wanted to know which sensitive marsh areas had vessels washed into them, how to prioritize these boats for removing oil or gas aboard them, and how to put together a plan for removing the actual vessel without disturbing the area too much more than it already had been.

Jill Bodnar and her team: Using ERMA as the “big picture” of the response helps responders tell the story of a pollution site, such as a grounded fishing boat with a leaking fuel tank. The Coast Guard operations staff was using ERMA to identify these priority locations before they went in the field, and created their own customized maps to take with them. ERMA gave them a lot of freedom in planning their field activities because they did not have to rely solely on a GIS specialist to create and print maps for them.

ERMA also plays other roles for the Unified Command, which uses it to see the most current field data to plan for the next day’s activities, to brief Coast Guard leadership on the scale and status of their teams’ cleanup operations.

The benefit of everyone using a tool like ERMA is that everyone involved in the response—the Coast Guard, NOAA, Environmental Protection Agency, States of New York and New Jersey, and other agencies—is looking at the most up-to-date data, instead of information that may be a few days old. All of the responders and decision makers, both inside and outside of the incident command post, know they are looking at the same, consistent, high-quality information and using that to prioritize response decisions. Everyone sees the same picture–whether it’s the frenzied first day after a disaster or weeks later.

Ed Levine.

Ed Levine, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator in New York.

Ed Levine works as Scientific Support Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, where he provides scientific and technical support during oil and chemical spills in the New York area. 

Jill Bodnar

Jill Bodnar, NOAA GIS specialist.

Jill Bodnar graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a Masters degree in natural resources, specializing in using GIS for oil spill response. She has been a geographic information specialist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration for over 11 years and has responded to numerous incidents in that time, including Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Isaac, and Sandy, and the 2007 Cosco Busan and 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spills.

 

Matt Dorsey.

Matt Dorsey, NOAA GIS specialist.

Matt Dorsey is a GIS specialist for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration based in Long Beach, Calif. Matt has been working on the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill since June of 2010, utilizing GIS systems and ERMA to provide mapping support for the response phase of the spill and continuing into the current damage assessment phase. Matt is the Southwest regional co-lead for the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA).

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