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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When Planning for Disasters, an Effort to Combine Environmental and Human Health Data

Two men clean up oil on a beach.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Louisiana following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. (NOAA)

Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, there was a high demand for government agencies, including NOAA, to provide public data related to the spill very quickly. Because of the far-reaching effects of the spill on living things, those demands included data on human health as well as the environment and cleanup.

In mid-September of 2014, a group of scientists including social and public health experts, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and data management experts convened in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to discuss ways they could better integrate their respective environmental and health data during disasters. The goal was to figure out how to bring together these usually quite separate types of data and then share them with the public during future disasters, such as oils spills, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

The Deepwater Horizon spill experience has shown government agencies that there are monitoring opportunities which, if taken, could provide valuable data on both the environment and, for example, the workers that are involved in the cleanup. Looking back, it was discovered that at the same time that “vessels of opportunity” were out in the Gulf of Mexico assisting with the spill response and collecting data on environmental conditions, the workers on those vessels could have been identified and monitored for future health conditions, providing pertinent data to health agencies.

A lot of environmental response data already are contained in NOAA’s online mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), such as the oil’s location on the water surface and on beaches throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemicals found in sediment and animal tissue samples, and areas of dispersant use. ERMA also pulls together in a centralized format and displays Environmental Sensitivity Index data, which include vulnerable shoreline, biological, and human use resources present in coastal areas; ship locations; weather; and ocean currents. Study plans developed to assess the environmental impacts of the spill for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the resulting data collected can be found at www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/oil-spill/gulf-spill-data.

Screen shot of ERMA mapping program showing Gulf of Mexico with Deepwater Horizon oil spill data.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response contains a wide array of publicly available data related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can see cumulative levels of oiling on the ocean surface throughout the spill, shorelines affected, and the location of the damaged wellhead. (NOAA)

Health agencies, on the other hand, are interested in data on people’s exposure to oil and dispersants, effects of in situ burning on air quality, and heat stress in regard to worker health. They need information on both long-term and short-term health risks so that they can determine if impacted areas are safe for the communities. Ideally, data such as what are found in ERMA could be imported into health agencies’ data management systems which contain human impact data, creating a more complete picture.

Putting out the combined information to the public quickly and transparently will promote a more accurate representation of a disaster’s aftermath and associated risks to both people and environment.

Funded by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and facilitated by the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center, this workshop sparked ideas for better and more efficient collaboration between agencies dealing with environmental and human health data. By setting up integrated systems now, we will be better prepared to respond to and learn from man-made and natural disasters in the future. As a result of this workshop, participants formed an ongoing working group to move some of the best practices forward. More information can be found at crrc.unh.edu/workshops/EDDM.

Dr. Amy Merten, of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division co-authored this blog.


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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at MarineDebris.Web@noaa.gov.


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Ready for Anything: Advice in Case of the Undead

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

We’d like to wish you a happy Halloween … but it’s only appropriate we mention zombies first. In recent years, zombies have invaded popular culture, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who have done a great job linking being prepared for a zombie attack with overall disaster preparedness. You may laugh, but you can also learn a thing or two about being ready for the return of the undead.

Zombie nurse.

If you’re not prepared for the worst, then you’re letting the zombies win. (Credit: Tuomas Kuosmanen, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

Don’t Let the Zombies Win

Zombie hands going after brain.

Use your brain and be prepared for anything. (Credit: Beth Jusino, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License)

If you watch any movies or T.V. shows about surviving zombie apocalypse, you can actually pick up some handy preparedness tips. Although pre-made zombie survival kits are amusing, most of them have in common the kind of life-saving ideas that will work in any emergency situation:

  • Water: Having three gallons per person per day is critical. Water is not only used for drinking—we use it for cooking and cleaning too. But consider including alcohol-based hand gels or wipes to ration water use and avoid getting sick.
  • Food: Keep on hand at least two weeks’ worth of nonperishable food; the type that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration is best. And don’t forget about food and water for pets and service animals!
  • First Aid Supplies: Commercial kits are available at most drug stores. It’s a good idea to have a kit at home and one in your car. Be sure to replenish items you use and be mindful of expiration dates.
  • Gas: It’s typically a good idea to keep at least a half tank of gas in your car at all times. If you know a hurricane or other threatening event is coming, be sure to fill up early.

Be Prepared for Hazards of All Kinds

Being ready for disasters is something we take very seriously at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Which is why we’ve taken this advice to heart and made sure our own facility in Mobile, Ala., is ready to withstand a hurricane, tornado, or even zombie apocalypse. Just peek into our restrooms, where we have:

  • Multiple 25-person survival kits, which include items such as safety goggles, pry bar (especially handy for zombie defense!), multifunction tools, first aid supplies, flashlights, and emergency water pouches.
  • Backup generators that will automatically switch on if the primary power fails (zombie attacks usually result in power loss).
  • Internet hookups, which are being fed into the building from two different directions in case zombies or stormy weather damage or sever one of the cables.

Of course, both your family and your employer should customize the steps you take and supplies you stock based on your particular needs and situation.

Sweat the Small Stuff

We all know it’s important to make an emergency plan and keep an up-to-date list of important phone numbers. But sometimes we are so focused on gathering the big things that we forget about the small stuff.
If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
For instance, it is suggested that you stock canned food, but don’t forget to grab the “all-mighty” can opener. It’s also recommended to wear sturdy, close-toed shoes if you need to go outside. But it isn’t mentioned very often to keep a pair of spare socks in a tightly sealed bag. This will allow you to have at least one dry pair as a backup. Another tip is to keep a flashlight, radio, and other battery-powered items on hand—but make sure they all use the same size battery to avoid stocking multiple sizes.

Today, zombies provide a fun and creative way to teach about the importance of being prepared for anything. For a spooky story that kids and adults alike might enjoy, check out the CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” short graphic novel, which is an entertaining and informative way to learn about preparing for an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a very unnatural attack by zombies.

Happy Halloween (and watch out for the undead)!

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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Are We Prepared to Communicate Well During the Next Disaster?

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 are prepared in every regard 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 Kate Clark.

Ever had a crisis? Did you have a plan for getting people the information they needed during that crisis? Chances are you answered first yes, then no. It is not often we are able to anticipate what our next crisis or disaster will be, but that doesn’t mean we should be caught off guard (however unusual the event).

The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is no stranger to dealing with crisis. Whether it’s an oil spill, influx of marine debris, or chemical release, we plan and prepare to deal with environmental disasters as a part of our work each day.

As environmental disasters continue to happen and media coverage becomes more instantaneous, we must also be prepared to communicate with the public about these disasters in a way that is factual, timely, and helpful.

On September 19, 2013, I was able to attend a crisis communications workshop sponsored by the Ad Council. It featured three esteemed and accomplished communication experts: Dee Dee Myers, Managing Director of the Glover Park Group and former White House Press Secretary; Camille Johnston, Vice President, Corporate Affairs for Siemens Corporation and former spokesperson for First Lady Michelle Obama; and Morgan Binswanger, Executive Vice President, Government Relations and External Affairs for the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

As OR&R works to improve our crisis communication strategy and strengthen our rapport with stakeholders, I thought these five pieces of advice from the seminar would help inform our efforts:

  1. Outreach. Using the time leading up to a crisis to educate the public, stakeholders, and the press about your mission can save a lot of valuable time during the crisis. This will allow for clearer and more germane dialogue when a crisis does occur.
  2. Plan ahead. What is the most likely crisis scenario? Who will speak for the organization? How we will disseminate information?
  3. Time is of the essence. Information is available through social media within seconds of an event occurring. This leaves a small window of time to react and respond.
  4. Be transparent. In today’s day and age, almost everything becomes public, so transparency and honesty in the very early stages are crucial to maintaining trust and credibility.
  5. Humility goes a long way. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know, but we are working very hard to get an answer.”

OR&R and the whole NOAA family is constantly learning and adapting to the changing pace of communications in today’s information landscape. Let us know how you think we’re doing. Where would you look for information from NOAA during a disaster, such as a hurricane or oil spill? This blog? Facebook or Twitter? NOAA.gov? Somewhere else?

We are thankful to the Ad Council for sponsoring this seminar and providing great reminders as we continually work to improve our dialogue with the people we work for—the U.S. public.

Kate Clark.Kate Clark is a regional resource coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division. She has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio, and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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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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Molasses and Other Weird Things that Have Spilled

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 have to be ready to respond to not just oil and chemical spills, but sometimes unusual hazards like molasses! To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Charlie Henry and Katie Krushinski, both based at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala.

Response team on board Coast Guard ship in Honolulu Harbor.

The Coast Guard National Strike Force and personnel from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head to their first location to monitor depleted oxygen and pH levels in Honolulu Harbor, Honolulu, Sept. 15, 2013.  They tested the water at various locations around Honolulu Harbor affected by the molasses spill. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Last week, the Matson Shipping Company reported an unusual spill after a container ship and faulty pipeline leaked 233,000 gallons (1,400 tons) of molasses into Hawaii’s Honolulu Harbor.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has been working with the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office and state and federal partners to assess the large underwater plume of molasses and reduce risks to marine life in the area.

Typically we hear about spills of diesel, oil, and chemicals that cause environmental harm. We know these products can be toxic. Molasses, on the other hand, isn’t usually considered pollution. Yet, the Hawaii Department of Health has already collected approximately 25,000 dead fish from Honolulu Harbor and Ke’ehi Lagoon, where the molasses spill has spread and smothered life on the seafloor.

Although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill spill, it’s not the first time strange-sounding things have been spilled into the environment—with at times serious consequences.

Too Much to Drink

On October 17, 1814, a fermented vat of beer exploded, causing adjacent storage tanks to spill and pouring approximately 388,330 gallons of beer throughout the poor London neighborhood of St. Giles and neighboring communities. As a result, at least seven people died in this incident, both from drowning while trapped in slum-like basement apartments and from being buried under the flood’s debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the debris.

In the wake of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, firemen stood in thick molasses past their ankles as they searched through the sticky debris. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

A Sticky Mess

Believe it or not, molasses has been spilled before. On January 15, 1919, a tank holding at least 2.2 million gallons of molasses burst, sending a wall of the thick, brown syrup down the streets of Boston, Mass. Reports indicate 21 people died in this spill and 150 were injured.

Boston Harbor was tinted brown for months. Although it wasn’t documented in detail in 1919, fish kills were a likely result. The locals described people and animals being trapped, “like by flypaper.” Local residents rumor that when the weather is hot you can still faintly smell molasses to this day.

A Close Call

On September 13, 2011, an OR&R Scientific Support Coordinator provided the U.S. Coast Guard with a trajectory for a bundle of telephone poles that were drifting in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard considered these poles a hazard to navigation and a threat to oil platforms at sea. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration applies the same oceanographic modeling tools used for oil spill trajectories to determine where huge bundles of logs, lost containers from cargo ships, and abandoned or derelict vessels might end up. In these cases, the debris itself is less of a concern than what it might encounter on its journey. This type of debris poses a huge threat to fishing vessels, fully loaded oil tankers, and even cruise ships. Floating debris is just another example of an unconventional “spill.”

Unexpected Spill Effects

Just about anything can be a hazard if it happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, saltwater is very common. In fact, about 97% of all water on Earth is saltwater. A spill of saltwater into the ocean (which is also saltwater) is likely to go unnoticed. But if a large quantity of saltwater were spilled into freshwater estuaries and marsh habitat, the spill would likely kill fish, damage vegetation, and impact the long-term viability of the habitat. For example, century-old cypress trees have died and never returned to an area as a result of a saltwater spill into a freshwater system where they were growing.

The All-Hazards Approach

Today we train our emergency responders for all-hazards. By definition, all-hazards can be any incident or event, natural or manmade, which requires an organized response in order to protect human life, the environment, and property as well as to minimize any disruption of government, social, and/or economic services.

Natural disaster such as hurricanes and manmade events such as oil and chemical spills, all require a coordinated response, which is managed under the Incident Command System (ICS) for coordination and stakeholder involvement. While molasses spills aren’t a textbook example for training responders, it would be considered an all-hazard threat in situations like Boston’s tank failure of 1919 and the spill of 2013 in Honolulu harbor. You never know what might go wrong, which is why it pays to be prepared for anything—even molasses!

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski

Katie Krushinski works as Training and Communications Coordinator 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 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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