Occasionally, newcomers at the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center will ask me, “Why are there internet and phone hook ups in the restrooms?”
When I hear this, I reply with another question, “Have you noticed how even the smallest sounds seem to echo in those restrooms?” Some will nod in agreement, comparing the restroom to a cave or an underground tunnel, and they’re not far off.
The main restroom complex at the Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Ala., may not be underground, but it was built as a steel-reinforced concrete bunker, intended to function as a Force-5 tornado shelter. The amount of steel and concrete is so thick that you immediately lose cell phone reception upon entering. It is like being in a cave.
But why do we need to connect to a phone or the internet from the restrooms? Not because we love to multi-task, but this way, even if a tornado threatened the area, the staff and any visitors can take shelter in the restrooms while still being able to monitor the response situation outside. In fact, the entire facility is hardened to survive the kind of severe weather generated by a strong hurricane, though only the restrooms are built to withstand the damaging 200 mph winds of a Force-5 tornado. If you’re lucky (unlucky?) enough to be in the Disaster Response Center during a deadly tornado, head to the restrooms, where you’ll even enjoy the relative luxuries of the survival gear and emergency supplies stored there.
Rising from Rubble
The vision for the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center was borne out of the devastating 2005 hurricane season that included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Congress recognized the need for and later funded a central NOAA facility and program in the Gulf of Mexico dedicated to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from all types of disasters in the area.
The new center, based in Mobile, Ala., was designed to expand NOAA’s regional presence and expand federal capacity to plan for and respond to all types of emergencies, both natural and man-made.
It is a testament to the need for this center that its construction began in 2010 shortly before the Deepwater Horizon/BP well blowout off the Louisiana coast and the formal dedication of the building took place on October 15, 2012, a little over a month after Hurricane Isaac swept through Louisiana and Mississippi.
The new center itself is an environmentally friendly, 15,200-square-foot, hardened structure built away from storm surge threats, designed to withstand the wind assault of a major hurricane, and providing a physical location to pre-stage and coordinate post-disaster response activities. The NOAA Disaster Response Center aims to streamline coordination and communication of disaster planning and preparedness information. In between actual emergencies, the center serves as a coordination and training hub for federal, state, and local response preparedness activities.
To better support federal and regional emergency planners and managers, the facility will improve the accessibility, redundancy, and distribution of NOAA data, information, and tools to the people who most need them during disasters. Here, we can share with the Gulf of Mexico response community the broad range of products and services NOAA provides before, during, and after emergencies, whether it’s a grounded ship or a tropical storm.
A Melting Pot of NOAA Knowledge
The mission of the new center may be very large in scope, but those of us who work full-time here are small in number—only eight at present, but that number is expected to double. However, hundreds of NOAA staff are spread across the five states that boarder the Gulf of Mexico, working hard each day to protect the public and our natural resources. These men and women are the NOAA front line.
Prior to accepting the director position for the Disaster Response Center, I was one of them, coordinating scientific support for oil and chemical spills and several hurricanes in the western Gulf of Mexico for 13 years. During that time, one of the first things I learned is that you learn something new from each disaster, and you have to put that hard-earned knowledge back into planning for the next one—no matter how many oil spills you’ve worked on.
We are setting up the Disaster Response Center to be the gathering place for that information and expertise gleaned from each experience. The goal is to make NOAA better prepared to deal with whatever crisis may strike the Gulf of Mexico next.
I hope to never have to take shelter in the center’s restroom during severe weather—or resort to plugging my laptop into one of the network ports there—but I take comfort knowing there is a secure place for my staff just in case. Tornadoes, droughts, harmful algal blooms, oil spills, chemical accidents, wildfires: These events are part of life for those living along the Gulf of Mexico coast. The Gulf isn’t unique in this way; every part of our nation faces some sort of risk. No matter where you live, you are wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best (the NOAAWatch website is a great resource for that). We’re no different; that is our plan as well.