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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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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Sandy, One Year Later: Where Are We Now?

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012.

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy raced toward the East Coast. Although the hurricane became a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall, it still caused extensive damage. Its forceful winds and flooding swept waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the waters along New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

Both before and after Sandy hit, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) was bracing for the repercussions of this massive storm. In the year since, we have been working with federal, state, and local agencies to reduce the environmental impacts, restore coastal habitats, and improve the tools needed to prepare for the next disaster.

Restoring Tidal Wetlands in New Jersey

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery's diesel spill as a result of the storm.

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery’s diesel spill as a result of the storm. (NOAA)

As water levels receded, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of pollution in the areas of coastal New Jersey and New York. Petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals were leaking into the waters from pollution sources such as damaged coastal industries, ruptured petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The area of Arthur Kill, a waterway that borders New York and New Jersey, was hit particularly hard. One such spill occurred when a tank holding diesel broke open at the Motiva refinery in Sewaren, N.J., releasing an estimated 336,000 gallons of diesel into several creeks.

The week following Sandy, our Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) staff ventured into storm-ravaged areas to gather data on impacts to coastal habitats and other natural resources, including those potentially affected by the Motiva oil spill. NOAA, along with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Motiva, surveyed affected sites both by land and by boat and coordinated with these groups to determine whether to pursue a natural resource damage assessment and implement environmental restoration.

Early in this process, the trustees, NOAA and New Jersey, and Motiva agreed to focus on restoration, rather than conducting new studies and debating legal issues. This meant using observations from the surveys, past damage assessments in the area, and previous scientific studies to determine the amount of restoration required to offset the resulting injuries to natural resources.  As a result, NOAA and New Jersey reached consensus on a cooperative settlement in less than 6 months with the Motiva refinery in Sewaren for the release of oil during the storm. This successful agreement will provide funds to restore and monitor recovery of tidal wetlands in the Arthur Kill watershed, which will begin before the end of 2013.

Identifying Remaining Debris Along the Coasts

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment.

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Even when drums, tanks, and other debris swept into the waters after a storm are free of oil and chemicals, they can still pose a threat to navigation, commercial and recreational fishing grounds, and sensitive habitats. This was a considerable problem after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Sandy was no exception in 2012.

In the months following this storm, the NOAA Marine Debris Program coordinated debris response activities and initial assessments with agencies in impacted states. Using aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys, today we continue working with federal and state agencies to identify the amount and location of remaining debris that Sandy littered up and down Mid-Atlantic coastal waters.

In addition, we are using a computer model we developed with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey after Hurricane Katrina to predict probabilities of finding debris generated by Sandy in the nearshore waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. These and other analyses, along with support from the rest of the Marine Debris Program and OR&R’s Atlantic ERMA mapping tool, will inform how states prioritize cleanup efforts.

Due to the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, the Marine Debris Program received $4.75 million for activities related to finding and clearing debris from Sandy.  Through the end of 2013 and into 2014, we will continue our work identifying priority items for removal and supporting limited removal efforts. The program is also using what we learned from Sandy to establish long-term debris recovery plans for future storms.

Adapting to a Changing Shoreline

In addition to damaging buildings, roller coasters, and vessels, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines on the East Coast. The areas most affected were metropolitan New York, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

As a result, OR&R’s Emergency Response Division received funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps for northeast states. These updated maps will reflect the shoreline changes caused by the storm but will be developed with a broad range of potential disasters in mind.

Additionally, they will expand the coastal information offered to better inform planning and response efforts for the next disaster. Such information may include flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites. Long Island Sound is first on our list for updates, but the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, and affected shorelines from South Carolina north to Maine eventually will follow suit.

While it has already been a year since Sandy left its mark on the U.S., the work of recovery and rebuilding is not yet complete. You can read more about these efforts in support of healing our coasts and communities on NOAA’s Ocean Service website.


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Above, Under, and Through the Ice: Demonstrating Technologies for Oil Spill Response in the Arctic

This is the third in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound” and his second post, “Breaking Ice.”

76° N, 158° W marks the spot. The wind chill has dropped the mercury below zero as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker, sits idly, anchored by the sea ice that dominates the landscape. All eyes are fixed on the brilliant orange of the Coast Guard zodiac, the small boat’s color contrasted against the cobalt blue water off the icebreaker’s port side. A faint hum of a motor gets louder and louder overhead as the “Puma” comes into view. Then, just as the miniature, remote-controlled aircraft is positioned exactly over a nearby patch of open water, the operator kills the motor and the Puma splashes down safely.

The Puma operator  aboard the Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air. (NOAA)

The Puma operator aboard the U.S. Coast Guard zodiak recovers the small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air during Arctic Shield 2013. (NOAA)

During the exercise Arctic Shield 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) brought a group of scientists and specialists together to demonstrate technologies that potentially could be used for oil spill response in the Arctic Ocean’s severe conditions. This is my third and final post detailing my experiences and involvement in the mission aboard the Healy; you can read the previous posts, “Arctic-bound” and “Breaking Ice.”

Existing Technology, New Applications

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment.

The Arctic Ocean remains a difficult to access and often dangerous environment. (NOAA)

Increased marine transportation and oil exploration in the Arctic increases the likelihood of, along with the responsibility to be prepared for, potential oil spills. Operating in an area as remote and ice-filled as the Arctic poses new logistical and tactical challenges for safe ship transit, search and rescue efforts, resource extraction, and oil spill response. For those of us working in oil spill response, this means developing new methods and technologies for surveying, assessing, and responding in these settings.

The RDC, coordinating efforts by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, demonstrated the Puma as one method to survey, identify, and monitor oil on and around the ice floes from above. The Puma is a battery-powered, aerial survey technology with military roots that is now being used for a variety of environmental applications.

The Puma’s advantages for oil spill response in the Arctic are many. With its capacity for high resolution and infrared imagery, the Puma could help identify and monitor oiled environments and wildlife during response efforts, while simultaneously creating a visual record of environmental injury that could be used during a Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division has a long history of recording aerial imagery of oil spills by using trained observers aboard helicopters or airplanes to find and photograph oil on the water’s surface. Using a UAS like the Puma removes the risk to human safety, requires batteries and not fuel, and has been shown to have little-to-no influence on the behavior of wildlife. In fact, NOAA has already used Pumas to great effect during marine mammal and sea bird surveys.

This last point is especially important when you consider an animal like the Pacific walrus. With recent, dramatic summer losses in sea ice, Pacific walruses have been seen congregating en masse on the shoreline of Alaska, a behavior happening earlier and earlier in the year. Disturbance of these large groups of walruses, which could be caused by noisy surveying techniques, creates panic in the animals, causing a stampede that could end up trampling and killing young walruses.

Pumas Fly but Jaguars Swim

While the Pumas were busy scanning the ice and sea from the sky, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were fast at work deploying their “Jaguar” beneath the water. The Jaguar is an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) designed to map the Arctic sea floor, but during Arctic Shield 2013, the science team instead used it to map the curves and channels on the underside of the sea ice.

For example, if an oil spill occurred near an ice floe, responders would need to know where oil could pool up or be funneled in the curves or channels beneath the sea ice. The Jaguar uses acoustic technology to map the differences in sea ice thickness or “draft” as it travels along its programmed path under the ice. A suite of oceanographic sensors are also installed that measure water temperature, conductivity, pressure, and salinity along the way. In addition, scientists can install an optical back-scatter sensor that can detect oil in the water column.

To top things off, the Jaguar’s footprint is relatively low. The entire system is easily shipped, only requires a three-person team to operate, and doesn’t need a large vessel like the Healy to be deployed. Having a highly functional, low-impact tool is a major advantage out on the Arctic Ocean.

A Mapping Tool Made for the Arctic

It was with remote environments like the Arctic in mind that the Office of Response and Restoration developed Stand-alone ERMA, an internet-independent version of our Arctic ERMA online mapping tool used in response efforts for oil spills, hazardous waste spills, and ship groundings. My role in Arctic Shield was to integrate and display the data collected by the technologies I just described into Stand-alone ERMA. ERMA integrates multiple data sources and displays them in a single interactive map. With the resulting data-rich map, I could demonstrate the advantage of establishing a common operational picture during an oil spill response scenario—all without an internet connection.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA's online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma's flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma.

A view from Arctic ERMA, NOAA’s online mapping tool for environmental disasters. You can see the path of the icebreaker Healy, the Puma’s flight, and the photos and their location taken by the Puma. (NOAA)

During Arctic Shield 2013, Stand-alone ERMA was integrated into the ship’s local network, and as new data were recorded and displayed, everyone on the ship, from the bridge to the science decks, could view the same results on their computer screens.

In a typical oil spill response, you can have decision makers from federal, state, and local governments; private industry; and a multitude of scientists and technicians all working together. Everyone needs access to the same information, especially when it is constantly changing, in order to make the most informed decisions. But if internet availability is sporadic or nonexistent (not unusual in the Alaskan Arctic), most common operational pictures are rendered inoperable. Stand-alone ERMA bridges that gap, while providing the same experience and tools found with the online version. Demonstrating the utility of Stand-alone ERMA aboard the Healy made the advantages of a flexible common operational picture very clear.

Mind the Gaps (and Bridge Them)

The purpose of these demonstrations during Arctic Shield 2013 was to identify technologies that could improve oil spill response capabilities in the Arctic environment. Not all of the technologies being demonstrated were recently developed or even developed specifically for oil spill response. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center, which organized the demonstration, has taken a critical look at the difficulties and challenges associated with operating in an icy ocean environment. As a result they have identified a wide variety of technologies—some of which we demonstrated on this trip—that could potentially improve response during an actual oil spill. Still, a great deal of work remains as we work to better understand Arctic ecosystems and overcome the challenges of stewardship in a new and uncertain period in our history.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past.

The only trace of a polar bear were these tracks in the snow and ice as the Healy plowed past. (NOAA)

Looking over the bow of the Healy as the ship fractured the ice beneath, I caught a brief glimpse of polar bear tracks in the snow. The animal itself was nowhere to be seen, but as I watched the tracks fade into the distance, I was reminded of why I was there. When you’re out on the ice, breathing in the frigid air, knowing that polar bears are out there hunting and raising cubs, you realize what is right in front of you is the only place like it in the world. Being a part of Arctic Shield 2013 was an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, one that is helping me figure out what data we still need and develop the tools to strengthen our ability to respond to an oil spill.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.


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When Oil Spills, School Kids Take Note

The impacts of an oil spill can be varied: closed beaches, dead fish, oiled birds and wildlife—just to name a few. But the impacts can also be emotional, often drawing out of people feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or an eagerness to help. Those of us at NOAA who work to minimize the impacts of oil spills on America’s water, coasts, plants, and animals are not immune to these impacts either. But we are glad to know that people care.

Here a few examples of letters written by school kids after they learned about oil spills in Alaska and California—and how these spills affected them.

On April 13, 1989, second grader Kelli Middlestead of the Franklin School in Burlingame, Calif., let her feelings be known after hearing about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. She addressed her letter, illustrated with her beloved sea otters, to Walter Stieglitz, Alaskan Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Hat tip to the National Archive’s excellent Tumblr.)

In November of 2007, middle school students on a science camp field trip to a San Francisco beach were upset instead to find oil on the water, beach, and even the birds. Days earlier, the cargo ship Cosco Busan had crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of thick fuel oil into the marine waters nearby.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

An example of the thoughtfully crafted thank you cards sent to oil spill responders by seventh graders in California after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill.

While they were saddened by the events, the seventh grade students from Old Orchard Middle School in Campbell, Calif., decided to help by writing hand-written and illustrated thank you cards to the people cleaning up the oil spill. According to a press release about their efforts [PDF]:

“Everyone started pitching in and we came up with the idea to write cards,” said seventh grade student Erin.

“We felt helpless that we couldn’t go and help the animals or clean up the beach,” said Alex, another seventh grader from Old Orchard School. “We saw birds staggering and people trying to catch them.”

“These cards did a lot for the morale of our cleanup crew,” said Barry McFarland of the response company O’Brien’s Group, which worked to clean up the spill at Muir Beach and received the students’ cards. “Some of our crew were actually moved to tears.”

You can read more of the thank you notes from the concerned students [PDF].


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$3.7 Million to go toward Restoring Contaminated Natural Resources in Alabama

Tombigbee River.

Beginning in the 1950s, hazardous wastes from producing the pesticide DDT were released into unlined pits at the McIntosh, Ala., plant and discharged into the Tombigbee River and its adjacent floodplain. (Credit: Jeffrey Reed, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Update: Jan. 13, 2017 –Restoration plans for the Tombigbee River and its adjacent floodplain are now open for public comment. Details on the a Draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan/Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the Ciba Geigy – McIntosh Plant (Ciba) may be found here.

Four federal and state trustee agencies have announced $3.7 million in funds following a natural resource damages settlement to restore natural resources and habitats harmed by hazardous substances released from a manufacturing site in McIntosh, Ala.

The funds are part of a $5 million settlement with BASF Corporation, the company that acquired the Ciba-Geigy Corporation’s McIntosh facility. Beginning in the 1950s, the facility manufactured DDT, a pesticide used to combat disease-carrying insects, as well as other pesticides, herbicides, and various agricultural and industrial chemicals. During those years, hazardous wastes from the facility were released into unlined pits on the property and discharged into the Tombigbee River and its adjacent floodplain.

The settlement was negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division on behalf of the trustees.

The natural resource trustees—NOAA, Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Geological Survey of Alabama— began a cooperative natural resource damage assessment with the responsible party in 2005 to identify resource injuries and the amount of restoration needed. The trustees act on behalf of the public to protect and restore natural resources.

Nearly $3.2 million of the $5 million BASF settlement will be used to plan, implement, and oversee restoration projects and/or acquire lands within the Mobile Bay watershed to compensate for resources injured as a result of exposure to contaminants from the facility.

The state of Alabama will receive $500,000 to fund additional ecosystem restoration efforts through support of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. The remaining funds will reimburse the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA for their past assessment costs.

BASF chemical plant in McIntosh, Ala.

A view of the former Ciba chemical plant, now owned by BASF, which has agreed to pay $3.7 million for restoration projects for historical pollution coming from this McIntosh, Ala. facility. (Credit: Alabama Media Group/All Rights Reserved)

The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 because of its harmful effects on the environment, wildlife and the public. Once released, DDT persists in the environment for a long time and increases in concentrations up the food chain.

In 1984, EPA listed the McIntosh facility as a Superfund site. Early investigations on this site found elevated concentration levels of DDT in fish and sediments within the floodplain, bottomland hardwood forests, and areas of the Tombigbee River adjacent to the site.

The settlement agreement is available on NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program website at www.darrp.noaa.gov/southeast/ciba/index.html. The trustees will develop a draft restoration plan with proposed projects, which will be released for public review and comment.

Photos:

Top photo: Jeffrey Reed, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Bottom photo: Used with permission from Alabama Media Group.