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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Recalling the Early Hours—and Challenges—of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Five Years Later

This is the sixth in a series of stories over the coming weeks looking at various topics related to the response, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment science, restoration efforts, and the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

Charlie Henry explains something to a small group of men and women.

NOAA’s Charlie Henry (second from left) discusses details of the response in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (right) and other key members of the response. (NOAA)

“Mr. Henry, I’m sorry to wake you, but we have a problem offshore.” This was a young U.S. Coast Guard officer calling me during the night of April 20, 2010. He told me there was an explosion and fire aboard the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon, 50 miles offshore of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

At this point, there were far more unknowns than facts. What we did know was that the rig had been evacuated and the primary response efforts were focused on rescuing the 126 crewmen still on the rig. Early reports said a fire continued to burn, but we didn’t know then if it was due to a well blowout situation or a fire from fuel on the vessel.

Waking up to an Emergency

I replied that I would start working up an initial oil spill trajectory analysis (which you can see represented on this map [PDF]) and then drive to the Coast Guard office in Morgan City, Louisiana. As the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the western Gulf of Mexico, my role at the time was to serve as a science adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard on the core team responding to spills.

The only thing worse than being woken up in the middle of the night, is calling others and waking them up. My first call was to my colleague Glen Watabayashi, an experienced oceanographer and modeler with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, located back in our Seattle spill response “war room.” Assessing the ocean currents and wind predictions for the area around the burning rig would provide a foundation for both a prediction of any oil’s path on the surface and might even contribute to the search and rescue activities for missing survivors.

This information soon would assist those people making important response decisions. For everyone that morning, oil pollution some 50 miles offshore was less of a priority than saving lives. If my memory serves, there were more than 60 crew unaccounted for when I was first notified. I could do little else at that point but dress and drive to the Coast Guard office.

A Developing Picture Emerges

Burning Deepwater Horizon rig with firefighting ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon incident claimed the lives of 11 rig workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (U.S. Coast Guard)

It was still dark when I arrived. Coast Guard search and rescue operations continued, joined by “Good Samaritan” vessels in the area. Photos of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig illuminating the dark night were trickling into the command post.

The number of missing crew members continued to drop that morning and into the day, until the number reached 11—and stopped. Those 11 men who died that night were primarily the crew operating the well at the time of the explosion. When the Deepwater Horizon rig rolled to its side and sank nearly a mile to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico two days after the explosion, those crewmen were still aboard.

After the explosion, the only thing holding the Deepwater Horizon in place was the riser and drill pipe connection between the floating platform and the wellhead some 5,000 feet below the ocean surface. During the first two days, the released oil and gas were mostly burning at the sea surface.

When the rig sank, the situation began to change—but deceivingly at first. Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) surveys found that fractures in the riser pipe created when the vessel sank were releasing oil and gas. Released under the high pressure of the well and at extreme ocean depth, this oil and gas became a cloudy plume of oil droplets and gas bubbles. The larger droplets of oil rose to the ocean surface in four to six hours, the smaller droplets might take a day or longer, and the smallest droplets never reached the surface.

As a result, what we saw of the oil at the surface grew slowly during the first couple days. At first, nobody knew how much oil was actually coming from the twisted, bent riser and pipe, but within a few days the amount of oil visible on the water provided evidence that it was a lot of oil.

Enduring a Spill Unlike any Other

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, NOAA's Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard.

On April 29, 2010, at a press conference during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA’s Scientific Support Coordinator Charlie Henry explained a map of where spilled oil was predicted to spread in the Gulf of Mexico. To the left of Henry is Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard. (NOAA)

Many superlatives have been attached to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The largest oil spill in U.S. waters. The most expensive spill in history. The largest cleanup, the most studied, the most litigious. It has been called by some the worst ecological disaster in U.S history. Prior to 2010, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 held many of these superlatives.

Many of the NOAA team responded at the scene of both spills, and for us, the unusual length and high stress of such extended spill responses become personal. Your normal family and life is in part replaced by the NOAA family, as you work long hours far from home and often share supper with your colleagues in the evenings, helping offset some of the difficulties encountered.

Most oil spill–related emergencies are over in a matter of days, and few receive more than a paragraph in the local newspaper. This incident was different. The magnitude and extent of the Deepwater Horizon response reached from the Gulf of Mexico to Washington, DC, and eyes were on it from across the nation and world.

The video feed of the gushing wellhead which was in the corner of many TV channels was a constant and painful reminder that oil was still spilling into the Gulf despite the efforts of a huge and growing response. As oil spill responders and stewards of our marine resources, we were just as frustrated.

NOAA’s primary role in spill response is science that supports decision making. Managing such a major science response seemed at times just as daunting as the unfettered flow of oil from the seafloor. Research cruises that normally take years to plan were launched in days. A new generation of oil research began seemingly overnight. And my colleagues and I remained in emergency mode for weeks on end.

About six weeks into the spill, I did sleep in one Saturday morning. Normally, I would leave the house around 5:15 a.m. to make a 6:00 a.m. briefing.

My wife woke me in a panic, saying, “Honey, you must have over slept.” I answered, “No, I took the morning off on purpose.” She smiled, “You remembered today was our anniversary.”

To be honest, I hadn’t. I was just in need of a few extra hours of sleep, but sometimes you just get lucky. It was nice to have those few extra hours with my wife before returning to what seemed like the endless challenges and stresses of an oil spill I know my NOAA colleagues and I will never forget.


What Does the Sahara Desert Have to Do with Hurricanes?

This is a post by Charlie Henry, Director, NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and Jeff Medlin, Meteorologist in Charge, National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office Mobile.

Sahara Desert dunes from space.

Sahara Desert dunes photographed from the International Space Station on July 7, 2007. This large desert has a surprising degree of influence on the frequency of hurricanes we see in the United States. (NASA)

What does the Sahara Desert in Africa have to do with hurricanes in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Eastern Pacific Ocean? You might think this sounds a little crazy because hurricanes are very wet and deserts are very dry, but if it weren’t for this huge, hot, dry region in North Africa, we would see far fewer hurricanes in the United States.

The Sahara Desert is massive, covering 10 percent of the continent of Africa. It would be the largest desert on Earth, but based strictly on rainfall amounts, the continent of Antarctica qualifies as a desert and is even larger. Still, rainfall in the Sahara is very infrequent; some areas may not get rain for years and the average total rainfall is less than three inches per year. While not the largest or driest of the deserts, the Sahara has a major influence on weather across the Western Hemisphere.

How a Tropical Storm Starts A-Brewin’

The role the Sahara Desert plays in hurricane development is related to the easterly winds (coming from the east) generated from the differences between the hot, dry desert in north Africa and the cooler, wetter, and forested coastal environment directly south and surrounding the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa. The result is a strong area of high altitude winds commonly called the African Easterly Jet. If these winds were constant, we would also experience fewer hurricanes.

However, the African Easterly Jet is unstable, resulting in undulations in a north-south direction, often forming a corresponding north to south trough, or wave, that moves westward off the West African Coast. When these waves of air have enough moisture, lift, and instability, they readily form clusters of thunderstorms, sometimes becoming correlated with a center of air circulation. When this happens, a tropical cyclone may form as the areas of disturbed weather move westward across the Atlantic.

Throughout most of the year, these waves typically form every two to three days in a region near Cape Verde (due west of Africa), but it is the summer to early fall when conditions can become favorable for tropical cyclone development. Not all hurricanes that form in the Atlantic originate near Cape Verde, but this has been the case for most of the major hurricanes that have impacted the continental United States.

Map of North America with historical tracks of hurricanes in North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Oceans.

All North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific hurricanes
(at least Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale). Note how many originate at the edge of Africa’s West Coast, where the desert meets the green forests to the south. (NOAA)

Wave of the Future (Weather)

In fact, just such a tropical wave formed off Cape Verde in mid-August of 1992. Up to that point, there had not been any significant tropical cyclone development in the Atlantic that year. However, the wave did intensify into a hurricane, and on August 24 Andrew came ashore in south Florida as a Category 5 hurricane, becoming one of the most costly and destructive natural disasters in U.S. history … until Sandy. Hurricane Sandy, which eventually struck the U.S. east coast as a post-tropical cyclone, also began as a similar tropical wave that formed off the coast of west Africa in October of 2012.

Some of these “waves” drift all the way to the Pacific Ocean by crossing Mexico and Central America. Many of the Eastern Pacific tropical cyclones originate, at least in part, from tropical waves coming off Cape Verde in Africa. Many of these waves traverse the entire Atlantic Ocean without generating storm development until after crossing Central America and entering the warm Eastern Pacific waters. Then, if the conditions are right, tropical cyclone formation is possible there. Hurricane Iselle, which hit the Big Island of Hawaii on August 8, 2014, was likely part of a wave that formed more than 8,000 miles away off of the West Coast of Africa and an example of the far-reaching influence the Sahara Desert has on our planet’s weather.

While these waves with origins in the Sahara Desert might generate numerous thunderstorms and a pattern with the potential for developing into a tropical cyclone, often the conditions are not quite right. Hurricane Cristobal formed from a classic Cape Verde wave last week and currently is churning Atlantic waters, but is not expected to be a threat to the United States. The formation of these disturbances off the West Coast of Africa will remain a potential source of tropical storms through the end of Atlantic hurricane season in late November. Each wave is investigated by the NOAA National Hurricane Center and you can view these active disturbances on their website.

The Sahara Desert and You

When it comes to hurricanes and hurricane preparedness, it’s interesting to know how a desert half a world away can influence the formation of severe weather on our coasts—and even parts of the Pacific Ocean. And no matter where you live, the old rule of planning for the worst and hoping for the best remains the surest way to stay safe.

Learn more about how we at NOAA’s National Ocean Service are staying prepared for hurricanes [PDF], and how you can create your own hurricane plan [PDF].


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

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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Are You Ready for this Summer’s Hurricane Season?

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it powered up to a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, packing winds estimated at 175 mph. (NOAA)

June is here, and with it comes the start of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season.

Last week I was at a regional emergency response meeting in Addison, Texas, and sat next to Greg Pollock, Deputy Commissioner for the Texas General Land Office. During the meeting, Greg nudged my shoulder, showing me an email alerting him of the potential for Hurricane Barbara to cross from the Pacific Ocean into the Bay of Campeche—making it a potential threat to the Gulf of Mexico.

We were in the last week of May and threats to the Gulf of Mexico are rare this early. I hadn’t even started my hurricane season routine of checking the NOAA National Hurricane Center’s website every morning before even driving to my office at NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

Following Greg’s prompt, I went online and read the updated forecast from NOAA. Hurricane Barbara would impact southern Mexico but likely dissipate crossing it (which is exactly what happened to this tropical storm). At the time, the threat to the Gulf of Mexico was low, but still something to keep an eye on.

Ready to Help Before, During, and After a Disaster

On the front line is NOAA’s National Weather Service, the trusted, round-the-clock source of information about severe weather threats. Emergency managers and the public alike depend on them to provide accurate and timely storm predictions and forecasts. I use their online information daily to stay up-to-speed on what storms may be developing for the Gulf of Mexico.  The Disaster Response Center provides NOAA with additional support and coordination during natural and manmade disasters. We put our effort into being prepared to respond.

This year, NOAA predicts a worse-than-normal year for tropical storms. “Worse” is my personal way of stating the official forecast of a more-active-than-average or extremely active season, as predicted by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Yet, it only takes one storm to bring significant destruction to the coast. For example, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, blew in during a less active tropical storm season and struck Florida and Louisiana. The result was 65 people killed (both directly and indirectly) and some $26 billion in damage, mostly in Florida. Only three other hurricanes in U.S. history have cost more in damages: Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), and Sandy (2012).

Living in or on the edge of the coastal zone in Louisiana and Alabama most of my life, I do not take hurricane season lightly. This weekend, I’ll spend time checking on the status of my hurricane supplies (find out what you should have in your disaster supply kit) and ensuring my daughter, who attends college in New Orleans, has thought through her plans of when and where to evacuate should a storm threaten southeast Louisiana. Coming home to be with her dad in Mobile, Ala., may not be her best option. The many other NOAA emergency response staff and I likely would not be evacuating, but rather positioning ourselves and our resources to help with the consequences of a severe tropical storm or hurricane. Every year, we hope for the best and plan for the worst. We can’t control nature, but we can control how prepared we are for what it throws at us.

Are You Prepared?

If you haven’t made your hurricane preparedness plans yet, you shouldn’t wait any longer now that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season has officially started.

The National Hurricane Center recently hosted National Hurricane Preparedness Week, and their website has a wealth of resources to help you get ready for this summer’s hurricane season. You can also watch a NOAA video on how to increase your chances of surviving a hurricane and learn more about how to prepare for all types of hazards on the NOAAWatch website.

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Internet in the Restroom and Other Survival Tips from NOAA’s Disaster Response Center

Phone and internet ports in the restroom.

Phone and internet network ports located in the nearly tornado- and hurricane-proof restrooms allow responders to continue working in the NOAA Disaster Response Center even during severe weather. (NOAA)

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

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA leaders at Disaster Response Center ribbon cutting ceremony.

U.S. Senator Richard B. Shelby joins NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Eric Schwaab (left) and NOAA National Ocean Service Assistant Administrator David Kennedy (right) in cutting the ribbon formally opening the new $11 million LEED silver standard Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. (NOAA)

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

Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center.

In addition to office space, the NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, located in Mobile, Ala., includes a training room, conference rooms, and a large multifunction space that can be used for emergency response operations and drills. (NOAA)

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.

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19 Years after Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irene Provides a New Reminder

Satellite image of 2011 Hurricane Irene.

An enhanced satellite image of Hurricane Irene passing over Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Credit: NOAA.

Today, August 24, is the 19th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, one of the most destructive U.S. hurricanes on record and only the third Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale [leaves this blog] to ever make landfall in the U.S. On the anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which produced peak winds of 164 miles per hour, another hurricane threatens our coast: Hurricane Irene.

Even if you didn’t know about the storm named Irene [leaves this blog] that recently passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the name Hurricane Irene might sound familiar because there was another storm of the same name that made landfall in Florida in 1999. For more information on the status of the current Hurricane Irene, go to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website  [leaves this blog].

The previous Hurricane Irene formed in the Caribbean Sea on October 12,1999 and made landfall as a hurricane in Key West and Cape Sable, Fla., before moving offshore near Jupiter, Fla. Its winds peaked at 110 mph before encountering cooler North Atlantic waters and slowly dissipating but not before causing an estimated $900 million in damage in Florida alone and 8 indirect deaths in the U.S. It could have been much worse, and if it had been, the World Meteorological Organization would have retired the name Irene permanently from its list of future storm names, as it did with Andrew and Katrina.

While it is interesting to reflect on the coincidence of two storms with the same name threatening the same region of our coast, I have a serious point here: Tropical storms are a very real threat to life and property.

We All Rely on NOAA during Disasters

While I work as a scientist for NOAA, I don’t forecast storms or severe weather. That duty and responsibility belongs to my NOAA colleagues in the National Weather Service. I’m an environmental and marine scientist by education and a NOAA emergency responder by vocation. I’ve lived along the Gulf of Mexico most of my adult life, and like you, I rely on the dedicated women and men of the NOAA National Hurricane Center and my local NOAA Weather Forecast Office to provide me the best early warnings so that I can both prepare to protect my home and family and prepare to respond as emergency manager.

As an emergency responder for more than two decades, I truly hate oil and chemical spills, and probably most of all, I hate severe tropical weather. However, I believe so strongly in our mission to protect the public, the responders, and the environment, that I have made emergency response my career. I might marvel at the complexity and immense size of such natural events as hurricanes, but I do fear hurricanes. I’m not paralyzed by this fear but instead intensely motivated to prepare and respond.

Storms of Motivation

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina passed over the Louisiana Mississippi Delta before again making landfall on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast near Gulfport, Miss. The near-complete devastation left in the wake of this powerful storm destroyed communities, paralyzing critical ports, waterways, offshore oil and gas production, and industry. The financial impact of the storm has been estimated at over $80 billion, but such losses pale against the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that left 1,836 known dead, hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and countless lives changed forever.

I remember being at the Emergency Operations Center and consoling a young woman crying in a hallway. She had been working the phone bank receiving emergency calls, some from people trapped in their attic as the waters continued to rise from New Orleans’ failed levees. I had never felt so helpless nor so motivated listening to her. After just a few minutes, her break was over, and she returned to the phones. Across NOAA, women and men like her were stepping up during the emergency: evaluating damage, assisting in rescue operations, and assessing imminent threats to the public.

Even after this immediate emergency phase slowed, the response and recovery effort continued to deal with the hundreds of oil spills, thousands of hazardous material containers in waterways, and sunken vessels and marine debris that littered the coastal zone of three states.

This Is Hurricane Season

What path will the second Hurricane Irene take? What will the threat be to our coast and our coastal communities? I don’t have a crystal ball, so I’ll keep watching NOAA’s updated trajectory forecast [leaves this blog] to plan and prepare. I’ll also be coordinating with Brad Benggio, NOAA’s Regional Scientific Support Coordinator for the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. His job is to provide scientific and technical counsel on the best course of action during emergencies such as hurricanes and oil spills. I would venture a guess that Benggio has similar feelings about storms as I do after surviving and responding to many hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hurricane Andrew left a concrete tie beam on a car, among other damage, in Naranja Lakes, Fla. Credit: NOAA National Weather Service.

Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion of damage in the U.S. and claimed 23 lives [leaves this blog]. This is hurricane season—never take it lightly. As part of our preparedness for emergency response, we plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you live in an area potentially threatened by coastal storms, know the evacuation route. It could save your life.

For additional information on hurricanes and planning, visit the NOAAWatch website  [leaves this blog] and click on the Hurricane/Tropical Weather and Storm Surge and Coastal Flooding themes on the right side of the page.