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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Preparing for What Can Go Wrong Because of Hurricanes

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

A view of the houses and highways along the New Jersey coast which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Sandy. Katrina. Andrew. These and many other names stand out in our memories for the power of wind and wave—and the accompanying devastation—which these storms have brought to U.S. shores. Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 30, but disasters can and do strike unexpectedly.

Being involved in disaster response, we at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration know what can go wrong when a hurricane hits the coast—after all, we’ve seen it firsthand:

Clearly, a lot is at stake when a hurricane sweeps through an area, which is why preparing for hurricanes and other disasters is so important. We can’t stop these powerful storms, but we can prepare ourselves, our homes, and our coastal communities to lessen the impacts and bounce back more quickly after storms hit.

Hurricane Preparedness Week comes as a reminder each May before the Atlantic hurricane season begins. NOAA’s National Weather Service has plenty of tips and guidelines for preparing to weather these storms:

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration also takes care to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.

Sometimes that means building internet and phone access into the stormproof bathrooms of our facilities so that we can continue providing sound science and support to deal with pollution from a storm. Other times that means working with coastal regions to create response plans for disaster debris, training other emergency responders to address oil and chemical spills, and developing software tools that pull together and display key information necessary for making critical response decisions during disasters.

Learn more about how to protect yourself and your belongings from a hurricane.


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Redrawing the Coast After Sandy: First Round of Updated Environmental Sensitivity Data Released for Atlantic States

Contsruction equipment moves sand to rebuild a New Jersey beach in front of houses damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

In Brick, New Jersey, construction crews rebuild the beaches in front of homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This huge storm actually changed the shape of shorelines up and down the East Coast. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

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

In 2012 Hurricane Sandy brought devastating winds and flooding to the Atlantic coast. In some parts of New Jersey, flood waters reached nearly 9 feet. Up and down the East Coast, this massive storm actually reshaped the shoreline.

As a result, we’ve been working to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps to reflect the new state of Atlantic shorelines. These maps and data give oil spill planners and responders a quick snapshot of a shoreline’s vulnerability to spilled oil.

This week, we released the digital data, for use within a Geographic Information System (GIS), for the first regions updated after Hurricane Sandy. Passed the January following Sandy, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 provided funds to update ESI maps for eleven Atlantic coast states, ranging from Maine to South Carolina. For this project, we grouped the states into seven regions.

The GIS data for the regions released this week cover South Carolina and portions of New York and New Jersey, including the Hudson River, south Long Island, and the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area. For these two regions, we mapped more than 300 oil-sensitive species and classified over 17,000 miles of shoreline according to their sensitivity to spilled oil.

Updated GIS data and PDF maps for the remaining regions affected by Sandy will be available in the coming months.

Time for a Change

The magnitude of the overall effort has been unprecedented, and provided us with the opportunity to revisit what was mapped and how, and to update the technology used, particularly as it relates to the map production.

Our first Environmental Sensitivity Index maps were produced in the early 1980s and, since that time, the entire U.S. coast has been mapped at least once. To be most useful, these data should be updated every 5–7 years to reflect changes in shoreline and species distributions that may occur due to a variety of things, including human intervention, climate change, or, as in this case, major coastal storms.

In addition to ranking the sensitivity of different shorelines (including wetlands and tidal flats), these data and maps also show the locations of oil-sensitive animals, plants, and habitats, along with various human features that could either be impacted by oil, such as a marina, or be useful in a spill response scenario, such as access points along a beach.

New Shores, New Features

A street sign is buried under huge piles of sand in front of a beach community.

In the wake of Sandy, we’ve been updating our Environmental Sensitivity Index maps and data and adding new features, such as storm surge inundation data. Hurricane Sandy’s flooding left significant impacts on coastal communities in eleven Atlantic states. (Federal Emergency Management Agency/FEMA)

To gather suggestions for improving our ESI maps and data, we sent out user surveys, conducted interviews, and pored over historical documentation. We evaluated all suggestions while keeping the primary users—spill planners and responders—at the forefront. In the end, several major changes were adopted, and these improvements will be included in all future ESI maps and data.

Extended coverage was one of the most requested enhancements. Previous data coverage was focused primarily on the shoreline and nearshore—perhaps 2–3 miles offshore and generally less than 1 mile inland. The post-Sandy maps and data extend 12 nautical miles offshore and 5 miles inland.

This extension enables us to include data such as deep water species and migratory routes, as well as species occurring in wetlands and human-focused features found further inland. With these extra features, we were able to incorporate additional hazards to the coastal environment. One example was the addition of storm surge inundation data, provided by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, which provide flood levels for storms classified from Category 1 to Category 5.

We also added more jurisdictional boundaries, EPA Risk Management Facilities (the EPA-regulated facilities that pose the most significant risk to life or human health), repeated measurement sites (water quality, tide gauges, Mussel Watch sites, etc.), historic wrecks, and locations of coastal invasive species. These supplement the already comprehensive human-use features that were traditionally mapped, such as access points, fishing areas, historical sites, and managed areas.

The biological data in our maps continue to represent where species occur, along with supporting information such as concentration, seasonal variability, life stage and breeding information, and the data source. During an oil spill, knowing the data source (e.g., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is especially important so that responders can reach out for any new information that could impact their approach to the spill response.

A new feature added to the biological data tables alerts users as to why a particular species’ occurrence may warrant more attention than another, providing context such as whether the animals are roosting or migrating. As always, we make note of state and federal threatened, endangered, or listed species.

Next up

Stay tuned for the digital data and PDF maps for additional Sandy-affected regions. While the updated PDF maps will have a slightly different look and feel than prior ones, the symbology and map links will be very familiar to long-time users.

In the meantime, we had already been working on updating ESI maps for two regions outside those funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. These regions, the outer coast of Washington and Oregon and the state of Georgia, have benefited from the general improvements brought about by this process. As of this week, you can now access the latest GIS data for these regions as well.

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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Podcast: What Was It Like Responding in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

On today’s episode of Diving Deeper, we remember one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit U.S. shores: Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 10 years ago this week.

What was it like working in New Orleans and the surrounding area in the wake of such a storm?

In this podcast, we talk with Charlie Henry and Dave Wesley, two pollution responders from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration who were working in the area in the aftermath of not just one massive hurricane, but two, as Hurricane Rita swept across the Gulf Coast just a few short weeks later.

Hear about their experiences responding to these storms, find out which memories stand out the most for them, and reflect on the toll of working in a disaster zone:

Learn more about our work after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, explore the progress made in the 10 years since, and see photos of the destruction these storms left across the heavily industrialized coast of the Gulf of Mexico.


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10 Years after Being Hit by Hurricane Katrina, Seeing an Oiled Marsh at the Center of an Experiment in Oil Cleanup

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Amy Merten of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Oil tank damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the Chevron oil terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. (NOAA)

On August 29, 2005, not far from Chevron Pipe Line Company’s oil terminal in Buras, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Knowing the storm was approaching, residents left the area, and Chevron shut down the crude oil terminal, evacuating all personnel.

The massive storm’s 144 mile per hour winds, 18 foot storm tide, and waves likely twice the height of the surge put the terminal under water. At some point during the storm, one of the terminal’s storage tanks was severely damaged on top, possibly after being hit by something extremely large carried by the storm waters. The tank released crude oil into an adjacent retention pond designed to catch leaking oil, which it did successfully.

However, just a few short weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit the same part of the Gulf and the same oil terminal. Much of the spilled oil was still being contained on the retention pond’s surface, and this second hurricane washed the oil into a nearby marsh.

A Double Impact

Built in 1963, Chevron’s facility in Buras is one of the largest crude oil distribution centers in the world and is located on a natural levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River. These back-to-back hurricanes destroyed infrastructure at the terminal as well as in the communities surrounding it. Helicopter was the only way to access the area in the weeks that followed.

Chevron wildlife biologist and environmental engineer Jim Myers witnessed the storms’ aftermath at the terminal. He described trees stripped of leaves, and mud and debris strewn everywhere, including power lines. Dead livestock were found lying on the terminal’s dock. And black oil was trapped in the marsh’s thick mesh of sedge and grass. This particular marsh is part of a large and valuable ecosystem where saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the Mississippi River come together.

Even after using boom and skimmers to remove some oil, an estimated 4,000 gallons of oil remained in the 50 acre marsh on the back side of the terminal. Delicate and unstable, marshes are notoriously difficult places to deal with oil. The chaos of two hurricanes only complicated the situation.

Decision Time

Once the terminal’s substantial cleanup and repair activities began, an environmental team was assembled to consider options for dealing with the oiled marsh. Dr. Amy Merten and others from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Jim Myers and others from Chevron, and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rounded out this team.

The team considered several options for treating the marsh, but one leapt to the top of the list: burning off the oil, a procedure known as in situ burn. In situ burning was the best option for several reasons: the density and amount of remaining oil, remote location, weather conditions, absence of normal wildlife populations after the storms, and the fact that the marsh was bound on three sides by canals, creating barriers for the fire. Also, for hundreds of years, the area had seen both natural burns (due to lightning strikes) and prescribed burns, with good results.

Yet this recommendation met some initial resistance. In situ burning was a more familiar practice for removing oil from the open ocean than from marshes, though its use in marshes had been well-reviewed in scientific studies. Still, in the midst of a hectic and widespread response following two hurricanes, burning oil out of marshes seemed like a potentially risky move at the time.

Furthermore, some responders working elsewhere followed conventional wisdom that the oil had been exposed to weathering processes for too long to burn successfully. However, the oil was so thick on the water’s surface and so protected from the elements by vegetation that the month-old oil behaved like freshly spilled oil, meaning it still contained enough of the right compounds to burn. The environmental team tested the oil to demonstrate it would burn before bringing the idea to those in charge of the post-hurricane pollution cleanup, the Unified Command.

Burn Notice

Left: Burning marsh. Right: Same view of green marsh 10 years later.

Similar views of the same marsh where the 2005 oil spill and subsequent burn occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The view on the right is from August of 2015. (NOAA)

Fortunately, the leader of the Unified Command approved the carefully crafted plan to burn the oiled marsh. The burns took place on October 12 and 13, 2005, a month and a half after the spill. After dividing and cutting the affected marsh into a grid of six plots, responders burned two areas each day, leaving two plots unburned since they were negligibly oiled and did not have the right conditions to burn.

Lit with propane torches, the fire on the first day was dramatic, generating dense black smoke and burning for three hours, the result of burning the part of the marsh closest to the terminal, where the oil was thickest. The second fire generated less smoke but burned longer, for about four and half hours. Afterward, you could see how the burn’s footprint matched where different levels of oil had been.

Observations after the fact assured the environmental team that most (more than 90 percent) of the oil had been burned in the four treated areas. Small pockets of unburned oil were collected with sorbent pads, and any residual oil was left to degrade naturally. Within 24 hours of burning, traces of regrowth were visible in the marsh, and in less than a month, sedge grasses had grown to a height of one to two feet, according to Myers.

A Marsh Reborn

Healthy lush marsh vegetation at water's edge.

The marsh that was oiled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and subsequently burned to remove the oil. This is how it looked in August of 2015, showing an abundance of diverse vegetation. (NOAA)

Ten years later, in August of 2015, I was curious to see how the marsh had come back. I had seen many photos of during and after the burn, and subsequent reports were that the endeavor had been a great success.

Knowing I would be in the New Orleans area on vacation, I was pleased to learn that Jim Myers would be willing to give me a tour of this marsh. I met him at the ferry dock to cross to the east side of the Mississippi River and the Chevron terminal.

We looked out over the marsh from an elevated platform behind the giant oil storage tanks. All you could see were lush grasses, clumps of low trees, and birds, birds, birds. Their calls were nonstop. We saw cattails uprooted next to flattened paths leading to the water’s edge, evidence of alligators creating trails from the water to areas for basking in the sun and of cows, muskrats, and feral hogs feeding on the cattails’ roots.

The water level was high, so rather than hike through the marsh, we traveled the circumference in a flat-bottomed boat. We saw many species of birds, as well as dragonflies, freely roaming cows, fish, and an alligator.

Today, the marsh is flourishing. I could see no difference between the areas that were oiled and burned 10 years ago and nearby areas that were untouched. In fact, monitoring following the burn [PDF] found that the marsh showed recovery across a number of measures within nine months.

This marsh represents one small part of a system of wetlands that has historically provided a buffer against the high waters of past storms. Since the 1840s, when it was settled, Buras, Louisiana, has survived being hit by at least five major hurricanes. But Hurricane Katrina was different.

Gradually, marshes across the northern Gulf of Mexico have been disappearing, enabling Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters to overwhelm areas that have weathered previous storms. Ensuring existing marshes remain healthy will be one part of a good defense strategy against the next big hurricane. Given the successful recovery of this marsh after both an oil spill and in situ burn, we know that this technique will help prevent the further degradation of marshes in the Gulf.

See more photos of the damaged tank, the controlled burn to remove the oil, and the recovered marsh 10 years later.

Find more information about the involvement of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Amy Merten with kids from Kivalina, Alaska.Amy Merten is the Spatial Data Branch Chief in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Amy developed the concept for the online mapping tool ERMA (Environmental Response Mapping Application). ERMA was developed in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire. She expanded the ERMA team at NOAA to fill response and natural resource trustee responsibilities during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Amy oversees data management of the resulting oil spill damage assessment. She received her doctorate and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland.


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Resilience Starts with Being Ready: Better Preparing Our Coasts to Cope with Environmental Disasters

This is a post by Kate Clark, Acting Chief of Staff with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

If your house were burning down, who would you want to respond? The local firefighters, armed with hoses and broad training in first aid, firefighting, and crowd management? Or would your panicked neighbors running back and forth with five-gallon buckets of water suffice?

Presumably, everyone would choose the trained firefighters. Why?

Well, because they know what they are doing! People who know what they are doing instill confidence and reduce panic—even in the worst situations. By being prepared for an emergency, firefighters and other responders can act quickly and efficiently, reducing injuries to people and damage to property.

People who have considered the range of risks for any given emergency—from a house fire to a hurricane—and have formed plans to deal with those risks are more likely to have access to the right equipment, tools, and information. When disaster strikes, they are ready and able to respond immediately, moving more quickly from response to recovery, each crucial parts of the resilience continuum. If they prepared well, then the impacts to the community may not be as severe, creating an opportunity to bounce back even faster.

Having the right training and plans for dealing with disasters helps individuals, communities, economies, and natural resources better absorb the shock of an emergency. That translates to shorter recovery times and increased resilience.

This shock absorption concept applies to everything from human health to international emergency response to coastal disasters.

For example, the Department of Defense recognizes that building a culture of resilience for soldiers depends on early intervention. For them, that means using early education and training [PDF] to ensure that troops are “mission ready.” Presumably, the more “mission ready” a soldier is before going off to war, the less recovery will be needed, or the smoother that process will be, when a soldier returns from combat.

Similarly, the international humanitarian response community has noted that “resilience itself is not achievable without the capacity to absorb shocks, and it is this capacity that emergency preparedness helps to provide” (Harris, 2013 [PDF]).

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration recognizes the importance of training and education for preparing local responders to respond effectively to coastal disasters, from oil spills caused by hurricanes to severe influxes of marine debris due to flooding.

Coastline of Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve in southern California.

Within NOAA, our office is uniquely qualified to provide critical science coordination and advice to the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA, and other response agencies focused on coastal disaster operations. The result helps optimize the effectiveness of a response and cushion the blow to an affected community, its economy, and its natural resources, helping coasts bounce back to health even more quickly. (NOAA)

In fiscal year 2014 alone, we trained 2,388 emergency responders in oil spill response and planning. With more coastal responders becoming more knowledgeable in how oil and chemicals behave in the environment, more parts of the coast will become better protected against a disaster’s worst effects. In addition to trainings, we are involved in designing and carrying out exercises that simulate an emergency response to a coastal disaster, such as an oil spill, hurricane, or tsunami.

Furthermore, we are always working to collect environmental data in our online environmental response mapping tool, ERMA, and identify sensitive shorelines, habitats, and species before any disaster hits. This doesn’t just help create advance plans for how to respond—including guidance on which areas should receive priority for protection or response—but also helps quickly generate a common picture of the situation and response in the early stages of an environmental disaster response.

After the initial response, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is well-positioned to conduct rapid assessments of impacts to natural resources. These assessments can direct efforts to clean up and restore, for example, an oiled wetland, reducing the long-term impact and expediting recovery for the plants and animals that live there.

Within NOAA, our office is uniquely qualified to provide critical science coordination and advice to the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA, and other response agencies focused on coastal disaster operations. Our years of experience and scientific expertise enable us to complement their trainings on emergency response operations with time-critical environmental science considerations. The result helps optimize the effectiveness of a response and cushion the blow to an affected community, its economy, and its natural resources. Our popular Science of Oil Spills class, held several times a year around the nation, is just one such example.

Additionally, we are working with coastal states to develop response plans for marine debris following disasters, to educate the public on how we evaluate the environmental impacts of and determine restoration needs after oil and chemical spills, and to develop publicly available tools that aggregate and display essential information needed to make critical response decisions during environmental disasters.

You can learn more about our efforts to improve resilience through readiness at response.restoration.noaa.gov.

Kate Clark.Kate Clark is the Acting Chief of Staff for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. For nearly 12 years she has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has also 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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How to Keep Your Belongings From Becoming Trashed by Hurricanes

Destroyed dock and debris along a populated canal in Louisiana.

No matter the size of the storm, you and your family can take steps to reduce the likelihood of your stuff becoming storm debris. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Winds, heavy rains, flooding, storm surge. Hurricanes and other powerful storms can cause a lot of damage, both to people’s lives, of course, but also to the surrounding land and waters.

Docks, storage tanks, and buildings can be ripped off their foundations. Oil drums, shipping containers, and lumber can get swept away in floodwaters. A boat could end up in someone’s living room.

Much of this destruction introduces debris into coastal waterways and wetlands. This is one of several ways NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, through the NOAA Marine Debris Program, becomes involved after hurricanes.

While we can’t prevent hurricanes, we can prepare for them. That means doing everything you can to keep you, your family, and your belongings safe, far ahead of any natural disaster.

No matter the size of the storm, you and your family can take steps to reduce the likelihood of your stuff becoming storm debris. It is difficult to prevent buildings or large boats from becoming debris, especially during a large storm, but smaller items be safely stored or secured. After all, no one wants their patio umbrella to knock out a neighbor’s window before it ends up swimming with the fishes.

Here are a few ways to help protect yourself and your belongings in case of a hurricane:

  • Create a plan for your family and home [PDF], practice your evacuation route, and stock an emergency supply kit.
  • Secure yard items before a storm. Make a list of items to bring inside in case of hurricane-force winds or flooding. This could be patio furniture, lawn decorations, tools, trash cans, planters, etc.
  • Invest in storm-resilient building designs, which might include raising the level of your house for areas at high risk of flooding or installing a roof that can withstand high winds.
  • Boaters and fishers: Pull vessels and fishing gear out of the water before a storm. If you’re unable to remove the boat from the water, properly secure it [PDF].

A Boat out of Water

Boat half-sunk in Vermilion Bay, Lousiana.

Finding a safe and secure location for boats during a storm proves to be a huge challenge for many along the coasts, which is how a great deal of boats end up like this one after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (U.S. Coast. Guard)

Dealing with the large number of abandoned and derelict vessels after a storm is often a complicated and expensive ordeal. As a result, we should try to keep boats from ending up in this sorry state in the first place. Unfortunately, finding a safe and secure location for boats during a storm proves to be a huge challenge for many along the coasts.

A few areas do show promise in creating safe spaces for vessels during storms. One example is the Clean and Resilient Marina Initiative from the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a regional partnership made up of the Gulf states. According to the alliance, “This improved program…provides additional recommendations to strengthen local marinas’ ability to withstand natural and man-made disasters.”

The initiative offers best management practices [PDF] for incorporating resilience and environmental responsibility into everything from the design and siting of marinas to strategies for evacuating them during a disaster.

Another example is the concept of “harbors of refuge,” which several organizations in Louisiana are looking to implement on public lands along the coast. A harbor of safe refuge is “a port, inlet, or other body of water normally sheltered from heavy seas by land and in which a vessel can navigate and safely moor.”

Providing resilient infrastructure able to withstand high winds and waters helps better protect boats, and offering these facilities on public lands creates opportunities for public funding to help pay for the upgrades or for salvage after a storm.

Taking on Disasters

The NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is also taking a proactive approach to planning for disasters.

Cover of Alabama Incident Waterway Debris Response Plan, with damaged boats.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program worked with the State of Alabama to release the first in a series of comprehensive plans to help coastal states better prepare for an acute waterway debris release, such as in a hurricane. (NOAA)

In 2012, Congress expanded the program’s responsibilities to include “severe marine debris events,” which formalized their role in preparing for and responding to disaster debris.

This was in the wake of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and states were struggling to deal with the tsunami debris—from small boats to massive docks—washing up on U.S. shores. Furthermore, the massive storm known as Sandy had recently hit the East Coast, leaving its own path of destruction along coastal waterways.

As a result, the NOAA MDP has started a proactive planning program for dealing with these types of large, disaster-related debris events. They began by working with the State of Alabama to develop a waterway debris emergency response plan and will now move on to work with other coastal states.

This effort includes both a comprehensive plan and field action guide which spells out information such as which agencies have authorities to remove disaster-related debris if it lands in a given waterway, as well as points of contact at those agencies. The plan is meant to be a broad, useful tool both for the NOAA MDP and the state in case of a natural disaster producing large amounts of debris.

To learn more about how you can prepare for hurricanes, visit NOAA’s National Hurricane Center at www.nhc.noaa.gov/prepare/, and read more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts at marinedebris.noaa.gov/current-efforts/emergency-response.


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Like a Summer Blockbuster, Oil Spills and Hurricanes Can Take the Nation by Storm

Wrecked sailboats and debris along a dock after a hurricane.

The powerful wind and waves of a hurricane can damage vessels, releasing their fuel into coastal waterways. (NOAA)

From Twister and The Perfect Storm to The Day After Tomorrow, storms and other severe weather often serve as the dramatic backdrop for popular movies. Some recent movies, such as the Sharknado series, even combine multiple fearsome events—along with a high degree of improbability—when they portray, for example, a hurricane sweeping up huge numbers of sharks into twisters descending on a major West Coast city.

But back in the world of reality, what could be worse than a hurricane?

How about a hurricane combined with a massive oil spill? It’s not just a pitch for a new movie. Oil spills actually are a pretty common outcome of powerful storms like hurricanes.

There are a couple primary scenarios involving oil spills and hurricanes. The first is a hurricane causing one or more oil spills, which is what happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These kinds of oil spills typically result from a storm’s damage to coastal oil facilities, including refineries, as well as vessels being damaged or sunken and leaking their fuel.

The second, far less common scenario is a hurricane blowing in during an existing oil spill, which is what happened during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hurricane First, Then Oil Spills

Stranded and wrecked vessels are one of the iconic images showing the aftermath of a hurricane. In most cases those vessels have oil on board. And don’t forget about all the cars that get flooded. Each of these sources may contain relatively small amounts of fuel, but hurricanes can cause big oil spills too.

Additional damage is often caused by the storm surge, as big oil and chemical storage tanks can get lifted off their foundations (or sheared off in the case of the picture below).

A damaged boat setting on a  fuel dock.

A boat, displaced and damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in late summer of 2005 in the Gulf of Mexico, an area frequented by both hurricanes and oil spills. (NOAA)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 passed through the center of the Gulf of Mexico oil industry and caused dozens of major oil spills and thousands of small spills.

One of the largest stemmed from the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Dikes surrounding the oil tanks at the refinery were full from flood waters, so when a multi-million gallon tank failed, oil flowed easily into a nearby neighborhood, leaving oil on thousands of homes and businesses already reeling from the flood waters.

Hurricanes can also create navigation hazards that result in later spills. Hurricane Rita, hitting the Gulf in September 2005, sank several offshore oil platforms. While some were recovered, others were actually left missing. Several months later, the tank barge DBL 152 “found” one of these missing rigs, spilling nearly 2 million gallons of thick slurry oil after striking the sunken and displaced platform hiding below the ocean surface.

A large ship on its side, leaking dark oil on the ocean surface.

In November 2005, tank barge DBL 152 struck the submerged remains of a pipeline service platform that collapsed a few months earlier during Hurricane Rita. The double-hulled barge was carrying approximately 5 million gallons of slurry oil, a type of oil denser than seawater, which meant as the thick oil poured out of the barge, it sank to the seafloor. (Entrix)

Oil Spills and Then a Hurricane Hits

So what happens if a hurricane hits an existing oil spill?

This was a big concern during the summer of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. There was an ever-growing slick on the ocean surface, oil already on the shore, and lots of response equipment and personnel scattered across the Gulf cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill.

There was a lot of speculation as to what might happen as hurricane season began. Hurricane Alex, a relatively small storm, was the first test. The first impact came days before the storm, as response vessels evacuated the area. Hurricane Alex halted response efforts such as skimming and burning for several days. Hundreds of miles of oil booms protecting the shoreline were displaced by the growing surf.

As the hurricane passed through, floating oil was quickly dispersed by the powerful winds and waves, and the same wave energy buried, uncovered, and moved oil on the shore or in submerged mats of oil near the shoreline. Some oil was likely carried inland by sea spray and flood waters from the storm surge. Oil dissolved in the water column near the surface became even more dispersed, but the deep waters of the Gulf were well out of reach of the stormy commotion at the surface, and the leaking wellhead continued to gush.

But the Deepwater Horizon spill wasn’t the only time hurricanes have butted heads with a massive spill. In 1979, Mexico’s Ixtoc I well blowout in the southern Gulf of Mexico was hit by Hurricane Henri. The main impact of the hurricane’s winds was to dilute and weather the floating oil.

In some places along the Texas coast, beached oil was washed over the barrier islands into the bays behind them, while in other areas stranded oil was buried by clean sand. Many of these oiled areas were reworked a year later when Hurricane Allen battered the coast.

Preventing oil spills is a part of preparing for hurricanes. Coastal oil facilities and vessel owners do their best to batten down the hatches and get their vessels out of harm’s way, but we know that spills may still happen. Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, is a busy time for those of us in oil spill response, and we breathe a sigh of relief when hurricane season ends—just in time for winter storm season to begin.

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