As the season’s first Atlantic hurricane, Irene’s high winds and heavy rains downed trees, took out power lines and flooded inland communities leaving millions of Americans impacted. In the end, as the storm travelled along more than 1,000 miles of U.S. coastline, Coast Guard men and women stood watch in coastal communities in the storm’s path. From preparations for the impending storm to conducting overflight assessments in its wake, Coast Guard assets and personnel were there every step of the way.
Preparing for Irene
Friday, prior to Irene’s landfall, personnel and assets were moved into place to prepare for potential life-saving, pollution and disaster response missions. Units from the 1st, 5th and 7th Coast Guard Districts also implemented their hurricane plans, moving command elements, response vessels and aircraft and personnel out of Irene’s path while at the same time warning professional mariners and others on the water of approaching danger.
In addition to aviation assets already stationed along the East Coast, the Coast Guard had aircraft from air stations across the country ready to surge should they be needed, including: 18 MH-65 Dolphin helicopters, six MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters, three HC-144A Ocean Sentry planes, six HC-130 Hercules planes and two HU-25 Falcon jets.
While the potential wind damage Irene would bring was a concern, the inevitable flooding that follows a hurricane also kept responders on high alert. Disaster Assistance Response Teams moved into staging areas in anticipation of flooding from Irene’s heavy rains. A total of six teams, equipped with three shallow-water boats per team plus flood response equipment, were deployed.
Coast Guard Captains of the Port from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Portland, Maine, set port conditions for 46 U.S. ports to protect maritime infrastructure, port facilities, merchant vessels and the maritime transportation system from the dangers of the hurricane.
Partnerships key to response
After the hurricane made landfall and moved north towards Virginia, local emergency responders braced for the worst. As Irene struck the Mid-Atlantic, watchstanders at the Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads command center received a report from a good Samaritan that a sailboat was dragging anchor 400 feet offshore.
The command center worked with units from Norfolk Fire-Rescue, Virginia Marine Resources Commission Police and the Norfolk Police Department as they responded to the scene where heavy seas and winds prevented them from reaching the sailboat. The hurricane-force winds ultimately pushed the vessel closer to shore, over a jetty, and Norfolk Fire-Rescue swimmers assisted the two sailors and their cat onto shore.
“Our rescue swimmers helped the people off the sailboat,” said Norfolk Fire-Rescue Capt. Mike Marsala, “But it was an excellent joint effort with Norfolk Police, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Coast Guard. This operation shows how well our agencies cooperate in emergencies.”
Vigilance in the wake of Irene
Well after the storm passed through New England Sunday evening, Coast Guard units remained on alert as heavy rains continued to batter the region. Their vigilance paid off when watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England were notified by the Narragansett Police Department that a man and woman had been swept out to sea. The man swam ashore under his own power while a responding police officer was able to throw the woman a lifejacket.
A Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod helicopter crew and a Coast Guard Station Point Judith 47-foot Motor Life Boat crew were launched to the scene and the helicopter hoisted the woman from the 10-foot seas.
With millions impacted by flooding or still without power in the wake of Irene’s path, Coast Guard aircraft were tasked with initial overflight assessments to determine the storm’s impact along the coastline. Their imagery and video allowed local, state and federal officials and emergency responders to see firsthand the storm’s destruction and gave them an understanding of where to concentrate resources.
In addition to overflight assessments, the Coast Guard dispatched aids to navigation units to determine whether all aids were still on station. Checking a buoy’s placement is essential to re-opening waterways, re-establishing port operations and ensuring the safety of mariners along the East Coast’s many harbors.
As the nation continues to assess the impact of the storm on communities along the Atlantic seaboard, Coast Guard units remain at the ready with two more months left in the Atlantic hurricane season. Lt. Joe Klinker, Coast Guard public affairs officer, put it into perspective:
“Regardless of how things may look, we’re not out of the woods yet. Our district, which covers the entire northeastern coastline, protects more than 10,000 fishing vessels, ports vital to the U.S. economy and Americans in a region known for its maritime heritage. We’re out, ready to respond, but don’t want folks to put their guard down just yet.”