EC-based Strike Force aids storm cleanups
By Toby Tate
Sunday, December 3, 2017
Hurricanes Maria and Irma, two of the deadliest and costliest storms on record, are still having far-reaching effects months after their remnants have dissipated over the Atlantic Ocean. Those effects include boats, ships, barges and other vessels displaced by the storms and pulled out to sea, which must be located and towed back to port.
The Emergency Support Function 10 (ESF-10) Florida, a unified command consisting of leaders from the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has been working to mitigate pollution threats created by these vessels due to possible oil and fuel leaks. Included in the cleanup effort are several personnel from the Elizabeth City-based National Strike Force Coordination Center.
"We deploy people to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Miami to facilitate operations for all those response efforts," said Coast Guard spokesperson Petty Officer First Class Stephen Lehmann, based in Norfolk, Va.
According to a Nov. 27 story from The Coast Guard News website, 170 people from state and federal agencies are involved in the Hurricane Irma disaster response and so far, 1,968 displaced vessels have been removed from Florida waterways. Most of those, about 1,500, have been recovered by the Florida Keys branch of the ESF-10.
Lehmann said that the Strike Force uses their expertise to do whatever is needed to keep the mission rolling—in this case, removing vessels displaced by the hurricanes.
"They set up the system whereby other operators can come in and be successful," he said. "It's the specialty of the Strike Force to know how the integrated command structure works so that if there is a hurricane, if there is an oil spill, anything where multiple state and federal agencies are responding, they have a system that they can all coordinate their efforts through while speaking the same language and sort of pulling in the same direction."
Lehmann said there are also personnel stationed in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who have been there since Hurricane Maria devastated the area with 175 mph winds and torrential rain.
"I think we still have some people in Texas for Hurricane Harvey," he said. "We're spread all over the place."
Lehmann said that he hasn't heard of any displaced vessels off the Outer Banks or anywhere off the beaches of North Carolina.
He said he was one of the first to be deployed to Miami for the Hurricane Irma effort.
"I was there for 40 days," Lehmann said. "I reported in on Sept. 27. Others have been down there since then, or even before then."
Lehmann said the time frame for deployment of Coast Guard personnel in Miami, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Houston area depends on a combination of logistics, timing and weather.
"There are so many variables it's impossible to even estimate," he said.
The Coast Guard is also encouraging private boat owners to hire salvage companies to recover their own vessels in order to provide the safest removal method possible for the public and environment. Those who lack the resources for boat repairs, or whose vessel is determined to be beyond repair, may release ownership of their vessel through a waiver provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.