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Coast Guard Responds to Unprecedented Hurricane Season

By Petty Officer 2nd Class Judy L. Silverstein, USCG
Special to American Forces Press Service

TAMPA, Fla., Sept. 21, 2004 – As southerners stayed glued to radios and television sets, Hurricane Ivan slammed into Gulf Shores, Ala., Sept. 16, with devastating winds clocked at 130 mph, hurling debris throughout the turbulent night and spawning swirling tornadoes and pounding surf.

For Florida residents, it was the third major storm in five weeks. With brute force, Hurricane Charley struck just north of Fort Myers Aug. 13, followed by Hurricane Frances, which struck the east coast on Sept. 5. The two storms caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

It was the first time since reservists were fully integrated into the U.S. Coast Guard that the Southeast braced for a trio of turbulent storms. The storms tested the mettle of contingency plans and taxed personnel with long hours of back-to-back preparation and clean up.

They posed a series of complex problems for Coast Guard officials. Gov. Jeb Bush expressed strong concerns about preserving the flow of commerce and the arrival of fuel to his state even while hopes for a productive citrus season dimmed.

This is the first time in recent memory Coast Guard advisers were located within the Florida Emergency Operations Center to help deal with this series of concerns. Their performance received high marks.

"Floridians throughout the state owe a debt of gratitude to the Coast Guard," said Bush. "No one could have anticipated what hurricane season 2004 could have brought Florida, and the hard work of the Coast Guard helped ensure that we were prepared for the worst."

From Miami to Charleston, S.C., and Port Canaveral, Fla., to New Orleans, consideration of keeping ports open to commerce had to be balanced carefully with safety concerns, said Coast Guard Cmdr. George Boyle, senior reserve and training officer at Marine Safety Office Tampa. Boyle, who works for the Florida Department of Transportation as a civilian, has been on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

He said he was struck by the interagency cooperation during relief operations. "It was good to see the lessons learned after 9/11 put into play. As agencies scrambled to share information, everything flowed smoothly," said Boyle.

According to officials in the 7th and 8th Coast Guard Districts, the seamless integration of active duty and reserve members has ensured quicker response time and smooth management in this unusually hectic hurricane season. Nowhere was that more evident than in the aftermath of Ivan, as teams from the East Coast mobilized support.

Group St. Petersburg had mobilized personnel after Hurricane Charley to check on auxiliary and reserve personnel located on the west coast of Florida. Having well-versed and well-trained teams helped response efforts run smoothly, said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Brett Chianella, a law-enforcement officer at Group St. Petersburg. A reservist ordinarily employed as an air marshal, he's been on active duty since Feb. 2003.

Chianella heads a Coast Guard team comprised of active duty and reservists with a wide array of abilities, skills and knowledge. That team was quick to respond when Hurricane Charley smacked into an area north of Fort Myers in early August.

"The whole area was devastated. And while Station Fort Myers suffered some damage, our fellow Coasties need time off to repair their own homes," he said. "It's very unfortunate but it was also rewarding to be able to help out our fellow Coast Guardsmen. And I know they'd have done the same for us."

Chianella's team was able to assume search-and-rescue duties and later law- enforcement duties to relieve their counterparts. They even offered their services to the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center to assist other emergency workers. For instance, they assisted a Charlotte County firefighter who lost power and sustained major roof damage. The team provided power to the firefighter's house with a generator.

Pointing toward the skill and experience of his team on both the active duty and reserve sides, Chianella says it was an experience he'll not soon forget.

Looking out for one another is a top priority in storms of the magnitude experienced this summer. Districts 7 and 8 have offered teams to assist in assessment and clean-up efforts and have tag-teamed with other agencies and other sectors of the Coast Guard. "You have to look out for your people first and foremost," said Capt. Daniel Neptun, commanding officer of Group St. Petersburg. "Once that's completed we can turn to helping the community, which is also a priority."

Those sentiments were echoed by Capt. Robert Grant, deputy chief of staff at the 7th District. He recalled Hurricane Andrew, which pounded Florida and Louisiana with a vengeance in 1992. "During Andrew, we had a reservist call-up under Title 14," he said. "They responded within 48 hours, but now we have reservists ready instantaneously," Grant said.

Capt. Wayne Justice, chief of staff at the 7th District, also agreed. "Training, readiness and flexibility were key to our crew's abilities to respond effectively, not just to one major storm, but three," he said.

Just a month prior to Charley, the unit had conducted a major hurricane exercise that tested its capabilities. "That exercise, combined with the lessons noted and learned from each successive storm improved our performance and demonstrated once again the outstanding professionalism and commitment our servicemembers have to the mission."

Following Hurricane Ivan's landfall, Coast Guard Marine Safety Office New Orleans collaborated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local river pilot associations and the Louisiana ports of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, New Orleans, South Louisiana and Baton Rouge, to conduct waterway assessments. The MSO collaborated with local river pilots to develop an operational plan for reopening the lower Mississippi River to deep-draft navigation.

Aircraft personnel performed countless flights throughout the storm-damaged region to survey and assess the damage to critical aids to navigation. Coast Guard small-boat crews played a crucial role in communicating barriers to keeping waterways open in the aftermath of the string of storms that sent boats crashing into seawalls and in some cases, sinking.

Coasties stationed in the Southeast know they'll remember this season, especially as they look forward to Nov. 30, the official end of hurricane season.

"We have never seen an unusual hurricane season like this," said Chianella, whose sentiments were felt throughout the 8th District as well. "We have the support, people and talent to handle it in the Coast Guard. But I don't think we'll forget these storms for a long time."

(Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Judy L. Silverstein is assigned to Coast Guard District 7 public affairs.)

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