Port Coordination Team Keeps Communication and Commerce Flowing Along the Ship Channel

By: CAPT Michael T. Cunningham, USCG (Ret.)

On August 23, 2017, much of the Texas Gulf population quit talking about the wonders of the first solar eclipse in years and turned their attention to the implications of the hurricane picking up speed in the Gulf waters. The weatherman forecasted an unusual set of parameters for Hurricane Harvey that would cause it to make landfall near Rockport, Texas, stall near the coastline of the state and drop an unprecedented amount of rainfall over the greater Houston area before moving on to Beaumont and Louisiana.

Hurricane Harvey's track through the Gulf of Mexico. Source: Army Corps of Engineers.

Hurricane Harvey’s track through the Gulf of Mexico. Source: Army Corps of Engineers.

With this forecast, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Sector Houston-Galveston Commander Captain Kevin Oditt, Captain of the Port (COTP), set port condition X-RAY (gale force winds expected within 48 hours) for Freeport and the San Luis Pass. The port was still open to all commercial and recreational traffic, but everyone knew to start getting prepared for the storm that was on its way. Captain Oditt also activated the Port Coordination Team (PCT), a small group of port representatives that works to ensure critical waterway needs are met during heavy weather and emergency events.

On Thursday, August 24 at 0900, the COTP extended port condition X-RAY to include all coastal areas west of San Luis Pass. Houston, Galveston, Freeport, and Texas City pilots were still moving traffic. At 1230, the COTP set port condition YANKEE, closing local ports to inbound traffic and instituting movement controls for ships within the ports. By the 1700 PCT call, the COTP established a safety zone for the entire Sector Houston-Galveston area of responsibility, including the ports of Houston, Texas
City, Galveston, and Freeport, plus all surrounding navigable waterways. Vessels at berth needed to depart the ports, and the anchorages were cleared of all vessels. Those vessels that needed to remain in port were required to submit a declaration of intent to the Coast Guard. The Houston Pilots continued their herculean work of orchestrating quick movement of outbound traffic.

At the 0900 PCT call on Friday, August 25, the COTP set port condition ZULU (no inbound/outbound traffic, shifts between terminals at the discretion of the COTP) in Sector Houston-Galveston, officially closing the ports of Houston, Galveston, Texas City, and Freeport. Twenty vessels remained in port at Houston. Everyone hunkered down to see what Harvey would really bring as the deluge began. The inundation exceeded expectations, and the Coast Guard and other first responder agencies, plus good Samaritans went to work rescuing folks day and night.

The origin of our PCT started out of a committee established following a hazardous materials spill in 1992. The goal of the PCT is to disseminate information to help with the resumption of traffic when the port faces disruption, typically weather related. It is not an advisory committee nor is it an adjudicative body; it is there to frame issues for COTP resolution. It is also very helpful to the Pilots as they prioritize their moves and operate in rapidly changing conditions.

The PCT utilizes a protocol established by Tom Marian, General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc., and board member at the Greater Houston Port Bureau, during his time as Commanding Officer of Vessel Traffic Service Houston-Galveston. The team is comprised of representatives from port authorities, maritime industry, and Houston Ship Channel stakeholders. The Greater Houston Port Bureau represents several private dry bulk and breakbulk terminals in the Upper Ship Channel.

The PCT works through conference calls, which, depending on the nature of the disruption, can be from one to three times a day. During Harvey, calls were held twice daily, usually at 0900 and 1400, as the COTP moved through the process of responding to the disruption. During a major storm or prolonged event the PCT remains in action for quite some time; during Hurricane Harvey the PCT calls continued for 24 days, ending on September 18.

PCT calls begin with roll call and the meeting is brought together by the VTS Houston-Galveston Director, CAPT Steven Nerheim, USN (Ret.). The agenda rolls out with a weather briefing, often from the National Weather Service, but may also include other government agencies. Next is the waterways status. During Harvey, this included briefings from the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on channel statuses and hydrology.

Industry input follows the weather and waterway briefings. The protocol is designed to address urgent issues and vessel priority requests. As actual RECOVERY begins, industry representatives have an opportunity to confirm that PCT administration has received vessel priority requests. Industry PCT representatives are responsible for briefing their own constituents on the PCT call results.

At first, the PCT held calls twice daily, going to one a day while the ports were closed until the worst of Harvey had grudgingly passed. The twice-daily schedule picked up again on Monday, August 28 when the vessels started moving. At that time, port condition RECOVERY went into effect. RECOVERY status meant that while the storm was no longer a threat to the area, response and RECOVERY operations were in progress as damage was accessed. The ports reopened to outbound traffic upon completion of the initial waterway surveys. Vessel traffic control measures remained in effect on vessel movements within the port.

During Harvey’s unwelcome visit, the fuel status of ships at anchor and those remaining in port became a significant issue. Industry kept the need to get these ships bunkered front and center. The sunken dry dock at Brady’s Island and the sunken barges on Greens Bayou were also important briefing points. Salvage plans and the lifting of waterways restrictions were imperative information points. The PCT played a crucial role in keeping industry up-to-date as waterways were surveyed to determine draft, and channel depth was analyzed to determine resumption of regular commercial navigation.

The Greater Houston Port Bureau provided summaries of all PCT calls to the terminals we represent as well as to all Port Bureau members. During Harvey, these summaries frequently included an exhortation to industry constituents to forward priority vessel requests.

The Port Coordination Team plays a vital role in keeping communication flowing throughout the maritime and industry-related communities. During any significant event such as Hurricane Harvey, communications are key. The PCT is a critical component in keeping the Coast Guard apprised of critical information, and in relaying Coast Guard intentions back to industry in a highly efficient manner.

The Houston region is fortunate to have a PCT that is so well-established with well-documented procedures, and with participants that are knowledgeable and committed to working together to solve the problems that face the region as a whole. They are a reflection of the solid built foundation that initiated the PCT and a process of continual improvement that keeps the region resilient regardless of the disruption.

  • Date November 20, 2017
  • Tags November 2017