The term Ace was first used by French newspapers, describing a military pilot credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft in combat. Captain Oditt is similarly distinguished for leading several black swan events in the busiest U.S. port:
Record exports challenged our busywaterway
Hurricane Harvey devastation was tempered by the thousands of heroic rescues led by Oditt’s taskforce
A major fire and hazardous material release closed the channel for days, producing an inshore spill of scale and scope not seenbefore
Immediate decisions for actions required by the COVID-19 pandemic, including protective measures for crews and directions for theindustry
Greenpeace’s homage to Cirque du Soleil off the Fred HartmanBridge
Impacts to the I-10 corridor from loosebarges
Oditt invested precious time into his people. All successes were recognized; promotions and awards celebrated; and, a learning workshop for equipping the next generation to lead was initiated. These events occurred during a time the Coast Guard was the lone service branch to miss paydays for the first time in U.S. history.
-Greg DeLong, Director - Marine Liaison, Enterprise Products
On April 24, 2017, CAPT Kevin Oditt assumed the duty of commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, overseeing all ports and waterways in the region including the Houston Ship Channel and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. On June 12, 2020, CAPT Oditt will relinquish his command to CAPT Jason Smith and retire from the Coast Guard.
Some commanders go their entire career without involvement in any major incident, but CAPT Oditt is not one of those commanders. In less than three months of taking command of the Sector Houston-Galveston, Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane made landfall on Texas, resulting in one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history. In February 2019, CAPT Oditt received the “Legion of Merit” medal, awarded by the president and presented to him by Admiral Paul Thomas, for his exceptional performance of outstanding services and achievements during Hurricane Harvey.
During 2019, CAPT Oditt and his team were in a “unified command mode” for 150 days straight, working on incidents that included an airplane crash, vessel fires, terminal fire/explosion, vessel allisions, tropical storms, loose barges, and protesters suspending themselves from the Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel. Many native Houstonians have said they never experienced so many Houston Ship Channel events in their lifetime as during the last three years.
You are from New Mexico. What influenced you to join the Coast Guard?
Being a son of an Air Force chaplain, born in Okinawa, Japan, I spent my childhood years on multiple military bases in the U.S. and foreign countries. When my father was stationed in Alamogordo, New Mexico, at Holloman Air Force Base, I graduated high school. I had no idea what the Coast Guard Academy was about. I played basketball and the basketball coach said, “I see you applied at the Air Force Academy why not apply at the Coast Guard Academy?” I sent in basketball films and the application and got accepted. Back then, anyone who wore glasses could not fly - I wore glasses, so I took the opportunity to play Division 3 basketball at the Coast Guard Academy.
What life experiences played a vital role in getting you to where you are today?
Playing sports. Being part of a team. The Coast Guard Academy required you to play a sport. When I go out to units and talk about my command philosophy, it is about the importance of working together and being part of a team. Whether its Coast Guard boot camp or the Coast Guard Academy, it is all about working together. It is just on a different scale of what we do here at the Sector. Being able to work well with others is essential to being part of a team. Sports make you work as a team. Whether it was Harvey or a terminal fire or Greenpeace, everyone came together. You have the Coast Guard team, law enforcement partners, and stakeholders that come together to form a unified command.
What led you to pursue Marine Safety as your field?
When graduating from the Academy you had to go to a ship, and I went as an engineer to gain the experience as a mariner. A friend a year ahead of me that was on the Coast Guard cutter was assigned to Marine Safety Office New Orleans, and it sounded interesting, engaging with the industry, and the inspection side of the mission.
What was one of your most memorable assignments in your career?
At 19 years old, I sailed across the Atlantic on the USCGC BarqueEagle, a 295 foot-length cutter. Not too many 19- year-olds can say that. The Eagle trains cadets and officer candidates, teaching them practical seamanship skills while indoctrinating them in the Coast Guard’s afloat leadership laboratory. You do all the work and learn how to maneuver the Barque Eagle under sail. The crew must handle more than 22,000 square feet of sail and five miles of rigging. Over 200 lines control the sails and yards, and every crew member, cadet, and officer candidate must become intimately familiar with the name, operation, and function of each line. One of my other more memorable missions was performing migrant operations off Haiti during the early 1990s. It was a really humbling experience to pull into Port Au Prince to repatriate migrants.
How did your previous assignments prepare you for being the commander of Sector Houston-Galveston?
In the Coast Guard, you learn a trade, pick a career path, and begin to build on it to become an expert. I took my experience on a ship and applied that to the Marine Safety profession. I went to the University of Michigan and earned advanced degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering and Manufacturing. As you apply your trade there are opportunities to build your expertise through varying and more challenging assignments.
In 2010, I became Executive Staff Chief to the Deputy Commandant for Operations. The experience taught me how to interact with the senior flag officers and executives in the Department of Homeland Security, how decisions were made, and to think more strategically. It also taught me how to network and how to engage with others, allowing me to work directly with others to build relationships. When I came onboard in Houston as Commander, I made it a priority to go out to the industry to engage and understand their business and it paid off during the many incidents.
What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment as Commander of Sector Houston-Galveston?
The accumulative successful responses where everyone came together to support the overall port. It was a team effort with partners: local, state, federal and maritime community. The Houston port region community is one of a kind.
It has been said that “To make a decision, all you need is authority. To make a good decision, you also need knowledge, experience, and insight.” (Denise Morland). Captain, you have exemplified these attributes, evidenced by your tireless response to Hurricane Harvey, the 2019 chemical fire and spill and other channel closures. Your leadership has continually driven clear priorities on safety of people, environment, and security. Thank you for your approachable leadership style and dedication to all the waterway users and stakeholders of the greater Houston/Galveston area and best of luck on your new endeavors.
-Captain Steve Byrnes, Marine Technical Advisor, Shell Trading ( US ) Company
What advice would you give to new Coast Guard men and women?
Be a team player.
You have to be approachable because if you’re not, you’re not useful as a leader. Have honest conversations. When you go out to inspect, the mariner must feel they can have an honest conversation with the Coast Guard. It’s critical.
You need to be reasonable.
Network and form good relations: who you talk to and who you can reach out.
You can’t micromanage your team, and you must be able to step back when needed, trusting them. I received thank you letters from other Coast Guard members following Hurricane Harvey for my trust in them. Sometimes when you are in a leadership role, you need to step back. You need to let your people do what they do and provide them the trust. Don’t micromanage. There was no way I could of micromanaged my people during these incidents. “You have to trust your people. And they’ll do great things”.
What challenges did you face during your command, and do you see a positive effect from improved safety/ regulations in the aftermath?
My duty here has been very exciting, from Hurricane Harvey to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, was my largest challenge dealing with search and rescue operations, involving over 2,000 active duty, reserve, civilian servants and auxiliary personnel, 50 rotary/fixed-wing aircraft, 75 shallow-water boats and 29 cutters. The USCG rescued 11,022 people during that response. Afterwards, we became the ambassadors to make sure we told the story to congressional delegations and visitors. We made sure we showed the value of the USCG to the nation.
Another challenge was the tank farm fire last year. It was actually two incidents: fire and spill. The Coast Guard was in a support mode in the beginning of the response, working with the EPA during the fire. Once the product containment breached and spilled into Tucker’s Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel, the Coast Guard took a leading role for the spill. We knew the waterway and knew the importance of protecting the environment and getting the maritime commerce moving as soon as possible. We worked with over 5,000 federal, state, local, company and first responders to make that happen.
This is the first transportation security incident in Houston: Greenpeace suspended protesters on September 12, 2019. At 6:30 a.m., we received notification that 11 individuals were suspended from the Fred Hartman Bridge. The Security Monitoring Assessment Group (HSCO) worked with Houston and Baytown fire departments to lower the protesters safely. The response included a “unified command” of USCG/CGIS, HCSO, Baytown Fire Department, Houston Police Department, TP&W and 225 officers from HCSO & HCSO SWAT, Baytown FD, HPD, HPD FD, USCG/CGIS, and FBI. And, it only shut down that section of the waterway for 18 hours - hardly significant for the industry.
One of the keys to success in the operation of an important and complex port, with over 150 private and public terminals, is having knowledgeable, dedicated and effective leadership during challenging times. I congratulate the USCG on their wise choice of placing CAPT Oditt in the role of Captain of the Port for the Houston-Galveston Sector three years ago. He will be greatly missed.
-Robert K. Baker, ExxonMobil, Marine Superintendent, Baytown Refinery
What does the future hold for you and your family?
My family and I will be staying in Houston. My son, Spencer, works at the Space Center Houston, and my daughter, Mali, is a sophomore and is pursing theatre arts. My wife, Nikki, is the owner of Rebel Interiors, a home staging and design service. And, I hopefully will have more time to take up golfing again! [CAPT Oditt has accepted a position in maritime but was not at liberty to say more at the time of this interview.]