The triple disasters of the 2017 hurricane season affected 45 U.S. ports, wreaking havoc but also leaving valuable lessons in how to better prepare for – and recover from – future storms, according to a report by federal maritime transportation experts.

“Over the course of the 2017 hurricane season, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria affected the operating status of at least 45 ports throughout the lower continental United States and U.S. Caribbean territories,” the report states. “The scale and impact of these storms strained the U.S. emergency response community and the ability of MTS (maritime transportation system) agencies to preposition and prioritize recovery efforts.

“Despite these challenges, the MTS community successfully adjusted in order to communicate and engage across sectors and quickly and efficiently reopen these ports.”

A satellite image captured three hurricanes Sept. 8, 2017: Katie, Irma, and jose. NOAA/NASA image.

A satellite image captured three hurricanes Sept. 8, 2017: Katie, Irma, and jose. NOAA/NASA image.

The report was commissioned in October 2017 by the Coordinating Board of the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System, and assigned to the Marine Transportation System Resilience Integrated Action Team (RIAT), a consortium of Federal agencies that deal with marine transportation. The team called on the dozen member agencies to discuss challenges posed by the storms, what succeeded during the recoveries, and recommend measures to improve resilience.

The team learned preparing for the storms was improved by having early planning meetings, communicating between agencies, centralizing how information is distributed, and having updated response plans.

Common problems included telecommunications prioritizing help to get ports and other infrastructure up and running. The agencies reported success in working with private businesses to fill gaps in federal response operations and coordinating local efforts.

After Hurricane Harvey shut down 20 Texas ports, responders were handicapped by flooding that damaged port infrastructure and equipment and supplies that had been pre-positioned. The effort was further hampered by a shortage of accurate, updated information about port and channel status, and would have benefitted from a centralized system for collection and distributing that data, the report notes.

The report describes successes, notably in how the Coast Guard restored aids to navigation by using the Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS) to transmit electronic aids to navigation for AIS receivers – creating virtual buoys and beacons to stand in for the physical aids that had been destroyed or washed off station by Harvey.

That system was employed again after Hurricane Irma hit the northeast Caribbean and Florida. Early communications before the storm among the Coast Guard and port operators helped to prioritize recovery planning. Coastal imagery was collected early, to compare with post-storm imagery, to share online and help direct response efforts.

The 66-page report goes into deep detail to analyze the response to the storms, with recommendations to adopt lessons from each and better prepare for future hurricanes.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.