Hurricane Nate Makes Rapid Landfall; Ports Quickly Reopened

Hurricane Nate, the 14th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, made a pair of landfalls two weekends ago. The first came late October 7 near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, La., with the second coming just a couple hours later on October 8 near Biloxi, Miss.

Nate was the fourth hurricane this season to make landfall on the shores of the United States—a feat not matched since the 2005 hurricane season. It was also the first hurricane to make landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But Nate was no Katrina.

Hurricane Nate made landfall as a Category 1 storm with winds near 85 mph. Storm surge was felt from eastern New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., but was generally in the 5-foot range or less. And while Nate set no wind speed or storm surge records, it did become the fastest moving Gulf of Mexico hurricane on record. At one point October 7 prior to landfall, Nate’s forward speed was an impressive 28 mph., which played a role in limiting storm surge and intensification.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Towing vessels along the Gulf Coast generally headed west and north to flee the hurricane zone before locks and floodgates were closed ahead of Nate. By Friday, October 6, the Mississippi River in New Orleans was crowded with vessels coming from the east and heading northbound past the Huey P. Long Bridge or west of the river.

By Saturday evening, October 7, the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier near the confluence of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in New Orleans had been closed. So too were the locks and floodgates in the area.

Because Nate came ashore overnight and was moving so quickly, representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were able to get to work early in the day October 8 surveying channels and inventorying missing and displaced aids to navigation (ATONs).

“The first survey boat was back on the water in Mobile River Sunday afternoon,” said Carl Dyess, chief of navigation for the Mobile Engineer District. “We continued Monday. We had eight survey boats running. Four of them were Corps boats, two of them were NOAA boats and two of them were dredging contractor boats.”

Dyess said that fleet of survey boats focused on the GIWW; Mobile; Pascagoula, Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss.; and Pensacola, Fla.

“Basically, within three days, we had everything open, and it was really sooner than that,” Dyess said, noting that ports and waterways were reopened incrementally.

At the Port of Mobile, ATONs were displaced and debris—most likely from private piers along Mobile Bay—littered the area. According to Judith Adams with the Alabama State Port Authority, the Mobile River and channel from the McDuffie Terminal northward were open for barge movements by the afternoon of Sunday, October 8. By the following afternoon, Coast Guard Sector Mobile, under the leadership of Capt. Malcolm McLellan, opened the Port of Mobile to a 32-foot draft and daylight-only operations. Available draft went to 40 feet on October 10, and by the next day, the Port of Mobile was listed at Port Condition Normal. Also on October 11, the GIWW and the ports of Panama City, Pensacola and Bienville were all open and at Port Condition Normal. Only the ports of Pascagoula and Gulfport were restricted.

“At this point, we’ve got channel restrictions in parts of Pascagoula and Gulfport due to shoaling, and I don’t expect it to get any better until we dredge it,” Dyess said.

As of last week, Gulfport’s channel was restricted to 32 feet, down from its usual depth of 36 feet. Pascagoula was restricted to 40 feet. Dyess said a dredge is scheduled to be at Bayou Casotte near Pascagoula in November, with another addressing the bar channel in Gulfport later this month.

Dyess noted that just a short distance offshore on some of Mississippi’s barrier islands the storm surge story was a little worse. On Cat Island, where restoration work was already under way, contractors parked equipment as high as possible, some 7 feet above sea level.

“The floor on one of the big machines was 6 feet high,” Dyess said. “They were sitting at plus-7 and the cab was 6 feet high, and they got water in the cab.”

Dyess noted that was probably from wave action and not just storm surge. Damage was assessed on Cat Island early last week, with work commencing last week as well.

The rapid reconstitution of the waterways affected by Nate was, as always, due to an incredible amount of teamwork between private industry and federal agencies.

Dyess specifically thanked Coast Guard Sector Mobile for its work to reopen waterways.

“They did a fantastic job,” Dyess said. “They had numerous boats working ATONs. ATONs were out all over the place from Mobile westward. They had numerous crews working around the clock, just about it, to get those things assessed.”