Amid High Water, Hurricane Planning Begins

Waterway stakeholders who operate in the Gulf Coast region gathered in New Orleans, La., May 14 for the annual meeting of the Gulf Coast Inland Waterways Joint Hurricane Team with a focus on the approaching 2019 Atlantic basin hurricane season and the operational protocol should a storm threaten the Gulf Coast and nearby waterways.

The Gulf Coast Inland Waterways Joint Hurricane Team, made up of representatives from the maritime industry and state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and the National Weather Service, dates back to the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons when industry officials and federal partners worked closely to restore commerce on the inland waterways following hurricanes. The protocol governs how waterway stakeholders coordinate preparations ahead of a storm and collaborate to quickly reopen waterways after a storm passes.

From a hurricane season perspective, the outlook for 2019 bears much resemblance to 2018. Although the National Weather Service is yet to release its forecast for the 2019 hurricane season, forecasters from Colorado State University anticipate a normal or slightly below normal season, with 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Despite that outlook, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service cautioned that, even in relatively inactive hurricane seasons, destructive storms can develop.

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.

Rusty Albaral, meteorologist with NOAA, pointed to Hurricane Danny in 1997 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as examples of incredibly dangerous and destructive storms occurring in otherwise quiet seasons.

Albaral then overviewed the suite of information available from the National Weather Service and NOAA and urged waterway stakeholders to go to those websites for the most accurate information leading up to a storm’s landfall.

“If you know where to look on our sites, you can’t go wrong,” Albaral said.

Storm Warnings

Albaral added that, beginning June 1, with the start of hurricane season, the National Weather Service will begin pushing wireless emergency alerts tailored for specific localities. To do so, the service will send information to phones operating on specific towers, allowing for the dissemination of timely watches or warnings.

“If you get a warning on your phone, it’s probably going to affect that immediate area, based on the tower,” Albaral said.

Tim Osborn, also with NOAA, then urged residents and waterway operators to stay poised for action, since storms often develop rapidly—much faster than four or five days out.

“Do not assume from now on that you have 96 hours of anything,” Osborn said.

In 2018, for instance, Hurricane Michael went from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in 72 hours. Likewise, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 rapidly intensified before its first landfall, then stalled inland and moved back offshore before making a second landfall.

“One of the most important things we have to realize is the Gulf of Mexico becomes the hottest water body on the planet during hurricane season,” Osborn said. “So the ability has been demonstrated just in the last two years of the potential for the Gulf of Mexico to spawn, support and grow two separate hurricanes into Cat 4s and Cat 5s without long lead times at all.”

Thus, waterway managers with the Coast Guard and operators alike must be ready to move up reaction times should another “popup” storm occur.

Transportation System

Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association and the lead representative for the towing industry on the Joint Hurricane Team, highlighted why a rapid reconstitution of the inland waterways is so important following a storm.

“When you take a step back, the kind of stuff that travels on the inland waterways of the Gulf, the GIWW in particular and up into the rivers—it’s energy,” Stark said. “It really boils down to a national interest in the energy products that flow in the commerce stream along the GIWW. And I don’t mean to take away from any of the other cargoes that flow on the GIWW and the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

“Getting that stuff moving quickly is important to the transportation needs along the whole Gulf, across the south, and even into the heartland of the country,” he continued. “It’s an important national interest, and I would go so far as to say a national security interest as well.”

Stark highlighted an addendum to the Joint Hurricane Response Protocol that addresses ongoing and upcoming lock closures and construction in the Gulf region. The Corps of Engineers is near completion of the south guidewall replacement project at Calcasieu Lock in Southwest Louisiana. Upcoming lock construction projects include completion of gate replacement work at Bayou Sorrel Lock planned for August and a guidewall replacement project at Bayou Boeuf Lock beginning soon.

In the event of an approaching hurricane, operators would have to remove vessels from those areas rapidly, with the protocol offering a roadmap for where to go and when.

High Water

Front and center during the Joint Hurricane Team meeting was the historic high water season still underway on the Mississippi River and many other river systems. In New Orleans, the Mississippi River has been above 15 feet since February, due primarily to the Mississippi Valley experiencing the wettest year on record.

How a hurricane’s storm surge and the swollen Mississippi River would react remains to be seen. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac, which made two landfalls along Coastal Louisiana between August 28 and 29, caused a close-to-10-foot rise in the river at New Orleans. However, the river was at low stage during Isaac, and forecasters doubt a similar hurricane would have as big an impact on a high river.

But with the river in New Orleans at the Carrollton Gage holding steady at about 16.5 feet, any rise at all could be problematic. Long term forecasting from the National Weather Service calls for the river to drop below 15 around June 10 and continue to drop.

At the Joint Hurricane Team meeting, the question was asked if the Corps would take further steps to lower river levels in New Orleans ahead of a hurricane, whether that would be diverting more water at the Bonnet Carré Spillway or even operating the Morganza Spillway above Baton Rouge, La.

The Bonnet Carré Spillway is already open in response to the high river. As of May 16, 138 of the spillway’s 350 bays were open for a discharge of 122,000 cubic feet per second.

Corps spokesman Matt Roe said the agency operates Morganza strictly as a river flood control tool.

“We would operate the Morganza Floodway if it were required by river conditions but not in response to a hurricane,” Roe said.

The Joint Hurricane Response Protocol is available online at the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association’s website.