Coping with the aftermath of a disaster

The tanker John B Caddell in better days The tanker John B Caddell in better days Will Van Dorp

Among maritime heroes in New York, Gordon Loebl, the US Coast Guard’s Captain of the Port, stands out. Captain Loebl oversaw successful efforts that enabled the port in New York / New Jersey to re-open several days after Hurricane Sandy tore through the region.

The speech, at a monthly meeting of the Navy League’s local chapter, described plans made and lessons learned too numerous to list completely. Throughout his talk, accompanied by a slide presentation, Captain Loebl stressed the importance of getting to know the industry being regulated, and creating clearly enunciated guidelines well in advance of a pending storm to facilitate industry planning.

From a maritime commerce perspective, many of the tough conversations around the region, right after the storm, stemmed from points of failure in the supply chains for refined petroleum products. The problems are well known- irate drivers unable to get gasoline. Less known were the contacts from politicians (who were hearing from their constituents), from Coast Guard brass (who were hearing from politicians) and from all manner of stakeholders blaming the Coast Guard for sloppy business decisions. The routing of particular barges to specific terminals, part and parcel of the petrol shortages, is a commercial matter, though it formed part of Captain Loebl’s learning experience.

Another example of the Coast Guard moving deep into the industry trenches concerns a railroad bridge over the Arthur Kill tidal strait, think Bayway, Motiva and other refineries. The Captain described a highly adaptive style that put his team into a logistical role- ordering the repositioning of tugboats (in case the bridge was stuck, and barges broke loose from moorings) and in deployment of critical railroad personnel who could operate the railroad bridge.

The extremely creative and situation-specific approach following the storm was revealed through the saga, still ongoing, of the derelict harbor tanker John B Caddell, which washed up on Staten Island. A regulatory morass, predicated on fine print within the Stafford Act (a set of laws dealing with disaster relief), threatened to prevent removal of the tanker from the shoreline. After consultation with lawyers, Captain Loebl and his team found a creative way to harness local law enforcement and maneuver around the impediments. The tanker was then moved to a local shipyard where it is still docked.

A final lesson learned might be better aimed at industry rather than regulators; advanced directives to the maritime industry about the pending harbor closure. Captain Loebl noted that “Truckers with containers were not where the ships were” and suggested that the shipping lines and truckers might also benefit from improved communications.

Posted 01 March 2013

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Barry Parker

New York correspondent, Seatrade Maritime

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