Almost a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf coast, the largest commercial salvage mission in United States’ history is nearly complete. As of Aug. 1, about 20 commercial vessels remain to be recovered in Louisiana and 14 in Alabama.
In the wake of the two hurricanes there were between 3,000 and 3,500 commercial vessel casualties in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, according to Capt. Jim Wilkins, director of the U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV), which was called in by the U.S. Coast Guard to help coordinate the salvage effort. That figure includes over 2,000 barges.
The bulk of the total commercial casualties, over 2,300, were in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard oversaw the removal of over 866 wrecks in Louisiana, with the rest removed privately. In the four-state region, the Navy salvage office, working with other government agencies and private salvage companies, assisted with the removal of 475 vessels. The Louisiana total includes work supervised by SUPSALV.
To take on this Herculean task, private salvage companies nationwide came together in an unprecedented mission that involved working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, SUPSALV and other federal, state and local agencies.
At least 70 percent of the general membership of the American Salvage Association worked on Katrina recovery efforts, according to George Wittich, the association’s president. John Witte Jr., executive vice president of Donjon Marine Co., Inc., said that over 40 companies were involved, including Bisso Marine Co. of Houston; Resolve Marine Group of Port Everglades, Fla.; Titan, a Crowley subsidiary based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and T&T Marine Salvage of Galveston, Texas. Donjon Marine of Hillside, N.J., was the lead federal salvage contractor for the Katrina cleanup.
Salvage companies were part of the government-led effort to clear navigable waterways, but they also worked directly for vessel owners. These companies did traditional salvage work such as the refloating of marooned vessels, and harbor and channel clearance. But ASA members also helped find helicopters to aid the Coast Guard’s search and recovery mission, assisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in dewatering Louisiana parishes and removed debris so that LNG facilities could be reopened, according to Wittich.
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining inland federal waterways. But for this disaster, the bulk of salvage work was on the banks of waterways and along the levees, so the Coast Guard was asked to run the salvage operation, according to Capt. Mike Herb, director of salvage operations for SUPSALV.
FEMA assigned the U.S. Coast Guard the mission of supervising the removal of only vessels and debris that posed an immediate hazard to navigable waterways or were a threat to public health or safety. The federal government did not remove vessels that did not meet those criteria.
The majority of damage was to smaller vessels. Wilkins said that if Katrina had tracked straight up the Mississippi instead of heading east, many more large vessels would have been harmed. Private owners were encouraged, if possible, to arrange to rescue their own boats. In fact, about 80 percent of stranded barges were removed by their owners, who hired private salvage companies, according to Wilkins.
Multiple attempts were made to locate vessel owners. “Often, owners could not be located; they had abandoned the area,” Wilkins said. Sometimes owners were located, had no insurance and were unable to remove their own boats. “You had to get these vessels out of the waterways and off the roadways,” he said.
Members of the salvage industry were in place before Katrina struck. On Aug. 28, the U.S. Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans asked members of the American Salvage Association to staff the salvage branch of the Incident Command Center, which was set up in Alexandria, La. They began coordinating recovery operations and survey by air to plan the huge task of removing vessels blocking waterways.
Other salvage experts were called in after the storm struck. To those first on the scene, the job seemed incredibly daunting. Witte, of Donjon Marine, flew into New Orleans on Sept. 4. “The first thing that struck me as I was flying into New Orleans was the smell,” Witte said. “I’m up in a helicopter, 60 or 70 miles away, and the stench was overwhelming.” Then he saw the flooding and the vessels piled everywhere. “I’ve never been in a war zone; now I have an idea of what it might look like,” he said.
“Anyone who tells you that they weren’t initially overwhelmed by not only the scope of the response but also the conditions — and seeing New Orleans the way we did, as well as Gulfport as well as Mobile — they’d be lying to you,” Witte said. After the initial shock, the work began. “You put one foot in front of the other and you just plug right along,” he said.
SUPSALV was dispatched to the Gulf on Sept. 2. Wilkins and Herb drove a rental car from Jackson, Miss., arriving at the command center in Alexandria at about 0100 on Sept. 3. Donjon Marine had an existing, competitively awarded contract to do salvage work anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico for the U.S. Navy salvage office. So Wilkins called in Witte, who became the civilian project manager for the federal salvage response.
While there were some technically challenging salvages, the scope of the project and working in such a devastated area posed the biggest challenges. “There was nothing there when we got there — no electricity, no ability to get food,” said Witte. “We had to bring everything with us.”
Coordinating the effort across federal, state and local jurisdictions required constant communication to make sure the job was done efficiently, which was tough because communication systems had been destroyed by the hurricane, according to Wilkins. “No individual salvage operation was technically challenging,” said Wilkins. “What made the whole operation challenging was, geographically, the breadth of what we were doing, and the number of vessels. We weren’t doing singles or even dozens — we were doing hundreds of vessels.”
For Witte, the work was like nothing else he’d ever seen. Even figuring out the number of lost boats was difficult. “You had a pile of eight, 10 or 12 fishing vessels, all broken up or piled on top of each other. You can’t get an accurate count when all you had was debris,” Witte said. In fact, salvors working for SUPSALV collected over 2,000 tons of debris out of waterways, much of which was parts of vessels, Herb said.
One of the most challenging jobs Witte remembers was the removal of two 150-foot-long pogie fishing vessels that ended up side by side across the Route 23 highway near a bridge in Empire. Titan used giant, inflatable rubber rollers to get them off the road. “It was a novel approach,” Witte said. “They were pulled off using these large, inflatable pontoons. The boats were rolled along the pontoons, in a controlled fashion, and put back in the water.
Because so many of the boats were virtually destroyed it has been difficult to arrive at a precise figure for the numbers of vessels salvaged. In Louisiana the federal government assisted in the recovery of over 866 vessels, according to Cmdr. Brian Lincoln, head of the Coast Guard’s Wreck and Removal Recovery Group.
In Louisiana as of Aug. 1, there were only 21 vessels that still needed to be salvaged, Lincoln said. The group is now shifting its focus from removing vessels from waterways to removing debris.
There were over 200 commercial vessels damaged by Katrina that were either blocking waterways, pushed onto banks or farther inland, said Lt. Drew Casey, who served as vessel recovery branch chief for Alabama and Mississippi. In these two states, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was the lead agency to clean up oil or hazardous materials that threatened public health or the environment. The EPA delegated the Coast Guard to clean up commercial vessels that possibly contained hazardous materials.
Only half a dozen commercial vessels were actually blocking navigable waterways, Casey said. The Coast Guard coordinated the removal of 126 vessels in Mississippi and 48 vessels in Alabama. Starting July 14, Strategic Salvage Solutions began removing or demolishing 23 shrimp boats that had not been removed in Bayou La Batre. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund paid for this work. The remaining vessels were removed by owners.
In Texas, there were 93 vessels salvaged after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including fishing boats, tugboats, deck barges and an out-of-service casino boat, according to Lt. Cmdr. Callin Brown, chief of compliance for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Port Arthur. The Coast Guard hired Laredo Offshore Services Inc. of Houston to recover 18 vessels. The rest were salvaged privately, he said.