Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
As Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force (NSF), CDR Austin’s responsibilities include oversight of the three strike teams – Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic Strike Teams. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast area, FEMA gave NSF a “blanket” mission assignment for ESF-10 (Emergency Support Function). This blanket mission assignment gave the Strike Teams the necessary flexibility to pre-stage assets wherever needed, not just in one state. CDR Austin discussed the relationship the Strike Teams have with the Coast Guard Areas and the Air Stations as they coordinate getting the necessary materials and equipments to the affected locations. However, due to the extent of damage from Katrina and the high level of strike teams activity, the NSF took the lead and made the necessary coordination.
“. . . this event definitely is the greatest use of Strike Team assets. . .”
Q: Okay. You have a nice quiet office today, no air conditioning overhead and aircraft going up and all that stuff.
Commander Ma’am, if you could give me your name and spell your last name please.
CDR Austin: It’s Commander Meredith Austin; A-U-S-T-I-N.
Q: And could you sort of give me a paragraph on your career in the Service at this point? Are you Academy, OCS or . . .?
CDR Austin: I graduated the Academy 20 years ago and first served on the Polar Sea and then went to the 11th District in the Marine Safety Office. From there I went to MSO Louisville.
Q: Where did you go on the Polar Sea? Did you make it to Antarctica?
CDR Austin: Oh yes, I went to Antarctica. I did a north trip, then a south trip.
Q: Really? Did you make it to the Pole?
CDR Austin: Within, I don’t know, 800 miles. It’s kind of close enough. Then I started the Marine Safety after that. I went to the 11th District. It was actually there when Exxon Valdez happened and we were kind of ancillary involved there because they were bringing the Exxon Valdez back to a shipyard in San Diego and one of the patches that they had welded on fell off in like 1,500 feet of water. The state of California didn’t want to let the vessel in until they picked up a plate, which wasn’t going to happen because you can’t dive down that deep, and eventually the boat got in. And so that was my little involvement with the Exxon Valdez. From there I went to the Marine Safety Office in Louisville, Kentucky and then I went to graduate school in industrial hygiene. From there I went to Yorktown to be an instructor at the Marine Safety School; the Port Ops School. Then I went to Marine Safety Unit Galveston, first as the Chief of Port Operations and then as the Executive Officer. From there I went to the Pacific Strike Team as CO and then I came here in 2004 as the Commander of the National Strike Force.
Q: And this is where you’ve been since, as Commander of this command?
CDR Austin: Since 2004, right, and the National Strike Force actually is, we’re physically at the National Strike Force Coordination Center.
We oversee the activities of the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Strike Teams as well as a Public Information Assist Team, the preparedness for a Response Exercise Program and the Oil Spill Response Organization Verification Program, as well as the Response Resource Inventory and National Maintenance Contract and all the Coast Guard pre-positioned oil spill equipment.
Q: When I was talking to the Atlantic Strike Team folks four years ago they talked about how they always have one eye on CNN and if it’s a chemical fire or a plant fire or something like that they always know that they’re going to be there in 24 hours. When did you have a sense that the Strike Force was going to be involved in Katrina?
CDR Austin: We saw that Katrina had hit Florida and was heading back into the Gulf. On Saturday the question was . . . you know Katrina kind of weakened as she went over Florida and so the question was, “Okay, is it just going to peter out or is it going to get bigger”, and around Saturday it kind of got to the impression that, “Okay, it’s not going to peter out. Maybe it will come ashore again as a 1, maybe a 2, so there’s going to be some damage on the gulf side of Florida, maybe into Alabama”. And so I got a call from the CO of the Gulf Team; Commander Ron Cantin and he said that Sector Mobile was standing up their Incident Management Team in preparation in case the storm were to hit. And this is something that in the last year with all the hurricanes that hit one right after the other that Sector Mobile had gotten a lot of practice of setting up their Incident Management Team with folks from the Group and the MSO at the time and also the Strike Team, and so they were setting that up. As the day went on we saw that, late into Saturday, definitely early Sunday, that A: the storm was intensifying, and B: it was going to be veering more towards kind of the Mississippi, maybe even points farther West - you know you saw the pictures on TV and you saw the storm was really big. It was going to span a couple of hundred miles - and so we knew that the IMATS had been called; the Atlantic IMATS had been placed on standby. I can’t remember which one was on deck but both COs; Commander Cantin of the Gulf Team and Commander Laferriere of the Atlantic Team both are the Team Leaders for the IMATs, respective of the Gold and Blue - I’m not sure which CO has which one - so we knew that one of the IMATs, the one that Commander Laferriere has, was going to be deployed down to Alexandria in preparation. We also knew from past experience that when there is a big hurricane that there’s going to be some sort of environmental response because you’re always going to have sunken fishing boats. You’re always going to have tanks that were in someone’s yard that get underway. You’re going to have houses, if they get destroyed you’re going to have household hazardous waste; refrigerators, batteries and what not, so we knew that there was going to be some sort of response. But as we saw over the course of Saturday night and Sunday that it was going to be kind of big and kind of bad a couple of things happened, and I’m not sure of the timing on this. I’ll be honest with you. But I know that in preparation FEMA can send out some Mission Assignments for pre-staging equipment and for pre-staging folks and for the first time we were very thankful this worked out really well. The NSF got its own mission assignment to respond to Katrina, very unusual. Typically what happens with Mission Assignments is the locals are overwhelmed. They go to the state. The state’s overwhelmed. It asks for a Presidential Disaster Declaration or sometimes tries to get it ahead of time like they did last year with the hurricanes in Florida. Also with this one to ask for specifically an Emergency Support Function. The one that we operate under typically is ESF-10, which is HAZMAT and oil. And so typically a state will say, let’s say for instance the state of Louisiana, “We need a Mission Assignment for ESF-10”, and then it’s written. The Coast Guard and EPA figure out, it gets delineated, you know the Coast Guard will get some chunk of that money, EPA will get some chunk, but in this case the NSF got a chunk of money, which was great for us because it did a couple of things. One was we were not restricted to a particular state. Specifically a Mission Assignment written for Louisiana means the activities have to happen in Louisiana. In this case it was a Mission Assignment for hurricane Katrina so that gave us the flexibility of sending folks wherever Katrina impacted.
Q: And where did this tasking come down from, this ESF-10?
CDR Austin: From FEMA.
Q: It came from FEMA?
CDR Austin: It came from FEMA.
Q: So this happened sort of as the hurricane is coming ashore or beforehand so you were able to get stuff rolling?
CDR Austin: We were able to pre-stage stuff. I honestly can’t remember the timing. I’m pretty sure it happened Sunday.
Q: It was a blanket for Katrina, so wherever it hits, wherever it does damage . . . .
CDR Austin: Exactly right. And the other nice thing is if you have to send folks . . . you know in this case Katrina impacted three states and so if we had someone initially go to Mobile and now we wanted them to go to Louisiana, instead of having to stop the set of orders and start a new set of orders they were just sent down to the impacted area.
So that was pretty nice. It was actually a Coastie; Lieutenant Commander Kara Satra who is detailed to FEMA who facilitated this. We didn’t ask for it. She knew that we had had trouble last year getting paid for a Mission Assignment that we had done so this way it was no question. We were able to show up. When a unit asks for us, instead of having to wait, “Where’s our funding coming from”, we just launch them.
Q: If there’s an ESF-10 funding from FEMA does it always go through the Command Center here to one of the Strike Teams or can it go directly to one of the Strike Teams; how does that work?
CDR Austin: Actually the Mission Assignment will go to the National Pollution Fund Center and they’ll administer the funds for us.
Q: Is that what happened here?
CDR Austin: That’s what happened here. The Strike Teams . . . we have no budget to respond, and so either the OSLTF; Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund has to be opened or the Surface Super Fund has to be opened. If it’s an oil spill it’s called an FPN; Federal Project Number. If it’s CERCLAs it’s a CPN; Chemical Project Number, and for Mission Assignment it’s a DPN; Disaster Project Number. So when it’s time to do orders and you need that whole accounting string we get that number from NPFC and they keep track of the money. I mean we do cost documentation but they’re the ones that have the money for it. So it’s different for different Mission Assignments but any ESF-10 monies that come to the Coast Guard will get administered through the Pollution Fund Center.
Q: And at that point you start to pre-stage things. You say you have sort of a suite of events that you are fairly certain are going to happen. What was different about this situation or was it just more of those incidents?
CDR Austin: It was the shear magnitude. I mean typically when you have a hurricane you’re going to have . . . like last summer for instance - I can’t remember which one actually had the most damage in Mobile - but the Gulf Strike Team, I mean even their unit had some damage but it was localized. It was just basically the Mobile area and so pretty much the Gulf Strike Team, their personnel responded to most of the requests either from, if it was waterside issues; sunken fishing boats or spills into the water. That would be the Coast Guard’s responsibility to respond to under the National Contingency Plan. If it’s inland, like if you have say a mile inland there’s a school that the roof blew off and the chemistry lab has all its bottles all over the place, that would be an EPA responsibility. And so the Strike Teams work for the Federal On-Scene Coordinator who is either going to be Coast Guard for coastal or EPA for inland. So in the case last year there were some requests for Strike Team assistance by the local Coast Guard Units and there were requests for help by EPA. Most of the time if it’s happening in the Gulf it’s going to be the Gulf Strike Team but the way the three teams operate they do mutual aid for each other. So if the Gulf Strike Team needs assistance they’re going to call out to California to the Pacific Strike Team or they’re going to call out to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to the Atlantic Strike Team because they’re mutual aid for each other.
Q: And do you also have, as the aviation community has, sort of standardized training and standardized equipment?
CDR Austin: Yes.
Q: Do you train to the same standards so that folks could leave here or Fort Dix and go to California or get to the Gulf and be able to do the same thing?
CDR Austin: Yes, absolutely. The only way you’re going to tell what Strike Team someone came from is the rocker on the patch. That will tell you what team they’re from, or even the Coordination Center.
The role of the Coordination Center as far as the Strike Team’s administration goes is we have these work groups that make sure we standardize equipment, training and Standard Operating Procedures on how to do things. If a team gets a call by a vendor and sees a new piece of gear, we make sure that it’s vetted through the Equipment Work Groups so that all the teams maintain standardization. It’s an absolute must because not only do we have all of our Coast Guard customers – and I would say 48 but I know in Sectors it’s less then that as far as who we report to - but we also have literality hundreds of EPA customers, because every EPA region has many OSCs, you know 10 or 12 OSCs, and so any one of those folks can call for a Strike Team resource. And it’s got to be a known quantity of what they’re getting because you could have an EPA OSC in Wyoming and depending on the PST’s workload they may end up calling out to New Jersey to get an AST person to do the response for them, and if the person in Wyoming has to worry about the training standards being different it would never work.
CDR Austin: So standard equipment, standard training, The place where there’s a little bit of a difference, and I think it’s probably good, is that every team now has a HAZMAT Response Trailer, which is a big tractor trailer filled with HAZMAT equipment and that’s pretty standard, but each team is also made up for their own region, and for stuff that they have to do a lot they have other smaller HAZMAT packs, I guess is the best way to say it. Some have smaller trucks that they can drive around or in the case of the Pacific Strike Team, they have a series of ten really big pelican cases that they can fly commercially. So if you suddenly have to go to Guam you can throw these ten things on a commercial airplane, fly out there and do a minimum amount of response but you can at least do it and not have to worry about waiting for everything else to get shipped over there.
Q: Do you have close contact coordination? I noticed that some of the pallets at Fort Dix were already packaged to be put on a C-130 or something. Do you have close contact with the aviation folks if you need a lift somewhere?
CDR Austin: Yes, each team practices - we try to do it yearly to have a . . . their closest Coast Guard Station - to practice loading the C-130s because it’s a jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got to make sure you can get the pieces to fit in correctly and make sure the weights are properly balanced and everything.
Q: So there’s a, like I said, a unit contact between say a Chief at a unit and a C-130 Load Master about, “This is what we’ve got. How do we get it from here to there?”
CDR Austin: I think mostly its . . . I know it OPS and OPS. The OPS Officers will call the OPS Officers of the air stations . . .
Q: “I want to have this and I’ve got to get it here.”
CDR Austin: Right, and we’ve got to work it through because obviously we have to make the request from Area because it’s an Area asset. But the worker bees are getting together too, just like you said, that the Response Supervisor is most likely a Chief at the Strike Team, is going to call the Load Master.
Q: And this is a Headquarters unit?
CDR Austin: It’s a Headquarters unit.
Q: Yes. Would it be good for you to have air assets of your own? Would the Strike Team ever consider that, I mean a helo that they could have at each of the Strike Teams or something like that?
CDR Austin: I don’t think so because it’s . . . for all the training that we have to do already and all the maintenance we have to do already, to then add onto that another piece for as often as we would need it - and to be quite fair when we need the support - if a response is going on I’ve never had a problem.
CDR Austin: You know sometimes with training but that’s everywhere. I mean everyone’s got their own training schedule so being able to work it out we can get the C-130 to go when we need the C-130 to go. Like for instance, the Atlantic Team had a practice with a C-130 I think the first week of September. Well obviously that didn’t happen because the C-130 was needed and the Team was needed.
Q: Right. Who became the Federal On-Scene Coordinator for Katrina?
CDR Austin: It depended on the state.
Q: So there was a different one for each state?
CDR Austin: For the different Sectors.
CDR Austin: So in Sector Mobile it was Captain Bjostad and in Louisiana it was Captain Paskewich initially. Let me back up a little bit.
CDR Austin: So when we realized the scope of this issue; how it was going to be affecting hundreds of miles, I made the decision that all Strike Team resources were going to be coordinated out of here. Typically, again, in order to speed responsiveness to the units the way an FOSC gets Strike Team resources is they call their local team. So if I’m at MSO San Francisco I’m going to give the Pacific Strike Team a call. If I’m at MSO Mobile I’m going to give the Gulf Strike Team a call. They don’t have to come through us because we’re staff and I have a CDO with a cell phone but that’s one less call to make and they call directly to their team and the team infos us and lets us know that, “Hey, we’ve got this going on.” However, if a certain level of Strike Team activity around the county is going on then I start getting concerned about critical resources. You know if these guys draw themselves down too far we’re going to leave an area uncovered.
Q: Are there minimum standards that each Strike Team has to maintain? It’s like you’ve got all this stuff you have to throw at the Gulf. Is there a policy on what sort of minimum capabilities there are in case there’s an oil spill out in California and all that?
CDR Austin: Yes, absolutely. Since 9/11 we’ve maintained at each team a ten-person Level A, which is the fully encapsulated moon suits is what we call them, capability.
Q: Regardless of what’s going on?
CDR Austin: Regardless of what’s going on somewhere else. They are always there at the teams so that if something else happens; either an oil spill or God forbid another terrorist activity, they’re ready to go right away. Worst comes to worst that could be drawn down to seven because we can always hopefully get help with the decontamination for the people making an entry from the local community. So we can draw down to seven and in fact in preparation for Rita we did just that. So the decision was made that, “Okay, we’ve got to make sure that we always have . . .”, for this response I wanted to make sure that the Gulf Team essentially drew down to zero because they live there. We know they’re able to work there and they were able to select the people and shift them in and out as soon as possible. For the Atlantic and Pacific Teams we wanted to make sure that we maintained at least the ten.
Q: Are any of these ten Reserves or would these all be active duty folks trained up and who live there every day?
CDR Austin: Some are Reserve in order for us to meet the requirement.
Q: So if you send some active folks out some Reserves might backfill to maintain the level?
CDR Austin: Right, or they might send the Reserves.
Q: Into the situation.
CDR Austin: Yes, some Reservists were sent down to the Gulf as responders.
Q: And each of these units has a Reserve component to it.
CDR Austin: They do and the sizes vary - I’ll be honest - because they all have, I mean the RPALs are equivalent but it takes a long time to train a Reservist to be on the teams and so some areas have been more successful in getting and retaining.
Q: Sure. In this role as resource broker for this operation did you stand up the equivalent of an IMT here to get reports in and coordinate who’s going where here in Elizabeth City or was it sort of sending reports in and saying, “Okay, we’ve got this here”. Was it not that formalized?
CDR Austin: You know that’s a good question. I mean it was done but as far as having someone here with a white board, that really wasn’t done. Every day we sent a - and I’ll grab you a sample now that the computers are back up – every day we send to Headquarters, Areas, wherever – Headquarters, Areas, I don’t think the Districts get it but the teams get it and there’s a few other folks - a daily snapshot of Strike Team activity. So “Here are the cases that we’re on. Here’s the team strength back at the units”, and just a little summery of each case, and so we already have a pretty good pulse on what’s going on all the time. So when this event happened we had a . . . I called Flag Plot or whoever and set up a conference call, got the three COs on a conference call and said, “Okay, here’s what’s going on. We’re getting requests for folks.” You know we’ll get calls - and this is pretty typical - the day before the storm hits from a unit that thinks it’s going to be impacted that says, “Okay, we’re going to want x-number of this capability, x-number of that capability, or pump loads, your this, your that”, and so we got a pretty significant request like that from Mobile and we got another significant request like that from Alexandria. So we convened this phone conference between the COs of three teams, my XO, my OPS, and decided that, “Let’s have the Gulf Team handle all the needs for Mobile because quite frankly they live there and that’s where they’re from. Getting hotels was going to be problematic. So instead of worrying about getting RV’s and campers and tents and whatnot for Atlantic Team and PAC Team folks to come to Mobile area we’ll just let the GST handle that response for Mississippi and Alabama, and then the request over for Alexandria, which was for the New Orleans section, was going to come out of the Atlantic Team and the Pacific Team.”
Q: So it was a conscious decision to keep those guys in their AOR and then handle it.
CDR Austin: Right.
Q: And was that decision also made because by Tuesday it starts to become evident that New Orleans itself is going to be a much bigger disaster because of the levee situation and the flooding?
CDR Austin: You know it’s interesting because for what we do, the problem with the offshore - I don’t want to say offshore - the coastal pollution piece, the damage was done Monday, so with the exception I guess of maybe some of the stuff in the Saint Bernard Parrish, but even then I mean it was the wind and storm surge damage that caused the boats to sink and most of the major oil spills were big above ground storage tanks that were breeched somehow, and luckily most of the oil stayed in either the secondary containment or within the canals - it did not get out into the river - so that damage was pretty much done prior to the levies failing. That being said I think we’re going to be there much longer because of the levies failing but as far as our initial push of people down there the fact that New Orleans had that problem really did not affect that.
Q: Yes, so that the basket of responsibilities you had at first were these incidents that you fairly well defined?
CDR Austin: Well at first it was going out and doing an assessment and then seeing what we had.
Q: And how did you physically do that with the infrastructure gone; did you call on boats, helicopters? How many of your own resources did you get out and send down there in terms of say small boat capability and so forth?
CDR Austin: We had some flood punts which I’ll be honest with you, I don’t believe were used. They (the punts) went to the folks in Alexandria to work on some of the urban SAR. But as far as us using them initially to conduct some of the assessments, they weren’t being used. Quite frankly, initially, SAR was everything. We knew in the back of our minds we had to plan for the pollution. We knew, “Here’s the steps we’ve got to take to do an assessment to even see what we have and then once we know what we have then we’ll worry about how we have to prosecute the spills”, but initially it was Search and Rescue. So as far as getting assets to go out and fly everything, that had to wait until the . . . SAR piece was essentially over.
Q: So even for the Strike Force the first few days was all about response?
CDR Austin: Initially they were working with . . . and I know when you talk to Commander Laferriere you’ll probably get a lot better sense of this, but initially the Strike Team folks that were down there were . . . well let me explain it. The folks in Mobile were doing assessment. You know once the storm passed they were able to do assessment. What they did there, because it’s, I don’t want to say its apples and oranges because they’re doing the same kind of work, but the scale is different. So Mobile; they formed a unified command with the Coast Guard, EPA and the two states. A recommendation was made. There’s something that we’ve been talking about for a couple of years called “Incident Specific FOSC”. What we mean by that is within the National Contingency Plan it pre-designates the Captains of the Port as the Federal On-Scene Coordinators but there’s something in the regulation that allows for the FOSC to delegate FOSC authority, not for everything, there’s certain things that you can’t do, but for some things to become an incident specific FOSC. Commander Cantin is given that authority, which left Captain Bjostad free to do everything else that was going on in that response, which was very considerable. I mean he had all the Search and Rescue piece, you know, reconstituting the Coast Guard assets in the area, so he was very busy doing that stuff and this kind of took, I don’t want to say took the load off but he didn’t have to include that in all his planning and whatnot because that piece was kind of taken care of by itself. Over in Alexandria you had the IMAT stood up and you had a lot of stuff going on there. A lot of people lost their houses obviously, a lot of Coasties lost their houses, stations were damaged, so there was a lot of activity going on in the Command Post and while there was some preparatory work done for the response piece I think for the first few days not a whole lot was done because there were just no resources for it and there were so many other greater needs going on.
Q: At what point did you start the transition into that mode because it seemed like within about three days, even as the SAR piece was I don’t want to say winding down, but I got the sense after about three or four days that the chatter or the talks started to turn to, “This is an environmental catastrophe. We’re going to need to start responding to this and finding out what’s going on.”
CDR Austin: Right, I would say like around Wednesday or Thursday because I know – and I’m not clear on the date and that’s something you’ll have to ask Commander Laferriere- but at some point, I think it was either Thursday or Friday and I want to say Thursday only because I got down there Saturday (10 Sep) and it was pretty up and running by then, so either they all - they do think they’re supermen – but I mean it would be amazing to have put that all up in one day.
CDR Austin: They realized that the environmental piece was going to be very, very big, and again with everything else going on in Alexandria to separate that out, and eventually Commander Laferriere also got designated as Incident Specific FOSC. So he went over to . . . they define their own place because the pollution piece was, you know, probably when you have the responders going in there and all the Coasties and the state folks and what not, a hundred and some people initially. When you include all the responders that went out into the field I mean it was . . . I’m not sure how many people are there now but at some point it was I know 800 folks. So they needed a physical location other than what they had in Alexandria to set up because there just wasn’t the room in Alexandria so they went to Baton Rouge and they set actually in the yard of a company called Clean Harbors because they were able to bring in out-buildings. They were able to bring in a bunch of travel trailers for folks to live in, because again, there were no hotel rooms, very few hotel rooms because all the evacuees from New Orleans went over to Baton Rouge so it was very hard to find a place to live. I lost my thought here.
The difference in the way it was set up; the Coast Guard and EPA are unified in concept over in Baton Rouge but the EPA piece for everything that they have to do was very big and what the Coast Guard has to do was very big. Physically there was not one location to put both and so we sensed down the road, maybe another month or so, that the Coast Guard and EPA are going to be able to relocate so that there will be one unified command, the same way it is over in Mobile, but for right now there was just too many people and too many different . . . the situation’s too dynamic for both that if you wanted to have a, using the ICS planning process, if you wanted to have a planning meeting and a tactics meeting, because there’s so many different kinds of things going on it just sort of would be untenable so those two are kind of separate. But there’s a Coast Guard contingent at the EPA’s Command Post and there are EPA folks in the Coast Guard Forward Operating Base there in Baton Rouge and so they are talking to each other.
Q: Did this response . . . one of the things that impressed me seeing all the stuff that you folks have to deploy; communications trailers and so forth, did this situation indicate the need for even more things like that, specifically things like take your own berthing and messing and all those arrangements with you?
CDR Austin: When Strike Teams deploy they’re self-contained and they know that, “Hey, you may be eating your own stuff and you might have to bring a sleeping bag”, and so they understand that sometimes the accommodations are going to be fairly primitive.
Q: But is there a need to bring those things now based on this? I mean if a city gets irradiated or a city like New Orleans gets wiped out and there’s no place to stay within 200 miles but you guys have to be there within 20 miles, do you need to deploy your own stuff?
CDR Austin: Absolutely. I mean typically . . . you mean for the average hurricane? I hate to say that. You know in an average hurricane we’ll fly out to the impacted area and get RV’s if we have to because it’s not that you want to be pampered or anything but when it’s really hot and it’s really humid and you want people to work in really harsh conditions for 12 to 14 or 18 hours a day, you’ve got to have a place for them to recover or they’re going to be no good to you the next day. So to have them sleeping out in tents we have to worry about fire ants and your stuff getting wet. You can do that for a couple of days, anyone can, but we’re here for the long term. There are going to be Strike Team folks down in these areas for probably a year.
Q: The reason I ask is because we talked to some logistics folks and one of the first things they were doing was basically renting every RV within a thousand square miles of this.
CDR Austin: Right, yes, and that’s what we did for this too. And should the Coast Guard have a . . . .
Q: A small fleet of their own orange-striped RV’s [chuckle].
CDR Austin: And here’s where it’s tough because if they’re going to get use, great. If you’re just buying them and set them someplace to go to waste that’s no good. Maintaining them is going to be problematic and they’re going to get rode hard, put away wet and may not be good for the next time so it’s almost like maybe the better thing is not necessarily to have a fleet of these but to have agreements so that they’re in place when you have to get them. The trouble is, in an event this big the Coast Guard needs them, FEMA needs them, the Army Corps needs them; everyone needs them and so . . . .
Q: Well that’s what the logistics guy said. He said, “If I didn’t take those hundred RV’s at this place as soon as I hung up he was going to take the next offer that came in.”
CDR Austin: Exactly right. I mean the ones down in Baton Rouge we bought because to rent them, for the amount of money for rental we could have bought them in six weeks so we went ahead and bought them.
Q: I guess . . . we were talking to one of the guys from the Navy and the kind of stuff that they’ve got pre-positioned, or the Army, you know, they’ve got ships full of tanks waiting to go someplace. You know to get a few RV’s it just doesn’t seem like a big thing even if they have to be pre-positioned as opposed to say a battalion full of tanks or something that DoD does routinely.
CDR Austin: On the surface it’s a great idea but my concern is the maintenance. My concern is, “Okay, this is fresh in my mind right now. I know I have to have this thing. I don’t mind that this thing is parked in my driveway right now. Three years from now I’m gone. Everyone I was stationed with is gone. This thing’s in the way. It’s starting to grow mold on the inside. It’s a pain in the neck and I want to get rid of it.” I mean we’ve seen it before with stuff that’s given to Coast Guard units and over the course of a year or so . . . if the Coast Guard is going to maintain something like this then they need to decide there needs to be some central location, maybe someplace in the mid-west where the Coast Guard buys a good chunk of these things . . .
Q: Put them in a climate-controlled warehouse.
CDR Austin: Stick them in a climate-controlled warehouse. You know we have a National Maintenance Contract to take care of, on an annual basis, all the Coast Guard’s pre-positioned oil equipment, so do the same sort of thing. You have the National Maintenance Contract for the trailers and you don’t put it at a unit and say, “You’re responsible to take care of this thing.”
Q: You own it.
CDR Austin: “You own it. I’m not going to give you any money to take care of it and you own it”, and five years or seven years from now when I call you and say, “Bring it”, it’s going to be garbage.
Q: It better be ready to roll [chuckle].
CDR Austin: Right, so I think it’s not a bad idea but if it’s going to be done it’s got to be . . .
Q: Done right.
CDR Austin: Done right.
Q: Yes. Was there a Strike Force Working Group to start sorting through some of these issues? What were some of the issues that were starting to come up in terms of Marine Environmental Response in terms of ESF-10 response and all the rest of it?
CDR Austin: The big thing that I worked on here is balancing Coast Guard needs for Strike Force resources and EPA needs for Strike Force resources. Again, a third, which is FEMA and all the other agencies in the, you know their sister agency; DHS, and you’ve got other agencies that are part of the National Response Team. You know we would request for assistance from FEMA. Lee Foresman who you’re going to talk to later, I (not CDR Austin; Lee Foresman did the detail w/ FEMA) actually did a detail with them last year and so they’re very familiar with Strike Team capabilities. We have kind of an informal agreement with them. It’s actually a draft because I don’t know who’s seeing this video and I don’t want anyone to say, “What are we talking about?” But they know that they can call on us and if we have spare resources we can help them. Of course in this case we really didn’t have any spare resources but we did let them use Lee and Lee helped out at the Joint Field Office. So the big issue again for me is if the Coast Guard needs resources and EPA needs resources, who gets them? Who has the greater need? Because what a lot of people don’t understand within the Coast Guard is that the Strike Force, again, because we came from a National Contingency Plan and we are what’s called a “Special Team” under the National Contingency Plan, and without getting into a whole lot of details what that basically means is any FOSC; either Coast Guard or EPA or DoD facilities; DoD, can request Strike Team resources and some folks within the Coast Guard - I’m being careful with my words - but some folks may not have an appreciation of that. And I’ll be honest with you. Before I became a Strike Team CO I thought, “Well I know we’re suppose to help but, gee, we do an awful lot with the EPA and we should be doing more with the Coast Guard. I don’t understand why we’re helping those EPA people.” Well we’re helping those EPA people because we’re mandated to help those EPA people. We get money from EPA and the biggest benefit we get from EPA is during the year when Strike Team folks are working Super Fund sites and they’re putting on the Level A suits and they’re putting on the Level B suits, which is wearing the fireman’s air pack and using the survey equipment and packaging HAZMAT, they’re not playing around. They’re using real dangerous stuff and they’re getting all their practice and understanding the limitations and how the equipment is supposed to work, so God forbid if we have to respond to a WMD environment they have practical experience already dealing with nasty chemicals. So there’s a lot of benefit to responding to EPA instances. So that being said, if I have a whole bunch of Coasties working down in Mobile and a whole bunch of Coasties working in Baton Rouge doing the oil piece I can’t pull them back to the detriment of what they’re already doing. One of the things with the Strike Team too is, I don’t want to say first come first serve but if the consequences are equal first come first serve. Obviously if there’s a higher need; if it’s a life safety issue, I’m going to pull people off of one job and move them to another but in the case right now you have some household hazardous waste that needs to be dealt with, some buildings, some facilities that once the flood waters go down there’s going to be a big chemical mess. If there are no civilians nearby and the area is evacuated and they’re going to get the contractors in there, it would be nice for us to be providing more division and group supervisor positions, but it’s not like we’re not holding up the work if we’d take people off the oil spill right now. So everyday I’m talking to the Strike Team folks in Mobile and in Baton Rouge saying, “What do you see? Where are we in the progression”, and I kind of see a sine wave or a bell curve as far as where we are and at some point we’re going to be able to reduce the number of Strike Team assets. In fact we’re getting to the point now where we’re reaching a steady state of who has to be NSF OSBNF personnel versus other Coast Guard people who maybe at an MSO or Sector somewhere where they can be a Pollution Investigator. It doesn’t have to be an NSF person, it could be someone with pollution response experience, and so we have more folks that when the EPA is ready to go into the areas that are flooded we’ll have the Strike Team folks morph into that. So at some point the Coast Guard oil piece will be resolved. Hopefully that will be in the next - you know no new hurricane - in the next six/eight weeks the Coast Guard piece will be down to a manageable level where either it’s going to be totally resolved or the Sector will say, “Thanks Strike Team, we don’t need you anymore.” At that point the EPA, again, because now the water is down and they’re able to get into those places, will be able to say, “Okay EPA, what are your needs”, and it’s not going to be an all of a sudden thing, I mean, as we pull some Strike Team folks back from Mobile and Baton Rouge. In fact I think our next trip we’re going to have to either send my XO or myself down and just speak solely to the EPA folks and say, “Okay, where are you in your timeline of response and where can we plug it in and help you?” So what we’re doing up here is kind of juggling to make sure that we’re meeting all our pieces plus if there’s anything else going on in the country. I mean there were other Super Fund sites going on; other clean ups going on when this happened and most of those cases only had one or two Strike Team folks at them. Some of those have been resolved. Some have been put on furlough because the EPA, quite honestly, all of their OSCs; a lot of their On-Scene Coordinators and their Incident Management Teams are also being cycled through so a lot of their other routine work is not being done because of Katrina. So the quicker . . . it’s not a question of we’re waiting, we’re waiting, we’re waiting, and then all of a sudden, “Oh shoot, we have 20 extra people”. It is the second we can peel people back we’re peeling them back because we need to reconstitute. This hit us right after transfer season. The new folks got their initial chunk of training, which allowed them to comply with the OSHA HAZWOPER Standard but not much else. “Oil week” was the week they usually do their training to get used to the oil spill equipment. Now obviously they’re getting real experience now but some of the stuff that they get in “Oil Week” they haven’t gotten yet because we’ve had to postpone that training for people. People that have been at the Strike Team for a year should be doing follow-on training this year and some of that is not being done because of Katrina. Obviously response comes first but like every other Coast Guard unit, if you wait too long and you have a continuous training cycle you can halt it for a little while but if you halt it too long you’ve just messed up the whole rotation.
Q: Right. Did it make a difference . . . we talked about the situation vis-à-vis EPA - did it make a difference when DHS declared this an incident of national significance? Does that affect you guys at all in terms of where you pull resources and how you pull resources?
CDR Austin: No, we’re considering; we NSF, are considering this event kind of like a SONS. It was never declared a SONS. When you declare something a SONS it triggers a whole bunch of different things as far as who’s going to be in charge of the SONS and other things, which quite honestly given the scope of what’s going on there was no way you were going to have a three-star in charge of the oil spills. I mean Admiral Allen was busy being the PFO, as was appropriate. So we saw this as an all hands on deck event, both of them, and we also had to keep enough back because we know that we’re still in hurricane season, and so when Rita happened what we ended up doing, because the Coast Guard was very forward leaning on Rita, was we went back to both of the teams; the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Gulf we kind of left where they were because as far as we were concerned they’re taking care of what they need to take care of and doing internal relief’s with our own people, so we left them alone but said, “Okay, you two teams need to draw down to a seven person”. Everyone else was sent to Oklahoma to stage in case Rita was the same size as Katrina quite honestly. Then we were going to be done. We were going to be out of people. As it turned out the Friday before Rita hit some folks had just finished their three weeks and were flying back to their units so actually their units had a few more people with the understanding that if Rita ended up being really bad they just would have turned around and came back.
Q: And SONS, what is that?
CDR Austin: Spill of National Significance.
Q: Spill of National Significance, okay.
CDR Austin: I hope you can speak to Commander Laferriere and Commander Cantin. They’ll give you more details.
But one of the interesting things about the response down in Baton Rouge was, even to this day I can tell you that when they ask, “What is the total amount of oil that was spilled as a result”, that answer is still unknown for a couple of reasons. I mean we know what was spilled from those six - what is it now, I think it was like 12 events – the six major and the other mediums and a couple that didn’t even reach that plateau because they over flew the whole area and you can see where the big spills were. Areas are still flooded. The water is going down slowly. I mean I flew over I think about the 16th of September, which I realize is still a couple of weeks ago, but there are areas that you can see the roof and no, you know none of the rest of it down south towards the mouth of the Mississippi. As the water recedes the dynamic forces of stuff settling and what not might break more tanks and might break pipelines. It’s going to expose other areas. So that’s one issue. So there might be some unknowns still on the ground.
Offshore right now 90 percent of the expiration and production offshore from all the oil rigs is shut, meaning it’s turned off; nothing’s flowing. That’s why our gas prices are what they are. As they make repairs and they start pressuring up the pipelines there might be some leaks. I know last year in Ivan there were a few. I mean they’re going to fly over here and see sheens and then hopefully they’ll dissipate in the heat and whatnot so there won’t be any clean up but that doesn’t mean that there might not be a really big rupture somewhere and all of a sudden we have another major oil spill offshore. So everything that’s going on in Baton Rouge is, you know we’re at the understanding that with the spills that we have right now we’re in, I don’t want to call it a maintenance, that’s not the right term, not maintenance phase, but it’s project phase. We know it’s there. We know day to day, “This is what we need to do today. We did this yesterday. Today we need to do this.” But we could get a call a week and a half from now, “They just pressured up such and such a pipeline offshore and now there’s another 3,000 barrels in the water.” So they always have in the back of their mind what we have to do in case there’s another big spill resulting from this so that’s kind of an unknown and that’s kind of keeping as many people down there maybe that would normally . . . you know normally if we would be at this point in our response we might say, “You know, we have extra people in planning, extra people in logistics and we don’t need them”, but tomorrow suddenly the size of response may grow really big and then you’re going to have to have them so that’s kind of what’s keeping the whole uncertainty piece down in Baton Rouge.
Q: And is that complicated by your whole city been flooded? My understanding is there were two or three Super Fund sites inside that area to begin with that at least one of which was underwater until very recently. Do you have a board that you look at and say, “Okay, well on 3rd Street we’ve got this dump and on 7th Street we’ve got this?
CDR Austin: I’m glad you brought that up. When the storm first happened the Coast Guard and EPA sat down in, I guess in Alexandria, and said, “Okay, because of the scope of this thing being so big . . . I mean normally there’s a dividing line of Coast Guard who handles all oil and HAZMAT from this point on the land down and offshore and everything that’s inland of that is the EPA. What they decided for this event was, especially because the city is underwater, is the Coast Guard is handling the oil piece with the exception of the houses that were impacted by Murphy Oil, so the Coast Guard is overseeing the cleanup of that area and they’ll make sure that all the floating pockets of oil are picked up but the houses that may have gotten oil on the inside, the EPA’s going to take over for that but the EPA is doing the HAZMAT piece.
CDR Austin: So all the problems in the city, that’s EPA.
Q: They’ve taken it off the Coast Guard’s plate. (Clarification: it was an agreement to split the response, w/ the CG taking care of the oil piece, and EPA taking care of the hazmat piece, except for drums, tanks floating in the water.)
CDR Austin: They’ve taken that off the Coast Guard’s plate. That’s not going to mean that you want Strike Force folks helping them but they’ve got the bubble on that.
CDR Austin: What they’ve done, and again Commander Laferriere will give you more details on this, is set up . . . each of those major oil spills, which if that oil spill was the only event going on you’d have a 300-person Command Post with the Captain of the Port and a state person and the industry person; you know the company that’s responsible, a big Command Post, and we’re dealing with that spill. Okay, we have multiples of those. You don’t have enough people in the Coast Guard. You don’t have enough people in the state to have a full blown big Incident Command Structure there so what they’ve done is each of those responses is it’s own division and there’s a Coast Guard person as a liaison in the Command Post for all those companies, and daily there are phone calls between Commander Laferriere or Commander.Cantin I’ve given those guys reliefs too. So it started with Commander Laferriere switching over to Commander Cantin. Commander Laferriere, I think, flew back today and it’s probably going to be flip-flopped for a while and I might throw in the Pacific Strike Team CO as well depending on how long it’s going to go. So they do daily calls with the companies. We have Coast Guard folks on scene. There’s over flights going on all the time and so the companies are being pretty responsible and they’re doing what they need to do; a lot of challenges in this. I mean they’re not accessible so it’s in the middle of a swamp, and so having to fly workers in everyday you weren’t getting a head of it because you can’t fly that many people in. It was like an hour and a half flight from where the airport is to where they are and so they had to bring in barges for people to live on. They have to arrange for like water and ice drops for these folks and just logistically it was very difficult. Phone calls are very difficult. I mean it’s a little bit better now but up until last week even just trying to call down there you were always getting busy signals. We have a few satellite phones. Perhaps the Coast Guard needs more. That’s something we need to look at. There’s something called the Government Emergency Telephone System. It does not work for cell phones. So I think the nation realizes that we’ve got to do something as far as emergency Comms.
Q: You guys are fairly self contained communications wise. Did you bring your communications vans into the area?
CDR Austin: You know we don’t have communications vans, CAMSLANT and CAMSPAC have those. We do have, though, we have VHF/FM radios. We’ve got repeaters so we can set repeaters and we have some satellite phones and then we have this piece of gear, which I’m going to get the name wrong so I’m not going to say it, but it’s a way that you can basically talk to anyone else’s radio. It’s like a magic black box that I can use my VHF radio and maybe a city official is on some different frequency and different sort of radio and you can talk to each other. But each team has one of those, maybe even two. I think one is a back up. So I think for the most part we can take care of our communication needs provided the event isn’t so big, if that makes sense.
Q: Right. Is that a lesson that the teams are going to be talking about from now on because after 9/11 it was kind of isolated even though it was a big event?
CDR Austin: Well it was isolated so we were able to get . . .
Q: Into and out of the city and eventually get communications back up fairly quickly.
CDR Austin: Right.
Q: And if New York had been put underwater or had been nuked or something, I mean then you’re dealing with a whole different scale. Does this give a lesson for you that, you know if you have an earthquake in San Francisco or something like that?
CDR Austin: I guess the tough thing is for the average big event - if that makes sense -we’re good because if a team needs more resources they can call to the other two teams. We can call CAMSLANT or CAMSPAC for their communications suites. We can also access the National Interagency Fire Center; the NIFC, cache of radios that are . . . they have caches around the country for use in wild land firefighting. That’s what we used in New York. In New York we couldn’t talk to anyone for a while because everyone’s repeater was on the World Trade Center, which is now gone, and you have all those canyons, you know big buildings around, and so we got some of these radios from the Forest Service, put them on top of a building and we now had Comms and it was great. The trouble with this event was just the scale it. We’re not the only ones that needed radios. We needed radios. FEMA needed radios. The Army Corps needed radios. The military needed radios. Everyone needed radios and fire season is not over - it’s been a pretty busy fire season - so we might have been able to request some of the NIFC cache radios but I think they were in use. So I think a lesson learned for us isn’t necessarily we need to buy more radios but we need to have a better Comms plan so that we know all the different assets out there so that we know who to call and who to get, because again, an average event . . . I’ll give you a for instance. There was a really bad typhoon in Guam - actually two of them. They had a really bad year a couple of years ago - but one nice thing about Guam is most of the houses, they know there’s going to be typhoons and so while you lost power and you lost gasoline service there for a while, and water, there wasn’t this big flooding and so we were able to come in . . . so the infrastructure was pretty much still intact so we were able to fly in. We were able to get cell phones. We were able to get radios. We were able to get ice. We have really good logisticians that are able to get everything we need. It’s when the infrastructure of an area is destroyed and everyone else has those same needs that we do, that was the problem, and we normally can go to an area and call the local cell company and say, “Set up a COW”, which is the portable high site; a portable cell tower. That’s not a problem. But if we’re calling them and everyone else is calling them then it’s a problem. So I think this speaks to a need for a National Emergency Comms Plan.
Q: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to speak too? In particular where do you see the Strike Force responding to this in the next few months, the next few years and so forth?
CDR Austin: Yes, I think that the Strike Force - and I’ve got to be fair here. There’s folks here at the Coordination Center that also responded - we’re not responders here at the Coordination Center but there’s folks with Incident Management skills, so if requests come in for someone to be in a Command Post type of assignment, I’ll look to my staff here because that will free up a team member who can actually go out in the field and do something tactically. So we’re going to be . . . as the oil piece kind of goes on the downswing and the EPA HAZMAT piece comes on the upswing, right now I’m trying to think of the number. I think at one point we had almost 90 folks responding to both incidents. I think right now we’re down in the low 70s but I suspect the number is probably going to stay between 50 and 70 probably for at least another month or so as the EPA piece really ramps up and we’re going to have some Strike Force personnel there. I mean it may not be in those numbers but some sort of presence there probably for a year I would think.
Q: Where would you put this on the list of Coast Guard responses?
CDR Austin: This is the top of the list. You know I was on a Pac Team during 9/11. At that point that was the biggest response that Strike Teams ever did. I mean the first three months after 9/11 there was really a lot of activity because the first couple of weeks you had 96 Strike Team folks doing both the pollution aspect and also waterside. I know that was already covered so we won’t go into that. I got there two weeks after the event. By the time I left I think we were down to 45 Strike Team folks, which was good because about a week later it was the Anthrax and we sent another 40 people to the Anthrax. By – I don’t know – by Christmas I think we were down to about 60 total and then the Anthrax thing was done in January, and then you ended up in the 20s and there’d be 10 people and maybe down to like 5-ish towards the end of the year.
Last fall we had two oil spills; the Selendang Ayu out in Alaska and the
Athos I up in Philadelphia. Again, we had probably about 60 altogether Strike Team folks. Again, we had NFSCC coordinating both efforts there. Really busy for about a month, a month and a half, and then the winter happened and it kind of slowed everything down. This event we’ve got, you know this has been now – beginning of about what, five weeks now - we still have 70 something responders. We’re going to have 70 something responders for another month or so and then probably still a significant portion for the next three to four months and then maybe it will peter down from there. So this event definitely is the greatest use of Strike Team assets.
Q: Is there anything that you wanted to add?
CDR Austin: I don’t know if it’s important to mention the size of the oil spill. I mean I know what we’ve seen in the Press but it’s not necessarily . . . do you want to know what it really is versus what was in the Press? I don’t know if we should get into it. But if you count the amount of oil that was spilled, what was in those tanks before the storm hit was probably in the neighborhood of 12 million gallons.
Q: Twelve million.
CDR Austin: Aggregate.
CDR Austin: Which is more then the Exxon Valdez. We have these oil models that we can run to say what’s going to be the fate of the oil spill; how much oil is going to be left and when you add 150 mile an hour winds to the storm surge and whatnot, so between when Katrina hit and they were out to do the assessments, that was reduced to about eight million. That was strictly through dispersion and evaporation.
Q: Of that four million.
CDR Austin: So that’s why, if you’re wondering why the four million is suddenly gone, it gone. It was basically evaporated.
CDR Austin: When you see, I don’t know how many SITREPS you’ve seen, but you’ll see that some of these spills were, you know it started out at 3-point something million. We’ve picked up 1-point something million. We’ve got half a million left and if you do the addition it doesn’t add up to 3 million and it won’t because oil evaporates in the heat. All of it won’t but some will. And Louisiana, it gets hot, and so some of the oil is evaporating and you’re never going to get a hundred percent recovery rate.
Q: Do we have that quantified by how much is in the river headed to the Gulf and how much is in the city headed to Lake Ponchartrain all of that?
CDR Austin: You know we were very fortunate. With the exception of the folks that were by Murphy Oil, because that oil impacted their houses, for the most part the oil . . . when you have big above ground storage tanks they’re required to be built in a berm.
Q: Yes, and they just kind of fill that in.
CDR Austin: Yes, and so the oil filled the berms. Some of it spilled over the first containment and was caught by the secondary containment. Some of the other oil kind of leaked out of that but was caught in the cuts in the canals, so very little of the oil actually made it into the river. That was a concern with Rita was if it blew over that, that oil would have gone everywhere.
Q: Right, yes. Okay, that channel has been described as 20 miles of incendiary devices.
Well Ma’am, thank you very much. This has been . . . as usual I’d expect this from the Strike Team, the most comprehensive view of the whole event.
END OF INTERVIEW