One thing the Coast Guard knows is that, after hurricane or tropical storm winds pass through Hampton Roads, its aircraft are going to be busy flying search and rescue missions.
The Coast Guard knows those same winds and stormy waters could rip channel markers loose and clog shipping lanes with sand and slit — while one of the best ways to spot those hazards is from the air.
But Capt. Samson Stevens, the Coast Guard’s captain of the port, also knows the Navy has helicopters, top-notch pilots and a willingness to pitch in — so he asked what they thought about joining forces to assess after-storm damage to port facilities.
The two military services test-drove the idea last week. Stevens clapped on a Navy aviator’s helmet and climbed onboard one of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron MH-60S helicopters.
Capt. Ted Johnson, the squadron’s commander, and Lt. Cmdr. Joe Navarre, the squadron’s operations officer, flew Stevens up and down the Elizabeth river as far as the High Rise bridge, along the James and York rivers, as far up as the Naval Weapons Station in Yorktown, and out to the buoys that mark the ocean entrances to the Thimble Shoals and Cape Henry channels.
“We know all these places,” Navarre said.
But Navy pilots don’t necessarily know the spots where the Coast Guard looks for shoals, missing buoys, storm-driven pollution — or, for that matter, vessels in distress. He learned a lot from Stevens, he said.
And because the cockpit of a helicopter in flight isn’t the place for quiet conversation, Stevens wanted to be sure he and his team are up to speed with Navy radio gear and protocol.
“It was me looking at the stuff we know and them knowing how to fly what they fly,” said Stevens.
Checking the harbor and its channels after a storm is key for Stevens to do his job as captain of the port, responsible for safety on Hampton Roads’ waters.
It’s his job, among many others, to order the port to close if tropical storm or hurricane winds threaten, and it’s his job to say when and where ships and boats can safely move once the storm passes.
Since it can take days — even weeks — for a hurricane-hammered port to get up and running, and since the Port of Virginia generates some $250 million a day in economic activity, the stakes in accurate and timely assessment are high.
For last week’s test, the weather was mild, if overcast, with fairly gentle northeastern breezes — but then, it was not the kind of thing either service wanted to figure out on the fly, after a storm, Steven said.
After all, the Coast Guard motto, semper paratus, means always ready.
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