Coast Guard Unclogs Houston Ship Channel

Earlier this month, Hurricane Ike shut down the Houston Ship Channel. That left 150 tankers, cargo vessels and container ships waiting offshore. The U.S. Coast Guard started work the next day to get the channel reopened. It had to restore navigational aids in the waters off the coast of Texas.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk about fixing some of the aftermath from Hurricane Ike. When the storm hit the Texas coast two weeks ago, the Houston Ship Channel had to be shut down. It was unsafe for transit. And soon, 150 tankers, cargo vessels and container ships were lined up waiting offshore. NPR's Noah Adams reports on how the U.S. Coast Guard fixed that problem.

NOAH ADAMS: What we're talking about here is simply construction work, work out on the water. The Houston Ship Channel runs 50 miles up through Galveston Bay to the 10th busiest port in the world. Here comes the storm, Hurricane Ike, the channel markers get blown and churned away, and in this moment, one Coast Guard officer becomes really important to the global economy.

Officer ROBERT GOLLIER (Chief One Officer, Sector Houston/Galveston, U.S. Coast Guard): I'm chief one officer Robert Gollier (ph). I'm the ace navigation officer for Sector Houston/Galveston.

ADAMS: Gollier is responsible for aids to navigation in the channel. He returned to base in Galveston the day after Ike. He brought a coffee pot from home, set up a cot, started a survey.

Officer GOLLIER: We got down here around 10 o'clock Sunday morning and had boats on the water Sunday afternoon. Probably 90 percent of the Houston Ship Channel was wiped out.

ADAMS: So, the mission for Gollier's team was clear.

Officer GOLLIER: We're going to be doing all...

ADAMS: The most important navigation aids are the large green-and-white and red-and-white panels with flashing lights on top. The ship pilots depend on the markers to know where they are in the channel. More than half were missing. But their GPS locations were safe in the computer. The Coast Guard started setting out temporary foam buoys with lights, and within three days, had the ships moving again. Now the challenge becomes to rebuild the regular markers.

Unidentified Man: Coming up.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ADAMS: Time to take a boat ride on a small craft out in the Galveston Bay to visit the hatchet. The 75-foot ship is a construction tender.

Petty Officer First Class KENT SCHAEFFER (Sector Houston/Galveston, U.S. Coast Guard): Arresting 593 station Galveston. Take your radio guard at minute...

ADAMS: Petty Officer First Class Kent Schaeffer is driving our boat. We reach the spot where the hatchet is working in power down and say hello to the tender.

Officer SCHAEFFER: Hatchet 132.

Unidentified Man: 132 Hatchet, you guys want to lay up on the one side of the tender or you're happy out there?

Officer SCHAEFFER: Hatchet 132, whatever. We're trying to steer clear. We're going to interfere to your operation.

ADAMS: The hatchet works with about a dozen crew, all Coast Guard, Coast Guard wearing hard hats and heavy boots. They sleep on the ship. They have a cook, and usually stay on station until the work is done. They're building a marker platform and start by pounding a wooden piling into the bottom of the bay.

Officer SCHAEFFER: What they have right there is there a pound running rig (unintelligible). They're going to get set. Oh, they're going to get set in place, and then they're going to use a crane and then pick up those long telephone poles, pilings and they're going to start punching piles.

(Soundbite of punching piles)

Officer SCHAEFFER: This is not the glamorous side of the Coast Guard by any means. There's no helicopters and life-saving rescues, dramatic stuff like that. But these guys do amazing stuff.

ADAMS: Petty Officer Schaeffer points out often the haze a black hold tanker and a red one.

Officer SCHAEFFER: Up here on the Houston Ship Channel, looking out down tanker, looks like he's full and coming in. We get an inbound vessel who's not full. So, we're going to get to see these two pass each other in the Narrow Ship Channel.

ADAMS: At this close view, the tankers are majestically immense, moving fast, then slower as they approach each other. A six-foot wake rises behind, and in a bow wave, we get to see some dolphins.

Officer SCHAEFFER: There's dolphins on his bow. See him jumping, riding that wave?

ADAMS: The Houston Ship Channel was opened in 1914. Galveston right on the Gulf of Mexico was a more natural harbor at a booming economy and would have been the big port city of the future, but for the hurricane of 1900, the storm that killed 6,000 people and destroyed that dream. Noah Adams, NPR News.

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