Coast Guard special unit keeps river traffic moving

by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher D. McLaughlin

New Orleans – The Coast Guard’s missions and roles are increasing all the time.

Waterway security is one of many missions the Coast Guard performs, which includes keeping barges, vessels and infrastructure flowing.

When the motor vessel Tintomara and the tugboat Mel Oliver collided in the Mississippi River near New Orleans July 23, it halted traffic. With large economic effects on the line, the Coast Guard called in a special unit – the Maritime Transportation System Recovery Unit.

The MTSRU was called in to speed up the re-opening of the river’s waterway. If the response was prolonged and recovery wasn’t immediately addressed, the economic impact could have been greater, and it was their job to ensure this didn’t happen in New Orleans.

“It’s not just about re-opening the river – it’s about the entire infrastructure of the central, northern and southern parts of the United States staying alive,” said Matthew Hahne, of the New Orleans MTSRU. “If we can’t continue to move those barges, we shut down the entire transportation infrastructure of the United States. That’s why the Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit is so critical.”

MTSRU is a unit of the planning section of the Incident Command System and is established for every incident that significantly disrupts the maritime transportation system.

MTSRU was created in 2006, after the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 required the National Maritime Transportation Security Plan to include a system to restore cargo flow following a national transportation security incident. Lessons learned on recovery issues following significant disruption of maritime transportation during Hurricane Katrina played a role in the formation of the unit.

The mission of the MTSRU is not new for the Coast Guard, just the formal creation of a specialized unit.

“We’ve done it for years,” said Cmdr. Wayne Clayborne, of the New Orleans MTSRU. “We do it. Let’s take that practice and institutionalize it.”

After Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard established the MTSRU to counter significant economic loss due to prolonged port closure.

“The MTSRU is brought in when there is more than three days of port closure,” said Clayborne.

This is the second time the MTSRU was implemented to its full capacity since its establishment. It is made up of members of the Coast Guard, local government and industry leaders. The government and industry leaders are instrumental in providing barge, ship and facility information to the Coast Guard.

“It’s a partnership with industry,” said Clayborne. “This is a place where all the information can come together.”

The MTSRU has the job of informing Coast Guard decision makers and other stakeholders at all levels on the status of potential impacts on maritime transportation following disruption. They work to define new organizational elements to support recovery efforts and ensure recovery is a critical element of planning at all Coast Guard levels. MTSRU members also identify communication mechanisms and informational requirements to facilitate the recovery of waterway traffic flow.

Hahne said one of the biggest problems they encountered was finding what the national impact items were. Once they knew what those critical components were, they were able to shuffle the vessels and barges to meet those impacts.

“No one wants the lights to shut off in Florida, and because they get their coal from the Mississippi River, it’s very important for us to bring the coal ships in so they can load the coal and get it down to Florida to keep the lights on,” said Hahne.

If the future of the waterway is jeopardized, prices for commercial and consumer products could increase to potentially prohibitive points, negatively impacting both businesses and individuals. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is vital to the nation’s economy. It spans the five Gulf-coast states and is the third-busiest waterway in the U.S. It also guarantees the future of many businesses and individuals depending on its efficiency and economy.

“Everything is rolling pretty good,” said Lt. Willie Pittman, of the New Orleans MTSRU. “It’s a balancing act, but we get it done. We make the best decision based on the needs of each facility. It has been working out well, and we’re making it happen.”

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