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News / Northwest

Coast Guard outlines disaster response along Columbia River

By Nicole Bales, The Daily Astorian, Ore.
Published: July 21, 2020, 2:30pm

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River has outlined a plan to respond to natural or man-made disruptions to the marine transportation system, from a damaged dam to a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami.

The plan, finalized in February, is standardized so crews from other sectors can carry out the response.

Sector Columbia River serves coastal Oregon and southern Washington state and the 33 ports along the Columbia, Snake and Willamette river systems that extend from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston, Idaho.

The $20 billion maritime transportation system includes 8.5 million tons of grain exports, 1,500 foreign vessels, 50,000 cruise ship passengers, 295,000 recreational boaters and 2,000 commercial fishing vessels.

Capt. Gretchen Bailey, the deputy commander at Sector Columbia River, called the busy waterways a “little hidden gem.”

“A major disruption to this maritime transportation system would be felt around the world. We are the major exporter of grain in the United States, so it would have a world impact. It is the top gateway for America’s wheat barley export, as well as a major exporter for corn, bulk materials, timber and paper products,” Bailey said.

“The Coast Guard, we have partnerships with our local, state, federal and private stakeholders, and developed this plan for a coordinated response. And we practice this through exercising on a yearly basis, if not more.”

Jim Merten, a port security specialist for the Coast Guard who is responsible for the Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit, used a Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster as an example.

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If a ship needs to deliver relief supplies after an earthquake, he said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would dredge the channel and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would sound the channel to make sure it’s deep enough and meets all the requirements.

“And then we’re going to go ahead and put the aids and navigation back so that all the ships have the ability to drive there safely. And then each port will be working their own disaster recovery plans simultaneously so that they can have their port ready to receive these vessels as well,” Merten said.

He said the plan will activate under three circumstances — when infrastructure like a bridge, lock or dam is damaged; when traffic is interrupted by issues such as a labor dispute or civil unrest; or when emergency response to an incident on one part of the river disrupts traffic on the rest of the river.

“So we’re going to have to potentially use captain of the port orders to move ships or authorize ships to go in different orders once the disruption is cleared,” Merten said.

Last September, a navigation lock on the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam closed for 21 days after part of the lock system cracked. The Coast Guard worked with vessels to create a prioritized list of who would be the first to move once the channel reopened.

“What was really amazing to see was with the industry people, is that they knew each other’s cargoes and they were able to prioritize within themselves who needed to go first, who needed to go second,” Bailey said. “So they were actually very aware of what needed to get upriver and what needed to get downriver. And so they were able to coordinate that very well.”

Merten said the recovery unit reports directly to the captain of the port, and the companies and agencies affected are also included in the process.

“And then while we’re trying to prioritize the cargo streams and things like that, we’re identifying alternate ideas, alternate methods, whether it’s rail, whether it’s barge, whether it’s moving commodities out of different ports, different places, things like that — we take a regional kind of holistic approach to the river system in that event,” he said.