WILMINGTON — With the influx of tropical cyclones, including hurricanes, tropical storms and typhoons this season, the Coast Guard has adjusted its readiness to respond to disaster relief efforts accordingly.
The North Carolina coastline hosts one of the largest recreational boating communities in the country. In response, Coast Guard respondents maintain a “24/7, 365 Search and Rescue (SAR) posture,” Captain Stewart said.
Commander of Sector North Carolina, Coast Guard Capt. Bion Stewart has assisted in rescue and disaster relief efforts for over 25 years. Capt. Stewart and his team oversee the entire North Carolina coastline, which covers approximately 3,375 square nautical miles.
This includes ocean inlets and barrier islands, which have posed serious challenges in recent unpredictable weather patterns. Particularly in the Outer Banks, topography, the typical track of storms and temperature of water all pose a threat to even experienced recreational and commercial vessels.
“Yesterday we did close the port for all traffic,” Capt. Stewart said, referring to the closing of the Port of Morehead City due to mid-projections of Hurricane Maria.
Closing any port is a serious decision, one Coast Guard officials consider in accordance with all available data and information possible.
“As soon as the risk has passed we make sure to open the port back up as quickly as possible,” Capt. Stewart said. The Coast Guard is currently making preparations to reopen the port as early as tomorrow.
Who’s at risk?
“Most severe weather events occur in the Outer Banks area,” Capt. Stewart said.
The Outer Banks is currently categorized as Hurricane Condition 1, the highest condition of readiness considered by the US Coast Guard. By comparison, New Hanover County’s south-facing beaches have the tendency to experience greater protection than the Outer Banks’ east-facing beaches.
Even with more natural coastal protection, New Hanover County and its surrounding beaches are especially susceptible to risk associated with riptides. This season, the Coast Guard has noticed an “uptick in drownings associated with rip currents.”
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue reported over 25 riptide-related rescues were performed in Wrightsville Beach Saturday afternoon.
Coast Guard officials attribute this high risk to the large area of shallow waters greatly influenced by sea conditions.
“Because it shallows for such a big amount of time, coupled with high surf, that creates an almost funneling effect along the shallow shoreline, and so people may not recognize it,” said Capt. Stewart. “It’s not easily visible.”
Aside from swimmers and visitors unfamiliar with the North Carolina coastline, the Coast Guard counts small recreational vessels as especially vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns resulting from tropical cyclones.
Puerto Rico, Houston, and Florida
Assets from Sector North Carolina have not yet been dispatched to assist in disaster relief due to damage by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. But that may change.
“We expect some requests to come,” Cpt. Stewart said.
For Hurricane Irma and Harvey, Sector North Carolina were sent to Florida and Houston to join the existing relief effort.
Affecting coastal communities from the Caribbean to the southern United States, the Coast Guard and associated organizations are ultimately responsible for disaster relief from dangerous systems like Maria, Irma, Harvey and Jose.
“(The) Challenge with disaster response is making sure you can get delivery of the right relief items to the right people at the right time,” Cpt. Stewart said.
“Sometimes if you just flood assets into an area, that becomes problematic, because there’s an organization structure that has to be put in pace to make sure that we’re applying relief efforts to the places that need and that we’re not exhausting relief opportunities by having them sit and wait to be directed to the right places,” Stewart added.
Given the current trend in tropical cyclones, Cpt. Stewart and his team prioritize their own posture and risk before responding to requests for outside assistance.