On Saturday, August 26, Lieutenant Junior Grade Austin Fullmer was in Tampa, Florida, aboard the Coast Guard cutter Juniper, when he got orders to head to Houston. The previous evening, Hurricane Harvey had made landfall near Corpus Christi, and it was clear the storm would be what the Coast Guard, in its levelheaded way, calls an incident. In the storm’s early hours, much of the Coast Guard was devoted to search and rescue: Its helicopters plucked Texan after Texan from rising waters. Fullmer had a different mission. By Sunday afternoon he was at Incident Command Post Houston, working as day lead for the Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit (MTSRU), whose job is to perform search and rescue on the port itself.
The Coast Guard closed the port on Friday morning, and every day it remained closed meant $1.7 billion of lost economic activity. MTSRU coordinated every aspect of operations to reopen it. Fullmer was called in because he’s an expert in aids to navigation—the system of lights, lighthouses, buoys, and beacons that guide ships through the channel. After Harvey, lighted buoy No. 5, the city-bus-size green float that usually marks the port side of the entrance to Galveston Bay (the shipping channel’s mouth) was bobbing way out in the middle, where ships ought to be. Its starboard counterpart had also come unmoored and was nowhere near the channel. A Coast Guard cutter was dispatched to relocate them. Farther up, teams from the Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA performed soundings of the channel to measure depth, looking for shoaling—buildups of the seafloor caused by wind and water that compromise the 45-foot depth and 1,000-foot width that accommodate the massive ships that transit the ß second largest petrochemical complex.
As the ports were reopened in stages—only certain areas, to certain size boats, at certain times—the MTSRU determined which traffic should enter first. On August 30, tankers were dispatched to Marathon Petroleum and Phillips 66, which were running out of feedstocks for their refineries, preventing them from becoming part of the 20 percent of U.S. refining capacity shut down by Harvey. The next day two cruise ships arrived to let off passengers who’d been forced to temporarily divert to Miami and New Orleans. By Friday, September 1, the port was essentially back online.
Coast Guard cutter Harry Claiborne inspects and repositions a lighted buoy that marks the side of the Houston Ship Channel, but had been displaced by the hurricane.
This story appears in the November 2017 issue.