By Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
Almost one year following the passage and destruction of Hurricane Maria, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson has returned to Puerto Rico. Following the storm, Thomas Jefferson deployed in September 2017 for hydrographic hurricane response work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (PR/USVI). The ship and crew surveyed 18 individual port facilities to ensure safety of navigation and help re-open the region for maritime commerce. Thomas Jefferson’s second major project of 2018 has brought the ship back to Puerto Rico from August to November, conducting follow-up survey work along the north and south coasts.
While anchored in Bahia de Guayanilla, Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, commanding officer of Thomas Jefferson, was invited by the Puerto Rico South Coast pilots to speak at a South Coast Harbor Safety & Security Committee meeting in Salinas. Attended quarterly by area commercial, federal, and local maritime stakeholders, each meeting features presentations on a variety of topics such as harbor safety and preparedness, maritime security, and relevant oceanographic research (e.g. PR SeaGrant, PR Climate Change Commission).
Several presentations discussed ongoing Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, and conversations with attendees emphasized that storm effects still permeate businesses and the island economy. The meeting also revealed the existence of strong interagency relationships in the group, reflective of South Coast culture. These connections enable close and effective collaboration of agencies such as NOAA, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and SeaGrant, in supporting the region’s environmental resources, economy, and security, as well as forming improved hurricane preparedness and response plans.
Accompanied by Coast Survey Atlantic Hydrographic Branch’s Julia Wallace (ERT), Cmdr. van Westendorp presented on nautical hydrography, including an outline of the ship’s 2017 post-Maria work, as well as current project plans and preliminary results. During and after the presentation, attendees showed particular interest in survey results in and around Guayanilla, Ponce, Jobos, Las Mareas, and Yabucoa; port areas previously identified by the South Coast pilots as critical for local and island-wide economies alike. The Coast Guard Captain of the Port (based in San Juan) and his staff also engaged Cmdr. van Westendorp and Julia Wallace in conversations regarding the allocation and positioning of survey capabilities in preparation for major storm events in the PR/USVI region.
A year after the devastation of Maria, it is clear that Thomas Jefferson’s presence and ongoing work are gratefully received by and worthwhile to the people of Puerto Rico.