NORFOLK (NNS) -- Could a Category IV hurricane hit Hampton Roads? That was the question posed by Hurricane Exercise/Citadel Gale (HURREX) 2018, April 24-May 11.
This exercise tested the abilities of local Navy commands - including Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) - to adequately prepare for and respond to a major hurricane.
Contending with a simulated hurricane walloping the area with 140 m.p.h. winds, 12-foot storm surge, and 20 inches of rain forced the shipyard to consider a number of unprecedented "what ifs," according to NNSY Emergency Management Officer Steve Murley.
These ranged from addressing the most basic needs in the storm's aftermath to port-a-potty procurement and placement to turning a carrier on the waterfront into a makeshift public hospital. Following such a powerful hurricane, Murley said strong consideration would be given to opening up the shipyard to the general public like Naval Support Activity-New Orleans did after Katrina. Electricity, communications, transportation, water and wastewater, and public health services throughout the region would be either kaput or severely curtailed. Picture "The Walking Dead," minus the zombies.
"With such a monster of a storm, it would take NNSY years to recover and the surrounding communities longer - think New Orleans without the levee system," said Murley.
The extensive length of HURREX allowed simulations to play out in real time. Code 1130 Emergency Management coordinated daily meetings with waterfront leadership to work through actions and concerns prior to simulated landfall. And just as he would when an actual storm has potential to impact the region and shipyard, Murley began communicating information to the shipyard days in advance and proactively providing the Virginia Hurricane preparedness evacuation guide.
For this exercise, a mass evacuation was authorized by Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic (CNRMA) for the Navy's service and civilian personnel. To be reimbursed for expenses in an actual emergency, personnel would need to remain within 300 miles of their domicile.
"Stay within the safe-haven distance, and save your receipts to file later," said Murley. "It would take a long time to complete the travel claim, considering this area is one of the largest concentrations of DoD (Department of Defense) personnel in the world."
Also per direction from CNRMA, local Navy commands elevate their tropical cyclone conditions of readiness (COR) as storms creep closer to the region. Once COR 2 is established, the shipyard shifts to mission-essential personnel mode.
Protecting Navy assets on the waterfront would be a paramount priority. Accordingly, during the exercise NNSY Dockmaster/Berthing Officer Chris Adams kept a running tab on approximate times of when barges, living barges, and vessel movements would occur, and all necessary actions needing to be completed prior to movements. In addition to ensuring the safety of vessels already at the shipyard, NNSY would offer safe haven for a number of Navy ships in the Hampton Roads area due to its geographical advantage.
Among the shipyard's biggest concerns with a hurricane would be flooding, particularly along the north ends of the installation and waterfront. During the past decade, there have been 19 events where water level approached what's considered a "high-water event" (at NNSY this is the 100-feet mark), with nine events exceeding that. The shipyard's record flood in recent history came during a nor'easter in November 2009 where the water level reached 101.89, with more than eight feet of storm surge. The record came from a hurricane in 1933 where the water level reached 101.92.
The shipyard works to combat flooding risk during storm events through such efforts as erecting flood walls at dry docks and placing sandbags in areas of concern. NNSY has started a military construction project that will upgrade dry dock utility systems and raise equipment out of the flood plain to provide better protection against flooding.
While there's question of if a massive category IV hurricane could hit as far north as Hampton Roads, even smaller storms can cause great damage to the area. When Hurricane Isabel hit Hampton Roads in 2003, it caused the worst flooding seen in nearly 70 years, and power outages lasted more than a week. It arrived in the region as a tropical storm.
Hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November 30.
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