While it may seem like it’s been business as usual at Savannah’s port this week, the Georgia Ports Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office Savannah and the maritime community as a whole has been quietly preparing to deal with whatever Irma might send our way.
On Thursday, with the possibility of gale force winds no more than 72 hours out, Coast Guard Cmdr. Norm Witt, captain of the port, established Port Readiness Condition Whiskey to prepare for the storm’s potential impacts.
Whiskey, the first in a series of progressive preparations, is basically a condition of heightened awareness, when port authorities and industries on the river are notified of the change and asked to identify those ships that would have to ride out the storm in port and those that would be able to seek safety out at sea.
At this point, the Marine Safety Office also sends out rapid-needs assessment teams to make sure facilities and vessels have storm plans in place, that all cargos are secured, and that crews have a safe place to stay.
“Based on the storm’s current track, we anticipate activating Port Condition X-Ray about 10 p.m. Friday, Port Condition Yankee about 10 p.m. Saturday and Condition Zulu at about 10 a.m. Sunday,” Witt said Thursday, noting his estimates were subject to change as storm predictions fluctuate.
Early Friday morning, the Coast Guard changed those estimates, with X-Ray to be activated at noon Friday, Yankee at noon Saturday and Zulu at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
Once X-Ray is in force, all oceangoing vessels, including barges and their tugs, have 12 hours to report their intentions to either depart or remain in port and begin making the appropriate arrangements.
The pace of preparations steps up at 24 hours out with Condition Yankee. Depending on the expected severity of the winds, the captain of the port may restrict some inbound commercial traffic and direct some ships in port to depart for open waters outside the reach of the storm. When the storm’s fiercest winds are estimated to be 12 hours away, Condition Zulu goes into effect. At this point, the port would be closed to all commercial vessel movement and all waterfront facilities are required to secure their equipment against spills or other hazards.
With some 40 ships scheduled to call on Garden City and Ocean terminals between Friday morning and Tuesday night, advance planning is critical, Witt said.
“Typically by this point, most ships are in storm avoidance mode, either delaying transit or changing routes,” he said, adding that ships under power are usually safer riding out a storm at sea.
At GPA’s Savannah terminals, truck gates will close at 6 p.m. Friday with operations ceasing around midnight and the last ship sailing on the high tide before dawn Saturday, according to GPA executive director Griff Lynch.
Gates at Colonel’s Island and Mayor’s Point terminals in Brunswick will close at 5 p.m. Friday.
“The safety of our employees and partners in the maritime community is our highest priority,” Lynch said, adding that operations will be restored as soon as it is safely possible.
“Our terminals in Savannah and Brunswick play a vital role in customer supply lines,” he said. “After the hurricane passes, we are committed to assessing any damage and getting our ports back up and running as quickly as possible.”
Already, Lynch said he’s seen the maritime community rally ahead of the storm.
“The ILA, the stevedores, the truckers have all really been hustling to get as much done as possible before we have to shut down,” he said Thursday.
“At the rate we’re going, we’ll complete 11,000 truck moves today and I expect tomorrow will be similar.
“But, we’ll be buttoned down and ready for Irma by 8 a.m. Saturday.”
Due to the closure of the port from Friday at 6 p.m. through Tuesday, the list of ships scheduled to arrive will be revised and published as soon after the port reopens as possible.