Deepwater Horizon relief well platform (Photo: USCG)
(July 29, 2010) - Starting on day one of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, National Weather Service forecasters have played a major role protecting the safety of everyone working to mitigate and clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And with the hurricane season heating up, their work is more critical than ever.
The initial National Weather Service response was immediate.
"It was actually the day of the explosion that we were contacted by the Coast Guard to get going. The explosion occurred on April 20th and we were already providing weather support by nine o'clock in the morning on the 21st," said Ken Graham, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service forecast office in Slidell, La. "One of the first and key things they wanted was a two-day spot forecast from the spill site - and we are still doing that."
In short order, two incident command centers were established in Houma, La., and Mobile, Ala., where representatives from British Petroleum and local, state and federal agencies were briefed daily with up-to-the-minute weather data, enabling them to make "go - no go" decisions for marine and airborne operations.
While the forecast offices in Slidell and Mobile serve as point positions, they are supported by a team of meteorologists from coastal and inland National Weather Service offices throughout the Southern, Eastern, Central and Western regions.
"The support has been absolutely outstanding," said David McShane, meteorologist-in-charge of the Mobile forecast office. "It is heartening to see that we have forecasters here from all over the country. They fit in wonderfully and have been very well received."
At the height of the response, McShane said at least 2,000 government and private boats were working the event. The private "vessels of opportunity" were working booming and skimming operations as well as searching for oil slicks.
While British Petroleum finally stopped the gushing oil with a new cap on July 15, the response and recovery efforts continued in and around the Gulf.
Graham notes that the National Weather Service safety concerns are not limited to those working on the water -- but also for the volunteers doing onshore clean up in the summer heat.
"We work closely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration providing heat advisories. OSHA determines how long responders can work in their protective suits based on the heat index and other parameters. We have people from cooler climates as far away as Canada, Seattle and Portland trying to clean up. It is vitally important we not only keep the responders safe from severe weather and high seas, we must communicate any life threatening parameters - including heat."
For the thousands of people working the Deepwater Horizon event in the air, on land and at sea, the National Weather Service's primary, overriding concern is safety.
"The objective here is to provide weather information that is accurate and timely so we can eliminate many of the risks to their safety and well being," said McShane. "Basically - it's our core mission of protecting life."
Coast Guard cutter at DWH well site (Photo: USCG)