Carl Childs

Hurricanes, gators, and snakes: All in a day's work!

Carl ChildsOn Sept 13 2008, hurricane Ike made landfall in Galveston Bay inflicting major damage across much of southeast Texas and western Louisiana. The storm killed 166 people and caused an estimated $31.5 billion in damages. Over 1 million people were advised to evacuate their homes and more than 200 people were still reported as missing more than a month after the storm hit. In addition to these devastating figures, Ike caused numerous oil spills throughout Texas and Louisiana.

The federal response to these oil spills was managed by the US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) was charged with coordinating scientific and technical support to help guide this response. NOAA's National Weather Service provided spot weather forecasts, and OR&R provided assessments of resources at risk, trajectory forecasts, coordination with natural resource trustees and on-scene guidance on spill assessment and clean up tactics. I had the privilege of serving in this later role in the Port Arthur, TX operations branch.

remnants of an oil storage facilityWorking with members of the US Coast Guard, the Texas General Land Office and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, we assessed nearly 20 oil spills in the days and weeks following the storm. Most of these spills were from oil fields in the swamps and coastal marshes of Texas. These are some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, but it did present us with some unique challenges.

Hurricane Ike came ashore with a storm surge that exceeded 20 feet in some areas and much of coastal Texas remained flooded for weeks afterwards. This seriously complicated our mission and we had to use a combination of trucks, ATV's, boats, airboats and helicopters to conduct our assessments.

We weren't the only ones having a hard time getting around out there. Most of these wetland areas are predominantly fresh water systems. When the storm hit, it inundated the area with hundreds of millions of gallons of highly saline ocean waters. This salt water may impact the area for years to come and severely stressed much of the wildlife.

Alligator in roadThese wetlands are home to several species of snakes. Like most of the wildlife, they are acclimatized to freshwater habitats. We observed many agitated snakes swimming in odd patterns as they tried to stay high in the water. One particular water moccasin was particularly interested in us. These snakes have been known to climb into boats under normal circumstances and we gave it a wide berth in our small Jon boat.

The American alligator is perhaps the most iconic representative of wildlife in this area and their population has undergone a major resurgence since they became a protected species in 1969. We encountered several of them during our field work. Normally alligators are not a threat to humans but in the wake of the storm many of these animals were stressed from the salt water and were having a hard time finding food. I was too busy running to get a photo of my closest run in with an alligator but here are a couple of my favorite photos from other run encounters.

One morning we were headed out to assess a spill in an oil field west of Port Arthur, T. On our way in we found a large alligator lying in the road. We managed to drive around the gator and made it to the spill site. Then about 10 minutes later we got a call from a representative from the Texas General Land Office who was coming in to Alligotor snapping at carmeet us at the site. The alligator had lain down across the road completely blocking his way in. We thought it was rather humorous until we realized that the gator was also blocking our way out. Eventually the gator moved on but we did end up having a late lunch that day.

The human impacts of hurricane Ike were tragic on a massive scale and the environmental consequences of the storm will remain for years to come. However, it was a privilege to be a part of the response to this disaster. All of our combined efforts are making a difference in speeding up the recovery of this vital region.