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USCG explains Port Heavy Weather Conditions it sets for port and mariners only

PHWC levels: “Whiskey,” “X-Ray,” “Yankee,” “Zulu”

At last week’s 2017-2018 Tropical Cyclone Workshop for local media, the US Coast Guard shared with participants details of the agency’s Marine Safety Information Bulletins (MSIB), which are issued specifically for the Port of Pago Pago and mariners when there is an approaching storm.

Frank Thomsen of the local USCG Marine Safety Detachment Unit was invited by the National Weather Service Office (NWSO) in Tafuna and local Department of Homeland Security (ASDHS) to speak at the media workshop.

NWSO Meteorologist-in-Charge, Elinor Lutu-McMoore explained that there is confusion with their messages that go out. “People don’t understand that Coast Guard’s main focus [with its message]  is our Pago Pago Harbor and our mariners,” she said.

Samoa News notes that in the past, when the USCG issues weather bulletins, community members who see it end up panicking, which results in confusion.

(Samoa News online is updated when there is an approaching storm, because it's monitored by off island residents and others, including companies who have business operations connected to American Samoa.)

USCG’s presentation at the workshop provided details and information on the agency’s work and preparations - working with local authorities when there is an approaching storm.

Thomsen explained the “Port Heavy Weather Conditions” is set by the USCG for maritime ports and used to describe, generally, restrictions needed to protect life, vessels, facilities, ports and the environment from severe weather.

He said when USCG puts out the MSIB, it's “specifically for the port and the traveling mariners within the port and waterways” of America Samoa. There are four specific levels of the MSIB — which go out to the government, maritime public, and port.

The first level is labeled “Whiskey” and issued 72-hours before tropical force winds are anticipated to impact a commercial port. The USCG Captain Of The Port (COTP), based in Honolulu, may restrict operations or deny entry to vessels transporting oil or hazardous material.

Additionally, vessels over 300-gross tons should begin making plans to leave the harbor and go out to sea, while vessels over 200-gross tons wishing to remain in port should submit a request to the COTP.

At the Whiskey level, “open areas of piers should be cleared of debris.”

The next level is “X-Ray”, which is 48-hours before tropical storm force winds impact a commercial port.

At the Whiskey and X-Ray levels, Thompsen said USCG sends out 2 assessment teams who will visit all facilities and vessels in port, and provide notification for them to prepare to leave port for those vessels over 300 gross tons, such as purse seiners.

“Our team would identify any hazards, and bring it up to the facility to make sure it's rectified before the arrival of the storm,” he explained, adding that the X-Ray level includes pre-assessments of the harbor and possibly stand-up the Marine Transportation System Recovery unit.

Twenty four hours before tropical storm force winds arrive, the MSIB “Yankee” notice is issued, meaning it's time to prepare to secure cargo operations at port and get any last minute vessel departures to sea to avoid the storm. It is also the time the port will possibly be closed to incoming traffic.

The fourth level, “Zulu”, is set 12 hours before tropical storm force winds arrive and at this level, there is anticipation of port closure to inbound/outbound traffic.

Also, there is no terminal, facility or vessel operations permitted, with a possible fine for violations. Closure of the port is issued by the COPT.

When asked to elaborate on the possible fine, Thomsen replied, “civil penalties, up to about $45,000 per day, per violation.”

After the storm passes, and if the port is closed, Thomsen said a USCG representative will be at the ASDHS Emergency Operation Center to brief authorities. An assessment is conducted before the port is re-opened.

“All reopening decisions will be coordinated by the [local] Coast Guard and the Port director with final concurrence by the COTP in Honolulu,” he said, and noted that depending on what was found during the post-assessment, Honolulu will determine the types of assets and resources needed for American Samoa as part of recovery efforts.

Thomsen recalled that following the Sept. 29, 2009 tsunami a USCG C-130 aircraft landed the next day at the Tafuna airport with FEMA and Coast Guard personnel, and assistance for the territory.

“So depending on the damage, Honolulu sets the assistance for American Samoa,” he pointed out.

As to why large vessels are required to leave port prior to the arrival of a storm, Thomsen said it's “because if a vessel is sunk within the channel, we’re going to have a huge problem. So for the Coast Guard, rather than having that hazard here in port, we'd like them to head out to sea, head to areas that are safe prior to the arrival of the storm.”

Lutu-McMoore reminded media representatives that the NWSO does not issue a storm watch notice at the “Whiskey” level, but it will at the “X-Ray” level.

The current tropical cyclone season runs through Apr. 30, 2018 and NWSO along with ASDHS remind residents to prepare, while media outlets are urged to help get to the public accurate information when released by NWSO and ASDHS.

(See last Friday’s edition for other information from the workshop).