Rules of the Road: Know what to do when hurricane approaches

Jul 2, 2020 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

As each of us slowly emerges from our pandemic quarantines, awaiting the arrival of the murder hornets, let us not forget the onset of hurricane season in the northern hemisphere.

An above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected, according to forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service. The outlook predicts a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season.

With the plethora of information available to us, nearly everyone has their favorite website to reference. As storms approach, my phone and inbox are flooded with updates.

One set of messages that I continually watch is from the U.S. Coast Guard. It is always tuned in to the exact weather conditions. For South Florida, port conditions are set by the Captain of the Port (COTP) for Sector Miami. The area of responsibility includes the ports of Miami, Miami River, Port Everglades, Palm Beach, and Fort Pierce. This area also includes all terminals, facilities, and waterways.

Each sector of the USCG documents its emergency responses based upon local needs. For the South Florida area, the USCG has assigned four specific conditions when a tropical system approaches southeast Florida.

Port Condition Whiskey

This condition is assigned when sustained gale force winds (39-54 mph; 34-47 knots) are predicted to arrive within 72 hours. Actions to be taken include:

  • Ports and waterfront facilities begin removing all debris and secure potential flying hazards.
  • In commercial ports, container stacking plans should be implemented. Waterfront facilities that, due to space constraints, are unable to reduce container stacking height to no more than four high (or no more than two high for hazardous materials), must submit a container stacking protocol to the COTP for approval.
  • The COTP will convene the Strategic Weather Advisory Team (SWAT) via conference call.

Port Condition X-Ray

This condition is assigned when sustained gale force winds are expected within 48 hours. Actions to be taken include:

  • All potential flying debris will be removed or secured.
  • Hazardous materials/pollution hazards must be secured in a safe manner away from waterfront areas.
  • In commercial ports, facilities will continue to implement container stacking protocol to be complete by the setting of Port Condition Yankee.
  • Containers must not exceed four tiers unless previously approved by the COTP.
  • Containers carrying hazardous materials may not exceed two tiers.
  • All oceangoing commercial vessels greater than 500 gross tons must prepare to depart the ports and anchorages. These vessels shall depart immediately upon the setting of Port Condition Yankee.
  • Vessels that are unable to depart the port must contact the COTP to request and receive permission to remain in port. Proof of facility owner/operator approval is required.
  • Vessels with COTP’s permission to remain in port must implement their approved mooring arrangement.
  • Terminal operators should prepare to terminate all cargo operations.
  • The COTP may require additional precautions to ensure the safety of the ports and waterways.
  • Coast Guard Port Survey teams will be deployed to validate implementation of Port Condition X-Ray.
  • The COTP will convene the SWAT via conference call.

Port Condition Yankee

This condition is assigned when sustained gale force winds are expected within 24 hours. Actions to be taken include:

  • Affected ports are closed to inbound vessel traffic.
  • Appropriate container stacking protocol must be completed.
  • Terminal operators must terminate all cargo operations not associated with storm preparations.
  • In commercial ports, cargo operations associated with storm preparations include moving cargo within or off the port for securing purposes, crane and other port/facility equipment preparations, and similar activities are authorized. Moving cargo onto the port or vessel loading/discharging operations are not authorized unless specifically cleared by the COTP.
  • All facilities shall continue to operate in accordance with their approved facility security plans and comply with the requirements of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA).
  • Oceangoing commercial vessels greater than 500 gross tons must depart the ports and anchorages unless prior permission to remain has been granted by the COTP.
  • Anticipate that drawbridges may be closed to vessel traffic as early as eight hours prior to the arrival of tropical storm force winds.
  • Coast Guard Port Survey teams will conduct Port Condition Yankee validation.
  • The COTP will convene the SWAT via conference call.

Port Condition Zulu

This condition is assigned when sustained gale force winds are expected within 12 hours. Actions to be taken include:

  • All affected port waterfront operations are suspended except for final preparations previously permitted by the COTP, as deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the ports and facilities.
  • All vessels shall have departed the ports and anchorages unless otherwise authorized by the COTP.
  • Coast Guard Port Survey Teams will conduct final port assessments.
  • Port and waterfront facilities shall remain closed to waterfront activities until the passage of tropical storm force winds and the COTP, in conjunction with the SWAT, has determined that it is safe to reopen the ports. Reopening of a port or waterway will be based upon:
    1. Ports and waterways damage survey assessments.
    2. Aids to navigation verification.
    3. Status and condition of drawbridges.
    4. Re-establishment of required port security measures in accordance with respective facility security plans.
  • Safety and/or security personnel wishing to remain in port or at a facility shall follow applicable port and facility policies and procedures and advise the COTP of their intentions.
  • The COTP will convene the SWAT via conference call.

Post-Hurricane Conditions

Affected ports will remain closed until the following conditions are met to the satisfaction of the COTP:

  • Ports should begin to conduct damage assessments. Movement within the port landside is authorized when deemed safe, provided appropriate security measures are in place in accordance with MTSA requirements. Designated Coast Guard Port Survey Team members must notify the COTP upon determination that the port is physically/structurally safe to recommence operations.
  • Coast Guard Ports and Waterways Survey teams will conduct preliminary assessments in the ports and waterways as soon as weather conditions permit.
  • Facilities may not receive cargo or passengers until specifically authorized by the COTP. At a minimum, the COTP must be advised by the Facility Security Officer that facility security plans are fully implemented, and Customs and Border Protection is prepared to process passengers/cargo, as applicable, and Coast Guard Port Survey Teams have verified that security measures are in place.
  • Bridge operations will remain coordinated through respective Emergency Operation Centers until the COTP determines that resumption of bridge operations is safe.
  • Safety zones established around the ports and waterways during the event will remain in effect until rescinded by the COTP. No vessel movement or port operations will be authorized without the express permission of the COTP. Anticipate the potential for draft and other restrictions based upon the assessment of waterways and aids to navigation surveys.

As the world focuses its attention on a safe and healthy reopening, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for hurricane season. Social distancing and other guidance to keep us safe from COVID-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan that a vessel previously had in place. This may include the items in a crew member’s go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters, and more. 

Now is the time to revise and adjust emergency plans. Natural disasters will not wait.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), which provides flag-state inspection services to private and commercial yachts on behalf of several flag-state administrations. A deck officer graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as Master on merchant ships, acted as Designated Person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at 954-596-2728 or