Traffic control in the Houston ship channel

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, October 22nd and you’re listening to The World and Everything in It from WORLD Radio. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Last month Tropical Storm Imelda dumped as much as 22 inches of rain on parts of Southeast Texas. Much of that water ended up in the San Jacinto River. Which flows into a 73-mile waterway that leads to one of the busiest ports in the country.

EICHER: Yeah, it’s the Houston Ship Channel. And it is also home to the second largest petrochemical complex in the world. So it’s a busy place with scores of vessels passing through each day.

A division of the U.S. Coast Guard manages all that. It’s called the Vessel Traffic Service—VTS—Houston-Galveston Sector.

In our occasional series What Do People Do All Day, WORLD Radio correspondent Bonnie Pritchett introduces us to 

U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Darlene Sao.

DARLENE SAO: I mean it’s just raining so hard. It’s like the same when you’re in your car, it’s raining so hard you can’t see. It’s the same for the mariners…

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: 26-year-old U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Darlene Sao, is a 2015 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. She and her colleagues keep 1,700 mariners and maritime industry representatives apprised of the ever-changing conditions on the Houston Ship Channel.

On a routine day, up to 75 vessels and as many as 500 tow movements, transit the winding, and sometimes very narrow, channel. At the moment, because of Tropical Storm Imelda, there are only 30 vessels.

The VTS is kind of like air traffic control for ships—really, really big ships.

But even big ships are no match for rapidly shifting currents.

SAO: Since most of the flooding is north right now, what we’re really worried about is the San Jac, so all of these…

Sao points to one of the approximately 40 monitors surrounding the VTS Watch Floor. They show camera and satellite views of each vessel’s passage through the channel. The screen drawing Sao’s attention at the moment shows an enlarged map of the waterway. Sao identifies a sharp bend in the passage where the San Jacinto River flows into the ship channel.

That confluence creates a three-way intersection for container ships, tankers, tugs with multiple barges and today, potentially hazardous currents.

SAO: So, this is what worries us the most for mariners is when it rains a lot up north is the San Jac flooding. Because, when mariners come out of the San Jac, they won’t be able to have control if the flood water just takes them…

The flood waters did just that. Nine barges broke loose from their moorings and were swept downstream where they slammed into the Interstate 10 bridge that crosses the river. The damage shut down traffic traveling over and under the bridge. And, as with every change in ship channel conditions, Sao issued another update.

NEWSCLIP: Breaking news from the Houston Ship Channel where deputies are continuing arrest Green Peace portestors dangling from the Fred Hartman Bridge. 

It’s not always nature’s fury that interrupts shipping traffic and keeps Sao busy communicating updates. 

ASSISTANT CHIEF TIM NAVARRE: We’ve also had to shut down the ship channel temporarily because…

A week before Imelda’s unwelcome arrival, Harris County Sheriff Assistant Chief Tim Navarre spoke with reporters about protestors who had rappelled off a bridge that spans the ship channel. There they dangled for hours until authorities lowered them to awaiting vessels where they were arrested.

SAO: We, as VTS, all we can do is close the waterway. With the protestors hanging down from below the bridge, it decreased the air draft so ships need a certain clearance to go under the bridge…

On a usual day, Sao knows in advance where along the waterway traffic will be impacted by scheduled activities. Monitoring traffic on the Houston Ship Channel is not unlike monitoring traffic on Houston roadways – endless construction, road hazards, detours, road closures, accidents…

SAO: You stay on your 12-hour watch and during that 12-hour watch you’re monitoring traffic. There’s going to be some sort of full or partial closure that day. There’s multiple dredges at work so you’re making sure the mariners are going around those dredges safely that we’re notifying them, or maybe there’s divers in the water. So, you’re just managing all of the traffic throughout the day.

What inspired the small-town Illinois daughter of Vietnamese refugees to join the US Coast Guard?

SAO: I had a great childhood but I wanted to see more of the world growing up and I thought a great way to do that would be to join the military. And I was like I love the mission of the Coast Guard. I like that they are a life-saving service. It’s humanitarian mission. And, so, I was like, ‘I’m going to go into the Coast Guard.”

There is a constant ebb and flow to the daily activities above the water, below the water and on the shore. Being able to communicate those changes, especially in an emergency, requires an intimate knowledge of the channel and the entities that operate there.

SAO: Everyone that goes through VTS is required to go through training. And part of that training is learning every single dock and every single waterway that covers the VTS area.

How many docks do they have to memorize?

SAO: Over 700 docks.

One of those docks is for a regular ferry that carries about 10 cars back and forth between the northern and southern banks.

VOICE: Welcome to the Lynchburg Ferry. For your safety we ask that you shut off your engines and set your parking brake. 

The small ferry soon begins crossing the channel. With the erratic currents, plus tankers, tugs, and container ships to contend with, it looks like a game of chicken. But each mariner knows the rules of the waterways. And 22 miles away, in a windowless room, Darlene Sao and her fellow VTS colleagues, are watching.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Bonnie Pritchett, reporting from Houston, Texas.

(Photo/Bonnie Pritchett)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Traffic control in the Houston ship channel

  1. Mitch Boggan says:

    I really enjoyed this story and the series! Please continue these stories.

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