Just four days after landfall, NOAA conducted flyovers of the most heavily impacted areas. This imagery was used to identify debris and target vessels; vessels that were actively discharging pollutants were prioritized for immediate response. Assessment teams using a survey application were sent to the vessels to validate the findings, collect additional data and post information for the owner where possible (many vessels were completely submerged). The assessment teams ultimately inspected 2,679 vessels and identified 2,454 for pollutant recovery and removal. Over the course of several months, private parties removed 1,445 of their own vessels, leaving 1,009 for the Irma ESF-10 Florida mission.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) staff led the Environmental Unit (EU) that was established to manage the many issues associated with recovering pollutants and removing vessels from shallow water habitats, mangrove fringes, salt marshes, critical habitats, archaeological sites and other resources-at-risk without causing additional damage. Based on permits and regulations required by NOAA, USFWS, FKNMS, DEP, SHPO and THPO, the Environmental Unit established a comprehensive set of Best Management Practices and provided training for the vessel removal teams.
The EU produced a “grid package” for each vessel removal that graphically identified the shoreline habitats, biological resources and summarized the BMP’s to protect those specific resources at risk during removal operations. The grid packages relied heavily on Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) data that is developed and compiled largely from the work of FWC scientists. ESI data focuses on habitats, species and socioeconomic resources that are particularly sensitive to oil spills. This includes critical habitats, threatened and endangered species, juvenile populations, and managed areas such as wildlife refuges, parks and archaeological sites. Geospatial representation of the ESI data helped identify vessels located in sensitive areas and remove them with minimal impacts. Since ESI data combines information from habitat, species and socioeconomic information, researchers have found it is useful for a wide range of applications beyond oil spill response. The EU also established a Natural Resource Advisor program for on-scene assistance with vessels that were found deep into mangrove stands or shallow water habitats such as seagrasses, corals and hardbottom.