NEW ORLEANS - Just ten days before it was to enter Ready Reserve status, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dredge McFarland was called to perform emergency dredging operations in the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River, 90 miles south of New Orleans.
The McFarland, one of four Corps owned and operated deep-draft dredging vessels, transitioned into Ready Reserve status Jan. 1, 2010, but was summoned to Louisiana in late December.
"This is our mission; this is what being in ready-reserve status means - to be able to respond to our nation's emergencies when called upon," said McFarland Operations Manager Jim Amadio. "We hadn't even made the ready reserve transition yet and we're immediately called upon to support an important mission in the Mississippi River."
This year's weather caused large amounts of sediment to flow from the upper parts of the Mississippi River and deposit along heavily traveled shipping channels in the lower sections of the river.
Private industry dredging vessels were unable to meet all of the dredging demands due to projects in other rivers around the country. This prompted the New Orleans District to raise an alert to Corps headquarters, which then summoned the McFarland to the emergency situation in the Mississippi River.
In Ready Reserve status, the McFarland can be activated for emergency operations if private industry is unable to respond to a dredging project.
"I think of the dredge like a fire truck in that it will respond when needed, but otherwise we train, perform repairs, and keep the equipment and crew ready for all emergency call outs," said Amadio. "We are also authorized 70 days of the year in the Delaware River to maintain the river from shoals but to also train and to keep the ships equipment in a ready status."
McFarland Captain Karl VanFlorcke said he is glad to see the process is already proving to be effective.
"We've got a plan and it works," said VanFlorcke. "We're not here to compete - we're here to help and that's what we've been doing in the Mississippi."
The McFarland departed Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia on December 28th and arrived at the Southwest Pass Jan. 4th. The ship has primarily dredged a 20 mile stretch at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but it operates wherever it is needed.
"The river is surveyed on a daily basis so we constantly relocate to dredge in the areas where the sediment is shoaling," said Stanley Kostka, second mate.
Kostka said that several weeks earlier, a commercial ship ran aground because of shallow depths in certain parts of the river.
"This is important work that we're doing," said Kostka. "Maintaining these channels allows ships and resources to get where they need to go. The oil and coal that comes up the river keeps people's homes warm all around the country."
At any given time, there are approximately 30 crew members of varying experience aboard the ship. Chief Engineer Frank Moshier, a Corps employee for the last 42 years, has been coming to the Mississippi River on the McFarland for 23 of those years.
Others aboard the dredge are less seasoned, but still recognize the significance of the project.
"I've never seen so much shipping traffic before coming down here," said Adam Blinderman, a cadet serving on the dredge for 60 days before returning to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "We know how important the river is to commerce and that the job needs to get done."
The shift work - six hours on and six hours off - can take its toll, said James Gallant, first engineer.
"We all have some sleep deprivation," said Gallant. "It can become a grind when you're doing that work for several weeks straight. But the crew is easy to get along with, which makes all the difference."
Captain VanFlorcke said the crew makes a certain amount of sacrifices.
"It's the uncertainty that is especially difficult on them," he said. "They don't know how long they'll be on a project, which makes it tough for them to plan things with their families."
Nevertheless, VanFlorcke said the crew has risen to the occasion.
"They look out for each other, which is what I have to come to expect with this group," he said. "I'm proud of the way they have stepped up to get the job done."
The McFarland is scheduled to continue dredging the Southwest pass of the Mississippi River through the month of March.
The New Orleans District oversees maintenance dredging above New Orleans and south to the Lower Mississippi River. The District has employed several private industry dredges; the McFarland; and their own hopper dredge, the Wheeler, which is also in a ready reserve status.
Depending on demands of the Mississippi River, there can be as many as 6 hopper dredges in lower sections of the river maintaining navigational channels.