NOAA 2005-041
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Response Drill to Enhance Public Safety and Environmental Protection

NOAA, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Department of Environmental Protection today responded to a simulated ship grounding and oil spill in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The first-ever Safe Sanctuaries emergency response drill was designed to improve the agencies' ability to protect the environment and the public in the event of an incident.

NOAA’s first Safe Sanctuaries drill involved the hypothetical grounding of the M/V Portsmith Trader, an 800-foot cargo vessel carrying 1.2 million gallons of fuel, at Elbow Reef off Key Largo. In the scenario, the grounding injured coral reef habitat and submerged historical artifacts, and an oil spill threatened other resources. The drill involved field operations in the Key Largo area. A series of buoys represented the grounded vessel. The Monroe County Emergency Operations Center in Marathon served as the exercise command post.

“The Safe Sanctuaries drill provided a real-world test of NOAA’s ability to work with the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners to protect natural and cultural resources in the case of a major grounding or hazardous material spill,” said Timothy R.E. Keeney, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. “The size and scope of today’s emergency response exercise demonstrates our commitment to protecting the health and safety of the citizens, environment and economy of the Keys, and provides us with insights that will be useful in hazardous material spill response.”

To simulate an oil spill, NOAA released hundreds of orange and yellow drift cards designed to float on the water surface, responding to wind and current. The public is asked to watch for cards that may wash up on shore. Each card contains written reporting instructions, in English and Spanish. By tracking the cards’ movement, NOAA will learn more about where hazardous materials travel in the event of a spill. The small wooden cards are nontoxic-biodegradable and will decompose within a few months if not found. Information on where drift cards from the drill are found will be available at

During the exercise, NOAA also deployed an incident meteorologist to monitor weather conditions; activated NOAA All Hazards Radio, simulated a boating accident in which an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) was deployed, conducted helicopter surveys of the simulated spill, deployed a real-time observation buoy at Elbow Reef; conducted rapid surveys of the seafloor, and assessed injury to natural resources resulting from the incident.

“Early planning and participation in emergency response drills allows all partners to be prepared for emergency situations,” said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen M. Castille. “Protecting the unique and environmentally-sensitive Florida Keys and ensuring the safety of area citizens is vital during emergency response situations.”

“By establishing a variety of protective measures such as specific areas to be avoided and the Racon radar beacons that line the reef tract, we have reduced the occurrence of large ship groundings in the Florida Keys,” said Billy Causey, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. “The Safe Sanctuaries drill provided a valuable opportunity to test our ability to work with our partners to prevent further damage to the environment in the event of a major grounding and fuel spill.”

Designated in 1990, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, hardbottom communities, mangrove shorelines and mud and sand habitat. NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program and the state of Florida jointly manage the sanctuary.

The NMSP seeks to increase the public awareness of America’s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, the NOAA sanctuary program manages 13 national marine sanctuaries and one coral reef ecosystem reserve. The National Marine Sanctuary System encompasses more than 150,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

The NOAA Ocean Service manages the NMSP, and is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. NOS balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats, and mitigating coastal hazards.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through research to better understand atmospheric and climate variability and to manage wisely our nation's coastal and marine resources.

On the Web:


NOAA Ocean Service:

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program:

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary:

Real time details of the drill: