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Bomb Cyclone Shuts Hampton Roads Maritime Traffic

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration GOES-16 satellite caught a dramatic view of the bomb cyclone moving up the East Coast on Jan. 4, 2017. NOAA Photo

A quarter billion dollars of commerce halted Wednesday night and Thursday as Hampton Roads — entry to the Chesapeake Bay — was closed by the Coast Guard, a move spurred by high winds and blizzard conditions on the water.

This week’s historic storm — dubbed a “Bomb Cyclone” by meteorologists because of how rapidly the barometric pressure dropped — also froze Navy and Marine Corps operations along the East Coast as bases and air stations had delayed openings or operated with only essential staff.

Among the most significant closure was on the water, when the Coast Guard shut down marine traffic in Hampton Roads as the region was buffeted by high winds Wednesday night. The closure remained in place Thursday, because of high winds. If weather conditions improve overnight, navigation aids are able to be checked, and port facilities can operate, the restrictions could be lifted Friday morning Capt. Rick Wester, the commander of Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads, told USNI News on Thursday.

“Restrictions were due to the winds,” Wester said. “We had 48 knot sustained winds.”

USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) are blanketed with snow following blizzard-like conditions. Harry S. Truman is moored at Naval Station Norfolk preparing for the ship’s composite-unit training exercise. US Navy Photo

Gusts were even higher, and at some points during the night, Wester said visibility on the water was down to zero because of blowing snow. While the Navy is not required to follow Coast Guard restrictions, Wester said he was told the Navy was not planning to move any ships in the region.

Hampton Roads port facilities handle $242 million worth of commerce each day. The port’s economic activity represents about 10 percent of Virginia’s gross domestic product, Wester said. Closing Hampton Roads also meant maritime traffic heading to Baltimore was halted, he added.

Reopening Hampton Roads will depend on how easily Coast Guard crews can survey the shipping lanes and verify navigational aids are where they’re supposed to be. If one breaks free, the aid becomes a navigational hazard, he said.

Watchstanders aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) shovel snow on the pier following 6-inches of snow on Jan. 4, 2017. US Navy Photo

While wind posed the biggest danger for much of Hampton Roads, ice did completely cut Tangier Island off from the mainland, Wester said. The small fishing hamlet in the Chesapeake Bay relies almost entirely on ferries to deliver goods, but was now surrounded by 4 to 7 inches of ice which prevented the daily ferry service from operating.

Thursday the Coast Guard sent a cutter from Baltimore to break the ice and deliver groceries, mail, and portable heaters, Wester said.

Meanwhile, along the storm’s path, most Navy and Marine Corps operations continued as scheduled Thursday, though several units had delayed starts to the day or only required essential personnel to be at work, according to several public affairs officers.

The storm also created some quality of life inconveniences. At Naval Station Norfolk, the Commissary, Navy Exchange, and Package Store were closed. According to social media posts, the gate to the Tarawa Terrace housing area at Camp Lejeune was frozen shut Thursday morning, causing both inbound and outbound traffic to seek alternate routes.