Navy races to clear port so needed supplies can reach land
HACHINOHE CITY, Japan — The U.S. Navy is racing the clock in Hachinohe City’s port, hoping to help open an underwater lane that will allow a Japanese barge to deliver fuel so desperately needed in local communities.
A massive March 11 earthquake and the deadly tsunami it spawned caused massive damage to port towns across northeastern Japan. At Hachinohe, about 700 shipping containers and 200 cars remain unaccounted for after a 9-foot tsunami smashed the port. Huge boats were washed inland, and nobody’s really sure what’s under the surface of the water.
Lt. Cmdr. Derek Peterson, the 7th Fleet’s only salvage officer, was helping coordinate the efforts there Friday, running a headquarters element at the Navy’s Defense Fuel Support Point Hachinohe.
Japanese coast guard and other officials were leading the charge – hoping to get the fuel tanker into the port in a day or two – and Peterson’s crew continually updated them on what help the U.S. could provide.
U.S. Navy divers with various specialties had been rushed in, some pulled from a training exercise in South Korea. On Friday, they pulled sonar devices and other mapping equipment on long sweeping passes through the port to better understand what was lurking under the water. Other divers, clad in life-saving wet suits, braved the 40-degree water to get a firsthand look underneath the surface.
The Sasebo-based USNS Safeguard – a Military Sealift Command ship – arrived about a mile off shore Thursday night, and by midafternoon Friday was headed into port to pull some sunken cars out of the way with its giant cranes. The USS Tortuga, also home-ported in Sasebo, was off the coast serving as an “afloat staging base” for the operation, Navy officials said.
Peterson said the U.S. personnel and vessels were “brought in to support Japan in their efforts.”
“The goal is to clear a ... path for ships to enter,” he said.
Hachinohe is just the first of six ports the Navy will assist with. The others are Misawa, Miyako, Kamaishi, Ofunato and Sendai. Some of those towns were absolutely battered, with Ofunato losing more than 3,500 homes.
According to the Navy, “unobstructed pier and port facility access to shipping” is crucial to recovery efforts. And the Navy’s ability to take underwater surveys, remove obstructions, and conduct heavy salvage lift operations will be of assistance.
Rick Storment, a retired Navy master diver, is one of the civilians who works aboard the Safeguard. He said he was at home watching television in the Philippines when he saw news of the earthquake. He knew immediately his phone would be ringing and he’d get the call to mobilize.
On Friday, he stood on the ground in Hachinohe, clad in a warm coat and stocking cap, joking about the cold. But he remained serious about the mission.
“We have a lot of capabilities on board (the Safeguard),” he said, adding that the ship can lift up to 40 tons. “Anything bigger than that and we’ll have to drag it off to the side.”
One key bit of information the divers were coming back with was the depth of the water in various places, he said. The last thing the captain would want to do is ground the ship.
“We want to make sure we’re safe,” he said. “We want to be part of the fight.”