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NEW ORLEANS - On the outskirts of New Orleans, one local Coast Guard unit learns to co-exist with wildlife in order to fulfill their mission.
With a crew of 25 and one of the biggest pieces of property the Coast Guard owns, this tight-knit crew maintains the field and takes care of assets worth more than $31 million.
“With a piece of property that is 2,000 acres, it’s a lot to take care of with a small crew,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Travis Walton, a machinery technician at Coast Guard Communication Station New Orleans.
Communication Station New Orleans serves as the ears of the Gulf Coast. The unit has hundreds of acres full of antennas and satellites. The crew maintains the receivers and transmitters to preserve a signal used for communication in military and civilian vessels and aircraft.
“Every year at Communications Station New Orleans we provide the Gulf with more than 2,000 voice broadcasts, 1,000 weather fax broadcasts, more than 1,500 navigational technology broadcasts as well as 35,000 automated distress system tests and actual distress calls,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Sasser, a electronics technician at Communication Station New Orleans. “These systems provide communication support for more than 400 Coast Guard operations.”
With a large mission and a small crew, one of the biggest challenges they face is the nature and wildlife that comes with the large property.
“We have to deal with wildlife and all the debris that comes from trees dying, downed trees, windstorms, all that dams up all the culverts,” said Walton. “That means we have to take a guy and put him in the water with the risk of alligators and snakes and have people watch out for him so they can actually take their shovels and dig out all the canals and ditches.”
The station often confronts drainage issues. They have a canal that has to be maintained from their side of the levee on the property that goes off into an industrial cut to drain off the water that builds up.
“Alligators don't bother us much, but they do get in the drainage ditches, sometimes when the guys are mowing the yards we have alligators walk across the parking lot,” said Walton. “There are also snakes, tons of snakes, any kind of snake Louisiana has is on this property.”
The wildlife at the communication station affects nearly every aspect of their mission from the culverts, the fields and even the roads.
“We got a couple of beavers that like to dam up all our ditches,” said Walton “We can tear down all their dams and two days later they are all back up, so the beavers win each time.”
“These beavers have been building a dam on this road for a couple of months. As soon as it rains for any period of time the dams will cause the roadway to flood.” said Lamb. “That makes it a hazard for us, we need the roadways to reach the different parts of our unit. There isn't much we can do about the beavers. This is their habitat and we are just a part of it.”
Field maintenance for the station is a daunting task to keep up due to Louisiana weather. The unit has more than 750 acres to mow and maintain. Spring showers cause the grass to grow rapidly, which makes it difficult for crews to maintain most of the fields that are below sea level.
“Whenever it rains, even when its dry for two weeks, the fields are still wet, and with the swamp bottoms, we have to wait a long time before we can mow the fields.” said Walton.
The fields are kept mowed to prevent them from affecting the towers and antennas found all over the unit. There are various towers, ruts and waterways that are maintained along with all the mowing that takes place, and the communication station is well prepared with the right equipment to handle the job.
“The equipment that we use is tractor-size and the mowing equipment is a lot larger scale than most other Coast Guard units use; our tractors are a lot larger, and our mowing deck is a lot larger,” said Walton. “This is commercial industrial farm equipment that people are using that is pretty technological which requires people to learn and get qualified on to maintain these fields.”
Weather isn't the only factor that affects the fields. The communications station has a large population of wild hogs that love to cause trouble for the unit.
“The hogs in our unit are a hazard to the field and our equipment. They will come out when the fields get wet and dig up the ground looking for bugs and grub or even just to roll around in the mud,” said Seaman Craig Lamb of Communication Station New Orleans. “The hogs that run around the station can root up the guide wires on our antennas and mess up our cable that can cause several thousand dollars in damage and potentially hinder communications in the gulf.”
To deal with the pesky swine, the unit incorporated a hunting policy for all active duty military in the area.
“The hunting program is a good way to maintain the population of those wild hogs. It’s a morale booster at the same time as doing government work,” said Walton “We don't waste any of them either; we will take them and have morale cook off and eat what we harvest off the property.”
Wild hogs aren't the only risk to the towers and field equipment. Hurricanes are a well known risk to the New Orleans area. True to the Coast Guard motto, the communications station is Semper Paratus in a hurricane response.
“During a hurricane response we have a skeleton crew that stays behind to maintain the unit which consists of five people. We maintain the generators to make sure they will be online for the receivers and transmitters to maintain a signal,” said Walton. “If it does come to a point to where it is unmanageable to stay, the skeleton crew will evacuate and we will make sure all the generators are online ensuring power is transferred over so those towers can maintain their signal.”
The station can keep a two-week cycle to keep a signal out, pending any damage to any equipment or towers being down on the storm without the crew even being on the facility. They also play an important part in keeping the public informed of dangerous weather conditions.
“We have broadcasts for Coast Guard and civilian vessels as well as aircraft on the Mississippi River and throughout the Gulf. We send out weather broadcasts, navigation notices, and emergency notices to mariners so that any vessels can get out of the storms way and get to safety,” said Sasser. “In addition to radio broadcast, we have a digital selective calling system which is automated distress system located on vessels out on the Gulf, if any of them should go down, this system lets us know who and where they are,” said Sasser.
Whether it’s wildlife or the forces of nature, they are yet another example of how the Coast Guard does more with less. Communications Station New Orleans provides excellent and vital service behind the scenes.
Where snakes and sticks outnumber cellphone signals, Communication Station New Orleans’ transmissions are clear.
Their service and vigilance is the answer to the question - is anyone out there?