in the EYE of the STORMS

Talk about being in the eye of the storm. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, who earned a Master’s in Marine Affairs at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, is in two of the biggest storms you could imagine, both literally and figuratively.

As commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District headquartered in New Orleans, Landry oversees Coast Guard operations covering 26 states, more than 1,200 miles of coastline, 10,300 miles of island waterways from Florida to Mexico and the entire navigable lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee river systems. A big part of her responsibilities include preparing for the hurricane season.

Enough? Not yet. Last April and May, Landry was in charge of search and rescue operations in the Gulf after the now infamous Deepwater Horizon Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit explosion and subsequent leak. She also served as the federal on-scene coordinator in command of joint federal operations in the Gulf until early June, when she returned to her primary duties at the Eighth District just in time to make immediate plans for the hurricane season with the oil leak looming as additional distress.

With the challenge of a leak one mile below the surface and questionable information about the amount of oil actually being leaked, the Coast Guard had to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Soon enough, inaccurate information on the volume of the leak started circulating from BP, and as days dragged into weeks with no success in plugging the leak, it began to look like a serious situation had the potential to become dire.

At this writing, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was well into its third month with conservative predictions that it would take until late summer or fall before a relief well could be finished that would allow officials to plug the leak. “At first our major concerns were to fight the fire, evacuate survivors, and deal with critical injuries once we had recovered the victims,” Landry recalled. “You always look ahead in situations like this, and initially we thought it could be managed, but once the rig sank, it was a worst case scenario. Our primary responsibility is for safety and environmental protection. We knew the well could go at any moment.”

When it became obvious in May and early June that capping the well wasn’t going to happen, the focus turned to long term effects of an oil leak that ranged in the tens of thousands of barrels per day. Landry had dealt with an oil spill in Buzzards Bay as commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Providence. Her strength as a commander was tested later as the executive officer of the Marine Safety Office in Boston during the September 11 attacks, so she understood stress and the importance of sturdy planning and communication.

“As unfortunate as spills are, they do teach you lessons, and if you learn the lessons and improve regulations and planning, you can prevent more spills,” Landry said.

Landry says her biggest concern now in respect to the Gulf spill and other potential disasters is “unity of effort.” Her experience with Deepwater Horizon led her to believe that everyone is not on the same page with planning and response. “It’s challenging enough to save the ecosystem and a way of life,” she said. “We need a kind of 9/11 attitude in response to all of this where the nation works together to meet the challenge.”

Landry’s job of protecting the Gulf region against hurricane damage became even more important because of the oil spill. Hurricanes in the Gulf could hinder efforts to plug the well and could disperse oil over a wider area causing more damage to ecosystems, wildlife and marine organisms. The potential for economic disaster multiplied.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into hurricane preparation,” Landry said. “We have to make plans and work with the various states and agencies, ports, and officials. We have a great network of people, and we’re doing new things. The $14.4 billion hurricane barrier in New Orleans is nearly finished. It’s a 100-year protection barrier and pumping system.

“Last year we had 200 extra vessels in the region, and we’ll have 120 more this year. About 85 percent of the barges involved in this [the oil spill] response are from this area. Another 15 percent have to be included in plans. There are over 500 oil skimmers in the region. All these have to be moved in the event of a hurricane, as well as offshore supply vessels. It’s a tremendous undertaking.”

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Landry joined the Coast Guard on the recommendation of a cousin for what she expected would be a three-year term. “The mission and the people grow on you,” she said.

Completing Officer Candidate School in 1980, she steadily moved up the ranks and has served the majority of her career in the marine safety field. That was the focus of her studies at GSO where she took classes with Dennis Nixon, Lawrence Juda, and others for whom she has high praise.

“I have carried so much of what I learned there to my tasks in the Coast Guard,” she said. “It’s a wonderful program with great professors who are experts in their field. I met some terrific people there. It was a very eclectic group of people from all walks of life including educators at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, the Boston Aquarium, and the American Bureau of Shipping. I have worked on projects with one of my classmates, John Gallagher, M.M.A. ’95, of the American Bureau of Shipping.”

Juda recalls Landry as an inquisitive student who wanted to learn as much as she could. “She’s in the spotlight and obviously very capable,” he said. “We have a lot of our graduates in Washington, D.C., in the field of ocean policy, and we have a distinct presence in the ocean community.

“Admiral Landry shows how what we teach here is relevant in real life. She took advantage of the opportunity and she uses it in her professional life.”

Landry certainly agrees. “It was a great experience,” she said of her years at URI. “I still remember debates we had there about international law and the law of the sea. It was so beneficial to me in my work.”

— By John Pantalone ’71
Photos Courtesy of United States Coast Guard