On the thirteenth floor of a nondescript federal building in downtown New Orleans sits the headquarters of Coast Guard District 8, which is responsible for 26 U.S. states. The district response operations are run by one man, Captain Dave Cooper, a 29-year veteran of the Coast Guard who spent the majority of his career as an HH-65 Dolphin pilot. From his corner office you can see most of the New Orleans skyline, the Mississippi River, and the Crescent City Connection bridge. As we talk, a container ship moves slowly down the river. Cooper is trim and lean, with a shaved head. He looks like a quintessential helicopter pilot. Originally from the Bronx, Cooper is finishing his career as the chief of response for District 8.
As the chief of response, Cooper works directly for Admiral Thomas, who has about 10,000 people under his command, including auxiliary members, reservists, civilian personnel, and active-duty Coasties. Cooper’s primary role is directing the District 8 command center, which is responsible for handling approximately 7,600 response cases per year. These cases could include anything from search and rescue to environmental disasters, as well as things like vessel collisions and groundings. The command center is also responsible for intelligence gathering and enforcing federal laws, along with a litany of other tasks. District 8 spans from the U.S./Canadian border to the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning the command center could be directing a search for a man overboard on the Mississippi River and simultaneously be establishing a safety zone for an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The command center itself is down the hall from Cooper’s office. Inside, it looks similar to NASA’s mission control—banks of computer terminals all face one large screen. On the screen are various news stations, a map of the district, and, oddly enough, the Food Network. You can’t take any electronics inside the room, and visitors must sign in and out on a clipboard next to the door. Although I shake hands with a few members of the staff, I’m not permitted to glance at the computer screens.
“We just launched a 65 for an UnCor,” says Lieutenant Greg Marshall, one of the officers at the command center. UnCor is short for an uncorrelated distress call. In this case, a vessel radioed “help me” and hasn’t been heard from since. Marshall has directed the closest available air asset, an HH-65 Dolphin, to search for the vessel where it’s believed to have last been spotted. Cooper nods and asks a few questions, but Marshall has the situation handled.
It’s busy but quiet in the command center, and everyone is in high spirits (despite not being paid). It’s staffed by a mix of civilian and military personnel—both officers and enlisted Coasties. The map of the district takes up the majority of one wall, a testament to the massive operation the command center manages on any given day. I had originally planned on learning more about what the Coast Guard does in the Gulf of Mexico, but the answer would require too much time to fit into one interview and be too comprehensive to cover in one article. District 8 is home to some of the most highly skilled and specialized Coasties in the country. Among these experts are men and women responsible for things like fishing management, search and rescue, law enforcement, environmental mitigation, navigation of and maintaining safe waterways, oil rigs and oil platforms, maritime infrastructure, emergency planning, economic protection measures, and intelligence analysis. Over the next several months I’ll be making more trips to New Orleans and exploring each of these missions, learning why they are important, and meeting the men and women responsible for undertaking them.