As the Christmas blizzard bombarded Buffalo for three days, Paul J. Marzello Sr. nervously watched on three video screens as waves battered and seiches sloshed against the USS The Sullivans and the small fleet of ships at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.
The Naval Park president and CEO’s fears were that the 80-year-old World War II-era destroyer, built to last 20 years, would incur similar damage to the hull breaches in April, from which the Sullivans took on more than 3 million gallons of water and attracted international attention during roughly three weeks of emergency response.
“On a scale of 1-10, I was an 11,” Marzello on Tuesday said of his nerves before the blizzard. “I didn’t sleep that night. All kinds of things played in my head, for sure.”
With a new flooding alarm system not yet installed and driving bans potentially hindering BIDCO Marine Group emergency crews from reaching Canalside in an emergency, Marzello feared the worst, but when the blizzard died down, the Sullivans’ suffered far less damage than it had in April.
Instead of a 20-degree list to starboard, the Sullivans leaned just 2.7 degrees to port, almost unnoticeable at a quick glance. But Marzello said the water level in two main hull compartments — which were part of the repair in April — had risen to 31 inches and 27 inches of water.
“It’s all manageable, and we’re pumping right now,” Marzello said. “Thankfully, we didn’t have any intrusions to the magnitude like back in April. I think we’re pretty fortunate.”
Lessons learned from the April disaster benefited the Sullivans during the blizzard. In the event of a significant breach, pumps were already in place at strategic locations in the ship. The Naval Park had created an Emergency Response Plan and hired BIDCO, whose divers were part of the crisis response in April, to arrive within one hour, with divers and commercial pumps soon following. A daily monitoring schedule, in which supervisors drop a line or yardstick to measure water levels in a compartment, allowed the Naval Park staff to realize water had reentered slowly after it had been pumped out following the storm.
The next task, Marzello said, is to pump the water down to a level below the breach in order to identify its location, then secure the hull using a temporary patch.
Marzello said that naval surveyor Joseph Lombardi of Ocean Technology Systems has been working the last three weeks on evaluating the integrity of the hull, determining the level of contaminants within the ship and removing them, and examining long-term fixes.
“We’re very much leaning toward the drydocking operations — but that’s not final,” Marzello said of his preliminary discussions with Lombardi. Marzello emphasized the complexity of that potential decision; the Sullivans is “double-parked,” and the USS Little Rock and USS Croaker would also have to be cut from their moorings, moved to free a path for the Sullivans and parked at a nearby site.
The Sullivans would then face an 18-hour tow from Canalside to a drydock in Erie, Pa. The Naval Park president guessed the ship would be drydocked for three-to-four months, if that route were taken.
Marzello confirmed that the Naval Park is expected to receive the $7.5 million in federal money via Sen. Charles E. Schumer, but it has not been sent yet. Still, the blizzard — which more severely damaged the hangar building across from the Liberty Hound restaurant — did not speed up his timeline to find a long-term solution for the Sullivans.
“There’s always something that could come up that would divert your attention,” he said.
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