Deborah Kutzleb: Debris database tracks vessel recovery

Post Hurricane Katrina, Kutzleb and Phoenix International produced a database to track of thousands of vessels as the Navy cleared the waterways.

It was not an ordinary request. Officials from the Naval Sea Systems Command’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving organization asked Phoenix International to help clear wrecked marine vessels and debris in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina hit.

The Maryland-based company typically responds to Navy requests to recover wreckage in the ocean. But this time, officials wanted Phoenix and Deborah Kutzleb, the company’s information technology manager, to create a database that could keep track of thousands of vessels as the Navy cleared the waterways.


Phoenix developed a similar but much simpler database to track debris in 2003 after the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Days after Katrina struck, Navy and Phoenix officials held emergency meetings to mobilize equipment and personnel in Alexandria, La., about 140 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, La. At first they thought they would need only a few computers for the salvage effort. But the requirements grew daily. The database had to meet the needs of the Navy, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and various contractors. It would eventually contain 3,500 entries that included information about the owners and names of vessels, their types, descriptions and locations as they appeared on geographic information system maps, photographs, reports, and other supporting documentation.

“The database was the sheet of music they all looked to for the status,” Kutzleb said. Mike Herb, director of salvage operations at the naval office, described the work that Kutzleb and her colleagues conducted as highly dynamic.

“She was building a system that was attempting to be all things to all people, and therein lies the challenge from an IT perspective,” he said. “We were trying to make sure it was operationally flexible but at the same time have very stringent controls for accounting, audit and documentation purposes.”

Kutzleb spent 30 days in the Gulf Coast region over the course of several months. But even after more equipment, resources and personnel were brought in for the salvage operation, conditions were far from optimal. Kutzleb and her colleagues stayed in a modest hotel along with Gulf Coast evacuees. They worked 12- to 18-hour days in the city’s convention center, enduring poor telephone and Internet communications, inadequate drinking water and power outages. They stayed through Hurricane Rita in late September.

Capt. James Wilkins, director of the naval office, said Kutzleb’s work ethic and integrity are exceptional. “Her ability to work with our team and to support us, and to make that database as flexible and adaptable as we needed it to be, was fantastic,” he said.

The Coast Guard is spearheading salvage efforts from New Orleans while Phoenix and Kutzleb continue to improve and expand the salvage database.

Kutzleb credits Wilkins’ leadership and her colleagues’ dedication as reasons for the project’s success. “I was delighted to be there,” she said. “I would do it again and again and again because I thought the effort was so worthwhile, and the organization I was working with was making a difference.”

Photos copyright 2006 Matthew Borkoski.


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