New Marine Safety Unit commander brings hurricane, oil spill response experience

MORGAN CITY, La. — The new commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit is in his first tour in Louisiana but has dealt with some issues associated with coastal Louisiana, including hurricane response and oil spill response.

Capt. David McClellan, 43, originally from Sherwood, Ore., took over as commanding officer of the Marine Safety Unit in Morgan City on June 13. His last post was in Miami where he was chief of the prevention department and was in charge of all marine inspections.

There were not any direct hits when he was in Miami, but hurricanes and tropical storms frequently “skirted” the coast where he was, McClellan said.

McClellan has served in the Coast Guard for 22 years, and has a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the Coast Guard Academy and has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of South Florida. McClellan lives in Houma. He and his wife, Maggie, have two sons, Grant, 14, and Howard, 8.

He was stationed at Guam at one point in his career when a Category 3 super typhoon, similar to a hurricane, hit the island causing substantial damage, he said.

When he was in school as a cadet, McClellan was involved in disaster response to the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. During the BP oil spill, when he was stationed in Miami, a special Florida Peninsular Command Post was set up to watch what was going on. His unit tested tar balls that washed up on shore, but none of them were from the BP oil spill, he said.

When preparing for hurricane season, there is a lot of working together through partnerships to make sure the ports are ready for a hurricane and offshore structures are ready for a storm.

The Coast Guard uses its resources to “keep people safe out there,” he said.

The Marine Safety Unit in Morgan City responds to incidents and patrols with its two 29-foot response boats. “We can do everything from search and rescue to support,” McClellan said. “In our investigations, our pollution response, we can put people on there and transport them around. … There’s a lot of places you can’t get to very easily by car, and a boat is the best way to get there.”

The Marine Safety Unit in Morgan City does routine patrols of the Atchafalaya River in addition to responding to reports of incidents, McClellan said. “It’s a pretty good mix,” he said.

“It’s important for us to be out on the water as much as we can. We are limited somewhat on what we can do,” McClellan said, referring to number of patrol hours the unit is limited to due to budget constraints. However, the unit still tries “to be visible out there and watch what’s going on and try to make things as good as we can,” McClellan said.

Some of McClellan’s duties in Morgan City also entail roles as captain of the port responsible for its safety and security, the officer in charge of marine inspection, and the federal on scene coordinator for the coastal zone in the area, which means he is responsible to respond to oil spills or hazardous material releases and coordinate cleanup, he said.

The captain of the port’s jurisdiction is 12 miles offshore, he said. Outer-continental shelf activities extend beyond 12 miles, and the Marine Safety Unit has some responsibilities out there, McClellan said.

“We’re a resource-provider for Sector New Orleans for search and rescue so our folks could be called on to do search and rescue at any time,” McClellan said.

McClellan is looking to ensure that his unit continues to run professionally and provides a service to the American public. He plans to follow much of what his predecessor Capt. Jonathan Burton did before him.

“Especially from the community’s perspective, I’m not looking to make a whole lot of changes. It’s probably going to be seamless whatever changes I make,” McClellan said.

Budget cutbacks to the military have affected the unit somewhat, but the unit is able to still carry out its mission, McClellan said. However, the Coast Guard has had to think of ways to do things with the resources it has available.

The safety unit has to carry out the laws and regulations that Congress and the president have “entrusted” the unit to carry out. Still, McClellan also wants to minimize “any negative effects,” and “be respectful of the mariners,” and “do our job while helping them do their job,” he said.

McClellan has about 140 personnel in Morgan City under his command, and about 40 personnel in a sub-unit in Houma and five inspectors in Lafayette also under his command. McClellan wants those personnel under his command to gain a lot through their experience in the area and enjoy themselves, he said.

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