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Westminster native selected for Coast Guard 40 Under 40 Award after response to 2019 Midwest flooding

Christian Barger departs Coast Guard Cutter Gasconade on April 8, 2020, in Omaha, Nebraska, after conducting a readiness inspection prior to their departure for the first ATON service run on the Missouri River. - Original Credit: Courtesy photo
Christian Barger departs Coast Guard Cutter Gasconade on April 8, 2020, in Omaha, Nebraska, after conducting a readiness inspection prior to their departure for the first ATON service run on the Missouri River. - Original Credit: Courtesy photo (U.S. Coast Guard / HANDOUT)

Westminster native Christian Barger, a commander with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Upper Mississippi River, was selected as a recipient of the 2020 Inland Marine Expo (IMX) 40 Under 40 Award on May 4.

The IMX 40 Under 40 Award recognizes young professionals who have made significant contributions to the inland marine transportation systems and who show promise in shaping its future.

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Barger heads the Waterways Management Division at Sector Upper Mississippi River. He oversees Coast Guard functions related to aids to navigation performed by the sector’s five inland river buoy tenders, and works to ensure a safe and efficient marine transportation system.

The Coast Guard has the overarching responsibility for ensuring the safety of vessel operators, crew and passengers. In order to prevent vessel groundings, allisions, and collisions, the Coast Guard maintains and positions more than 50,000 buoys, day markers, fog signals, radio towers, and beacons — known as Aids to Navigation, or ATON.

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The Coast Guard is also responsible for permitting the location and clearance of more than 20,000 bridges over navigable waterways. This includes drawbridge operations, construction monitoring, alteration of unreasonably obstructive bridges and bridge lighting to facilitate the safe passage of vessels.

The Mississippi River and the navigable sections of the Missouri and Ohio rivers are the largest and busiest inland waterways in the world. With more than 6,000 miles of navigable waterways passing through 17 states, the Mississippi River and its tributaries account for 95% of all inland river system cargo. Barger oversees 2,200 miles of these rivers.

Barger was recognized for providing an unprecedented level of service and responsiveness to the maritime community from February to August 2019, during widespread flooding that occurred across the entire Sector Upper Mississippi River area.

“With the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers all simultaneously flooding, the 2019 spring floods proved historic and exceeded record crest levels along numerous stretches of the river,” said Capt. Mick Scott, Sector Upper Mississippi River Sector Commander. “During this highwater period, many locks, drawbridges, and levees were weakened, rendered inoperable or destroyed, which severely impacted the maritime transportation system.”

With the floods jeopardizing the flow of commerce, Barger implemented new ideas within his division to manage risks and ensure continuity of the complex maritime transportation system.

“As high water came at a time when the bulk of annual marine event permit applications needed review, several of the aging river tenders were experiencing mechanical issues or having their own homeport facilities damaged by flooding water, and lasted into the Coast Guard’s normal transfer season,” Barger said. “Despite all of this, the team put in long hours and successfully balanced all of the tasks necessary to meet the mission, including overseeing a record setting two closures of the St. Louis harbor. The closures spanned over 1,600 river miles in total and lasted over 91 days to mitigate vessel impacts to levees and surrounding communities. We also had the river in an elevated level of concern for navigational safety for over 270 days.”

In total, the division issued 34 emergency safety zones to halt vessel traffic on more than 1,600 miles of river in an effort to protect communities and infrastructure from further damage.

The team issued 615 broadcast notices of emergent hazardous situations. These figures are more than three times the amount issued in a typical year.

“With more than 1,600 miles of river closed to vessel traffic, serious logistics problems began to arise,” Scott said. “In response to these challenges, Cmdr. Barger overcame staffing shortages and provided the sector’s 24-hour command center with a waterways professional to provide real time coordination to ensure the most critical cargo, equipment, and vessel movements were able to safely continue their transit.”

In addition to making real-time decisions to ensure vessels transited safely through the rivers during the flooding, Barger also ensured that aid to navigation services was reliable to promote safe navigation on the waterways.

“As high water swept through the region, three of the five river buoy tenders sustained significant damage to their shore facilities and docks which hampered their ability to service aids to navigation,” Scott said. “Further complicating matters, two of the vessels suffered major mechanical failures which precluded them from getting underway. In response to all this, Cmdr. Barger employed an unprecedented level of creativity and operational flexibility. By pooling the resources, parts, equipment and crew from all five vessels, Barger was able to maintain critical ATON services on 70 percent of the river. In areas where physical ATON couldn’t occur, Cmdr. Barger leveraged technology and partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers to deploy virtual ATON to ensure mariners always had reliable ATON to use for river navigation.”

Made up of a simple arrangement of colors, shapes, numbers and light characteristics to mark navigable channels, waterways and obstructions, ATON is one of the most critical missions the Coast Guard performs.

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“As the waters receded, the work challenges didn’t end as we were charged with reconstituting aids to navigation of the waterways that were suffering from severe shoaling,” Barger said. “Working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, we were able to pioneer the use of virtual buoys placed based on surveys of the river bottom to help tows safely navigate through areas of shoaling until the river tenders could place physical buoys or Army Corps could dredge the area. This effort prevented even further delay of critical cargoes through the marine transportation system.”

Barger’s quick actions during the flooding in the spring of 2019 led him to be selected as a recipient of the 2020 IMX 40 Under 40 Award. Knowing the risks of holding back mariners and commerce, he was able to provide real-time decisions for the maritime transportation system and make safe the 2,200 miles of river he oversees.

“I am truly honored to be recognized by IMX along with my peers working in or serving the river industry,” Barger said. “This being my second time stationed at Sector Upper Mississippi River, I have a true appreciation for the importance of the river industry to the marine transportation system, and the national economy. Receiving this award is the result of having a dedicated and hard-working team at the Waterways Management Division of Sector Upper Mississippi River, including the crews of five river tenders.”

The 2020 IMX 40 Under 40 Award ceremony is tentatively to be held from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 in St. Louis.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Sydney Phoenix writes for the U.S. Coast Guard’s District Eight Public Affairs.

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