DEER PARK, Texas — Inside the Vessel Traffic command room, the Coast Guard is busy routing and rerouting ships on the Houston Ship Channel.
It is open again, but far from normal after the ITC fire led to an oily product leak into the channel. Cleanup continues and so far 16,000 barrels of oil have been removed from the water. That chunk of the channel only operational during daylight hours.
"This is a nationally significant port," said Steve Nerheim, director of USCG Vessel Traffic Service. "When Houston isn't moving traffic, the nation notices."
On an average day, 70 ships and 400 towing vessels move through the Houston Ship Channel. That number is now down to 29. Eleven ships moved thru the impacted ITC zone.
Only one ship had to be decontaminated after oil was spotted on the hull.
"The last thing we want to do is spread that beyond where we have it contained," said Nerheim.
Ships are now moving in 30 minute intervals. Typically, it's only 5 minute intervals. About 100 ships wait offshore for clearance to make their way through the channel.
Vessel Traffic Services has to prioritize which ships and cargo can come in first. Today, a ship carrying cement was at the top of the list because construction crews are running low on concrete being used to repair and build area highways.
"The goal is to make optimum use of available water to get products to those people that are ready for them," said Nerheim.
The good news is the nation's busiest and most important waterway is slowly picking back up, but the concern is no one know when it will be 100 percent back to normal and what the final economic toll will be.