Military Responders Geared Up for Active Hurricane Season
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 2, 2005 With forecasters predicting an active hurricane season this year, military responders are geared up for whatever Mother Nature whirls their way.
Hurricane season officially kicked off June 1, and meteorologists expect the decade-long trend toward active hurricane seasons in the Atlantic to continue this summer. The National Weather Service in Miami predicts seven to nine hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, with three to five of them becoming major hurricanes before the season ends in November.
"Hurricane Hunters" from the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., are unfettered by the prediction. "We're always prepared, and we're always ready," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Odom, their public affairs officer.
The squadron had an exceptionally heavy workload last year, flying 105 missions in support of the National Weather Service. Its crews tracked five major hurricanes during the 2004 season, tracked a record eight tropical storms during August alone, and flew 11- and 12-hour missions for 26 straight days during September, Odom said. "That's unprecedented," he said.
This year, squadron members got an early jump on hurricane season, tracking Hurricane Adrian in the Pacific in mid-May.
The National Weather Service called on the Hurricane Hunters to get a fix on the tropical storm's location as it built off the coast of Central America and threatened El Salvador. During the first leg of the squadron's May 19 reconnaissance mission, Adrian was upgraded to a hurricane. As many as 20,000 residents were forced to flee their homes before Adrian moved inland and weakened.
The mission was the Hurricane Hunters' first flight into an active hurricane in the new "J" model of the WC-130 Hercules aircraft - a faster, more powerful version of the earlier-generation C-130 transport planes. The WC-130J brings new capabilities to the 53rd Squadron, Odom said, providing crews with computer-assisted flight and navigational controls and better situational awareness that help them avoid flying into the strongest storm cells.
While the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron stands ready to respond to calls from National Weather Service, U.S. Northern Command is reviewing its plans and procedures so it's ready to support any requests for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
NORTHCOM's Current Operations Group operates 24/7 at the command's Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., headquarters and, in the event of a hurricane threat, would monitor the storm's progress and help coordinate requests for help, according to Air Force 1st Lt. Jody Vazquez, a command spokeswoman. Generally that support comes in the form of logistical, medical and communications support, she said.
By law, DoD provides civil support only when local, state and other federal resources have become exhausted or overwhelmed. In those cases, the lead federal agency in charge of the crisis must ask for DoD help, and the president or secretary of defense must approve the request before NORTHCOM can take action.
Last year's devastating hurricane season, in which four major hurricanes shook Florida within just six weeks, NORTHCOM jumped into high gear when it got the order. For example, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Florida panhandle last September, the NORTHCOM staff secured long-range satellite-communications capabilities, emergency supplies and medical assistance for the areas hardest hit by the storm.
They also arranged for ice, clean water, food and other FEMA supplies to be pre-positioned at military bases in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina, where hurricanes were most likely to strike.
NORTHCOM's role in supporting civil authorities during hurricanes and other disaster relief operations is in addition to its more commonly known mission of providing homeland defense against threats aimed at the United States, Vazquez said.