With Tropical Storm Isaac bearing down on the Dominican Republic and Haiti and threatening to strengthen over the eastern Caribbean, the “Hurricane Hunters” from the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron are in the air, relaying critical data to National Weather Service forecasters in Miami.
Meanwhile, staffs at both the U.S. Southern and Northern Commands are monitoring the storm closely and ensuring they are ready to provide support to civilian authorities, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Three six-person crews from the 53rd WRS and their maintainers and support staff deployed to St. Croix from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., last weekend, Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, the squadron’s chief meteorologist, told American Forces Press Service. Operating out of the international airport there, they began flying their specially equipped C-130J Hercules aircraft through the storm Aug. 21.
On a typical mission that can run up to 12 hours, the aircrews crisscross the storm in what the teams call an “alpha pattern,” he explained. Sophisticated onboard instruments and small canisters dropped by parachute to the ocean’s surface collect accurate measurements of the storm’s location and intensity.
That information is fed continuously to the National Hurricane Center via an onboard satellite link. In addition, the aircraft sends automated messages every 10 minutes, relaying barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, and other measurements.
“The reason this data is critical is because, with satellites, you can track where storms are and get a general picture, but you can’t peer into the storm and physically measure what is happening at the ocean’s surface,” Talbot said. “That is the important piece of information you need to know when it comes to providing warnings to the public. The emergency management community needs to know what is going on near the surface of the ocean, because those are the winds that are going to come ashore.”
With about six missions already under their belts during the past three days, Talbot said, the pace will pick up considerably as Isaac moves west toward the United States. “Currently, we are doing about three missions a day, but that will go up to four or five when the storm comes within 300 miles of the U.S. coastline,” he said.
The Hurricane Hunters expect to move west along with the storm, redeploying to Keesler Air Force Base to resume those missions beginning this weekend. In the event that the crews have to evacuate Keesler, Talbot said, they already have alternate operating sites lined up. “We track these things pretty closely, because if we end up having to jump from here, we still have to continue flying and providing that data while we are evacuating our own resources,” he said. “It becomes a big, tangled web, but it always works out pretty well.”
As a precaution, aircraft and ships are being moved out of the storm’s possible path and other assets are being secured, according to Southcom spokesman Army Lt. Col. Darryl Wright. Planning teams are busy running rehearsal meetings and preparing to verify personnel and resource requests, if USAID issues them, he said.
Wright emphasized that military support, if provided, would be part of a coordinated U.S. response led by civilian authorities. “We conduct close coordination and planning and provide DOD support to relief efforts upon request,” he said. “Through this close coordination, we ensure that we respond with the most efficient means available to the U.S. government.”
In terms of disaster response, Wright said efficiency is typically more important than speed in reducing suffering and saving lives.
Northcom, too, is in a monitoring mode. But with the storm expected to intensify late this weekend when it hits the Atlantic and the Florida Straits, the command deployed a defense coordinating officer and element to Puerto Rico on Aug. 20 to support FEMA, John Cornelio, Northcom’s media operations chief, told American Forces Press Service.
The element of about 20 people is assessing the situation and standing ready to provide assistance, if requested. “We have learned the value of being forward enough to cut down on the response time, if required,” Cornelio said.
With Isaac’s path still anyone’s guess, officials say it’s too soon to know whether it will hit Tampa, site of next week’s Republican National Convention. Northcom has a team deployed there to support the Secret Service during the convention, Cornelio reported.