When Hurricane Charley approached southwestern Florida in 2004, hurricane specialist Rick Knabb thought a friend would evacuate his grandmother. To make sure she’d gotten out, Knabb, then a science and operations officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Miami, called his grandmother and hoped nobody would answer.
But when she picked up on the twentieth ring and said that nobody came for her, “my heart absolutely sank as I watched the eye of Hurricane Charley come perilously close to her home,” said Knabb, now director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC). “She was lucky to live through that event.”
Knabb figures that if he and his family have struggled with this and other hurricane preparation measures, they must not be the only ones who have difficulty getting ready for hurricanes, he said Tuesday at a NOAA event at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport outside Washington, D. C.
He and other administration officials spoke at the airport as part of the agency’s Hurricane Awareness Tour that stopped along the East Coast this past week. The tour, meant to draw public attention to hurricanes in advance of the 1 June start of the U.S. hurricane season, featured airplanes used in hurricane research.
“The importance of this [tour] is really to get the nation prepared for the hurricane season,” NOAA acting administrator Ben Friedman told Eos at the event. He stressed hurricane-related hazards not just from high winds but also from storm surges and flooding.
Friedman said that people can take steps to prepare for hurricanes, including stocking up on disaster supplies and having an evacuation plan.
Commerce Secretary Shows Support for NOAA
At the event, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that efforts by NOAA, a Commerce Department agency, to help the nation deal with hurricane threats are “quite extraordinary.”
Ross lauded the agency for its research and forecasting that reduce damage from storms and other natural hazards and for the economic value generated by weather forecasts.
When asked whether he had ever flown in a hurricane research airplane like the four on display, Ross quipped, “They invited me into a hurricane. I’m not sure I’m brave enough for that. Maybe if we could buy enough trip insurance.”
Flying into a Hurricane
Lt. Danny Rees, a pilot with the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, transferred from the Navy in September 2016 and flew through his first hurricane, Matthew, just a few weeks later. In the Navy, “we avoid weather,” he told Eos. “Here you go straight through it.”
Hurricane hunters are thrill seekers and alpha types, Rees confided. However, his prehurricane flight ritual includes listening to calming music. “I don’t know; it sounds weird. I just like to bring it down a little bit because you know that you’re going to fly through a hurricane, and it’s going to be pretty intense,” he said.
Rees said he feels safe because of the planning that goes into each mission and because of the professionalism of the NOAA Corps and other crew members. Sometimes flying for 10 or more hours on a mission, that crew can include flight engineers, meteorologists, a navigator, a flight director, scientists, additional pilots, and others.
Once the plane penetrates the violent hurricane eyewall, he said, the crew hunts for the storm’s center, where there is zero wind speed. This, Rees noted, helps to determine where the hurricane is moving and what it’s doing.
“It’s surreal to be inside the eye, being the only aircraft in that area, and just seeing what Mother Nature can do,” according to Rees.
Like Being in a Submarine
Lt. Col. Drew Clark with the U.S. Air Force Reserves’ 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, who joined the hurricane hunter squadron as a pilot in 2007, told Eos, however, that there’s not much you can see inside a hurricane. “It looks like you’re in a submarine. It’s literally just sheets of water washing over the windshield.”
Clark, who believes that flying into hurricanes is safer than driving a car, said he and his team are a tool for the hurricane center and NWS to gather data that feed into and improve forecasting models. He said the data can help to narrow uncertainty about a storm’s track and help emergency managers with evacuation decisions.
Satellites, Clark said, are great for studying hurricanes. However, he emphasized the importance of getting close-up observations. “As archaic as it sounds, you’ve got to get an airplane into the hurricane in order to figure what it’s going to do and where it’s going to go,” he said.
NHC director Knabb, who grew up in southern Florida afraid of hurricanes yet fascinated by them, urged people to take precautions. The biggest killers from hurricanes, he said, are storm surges and inland flooding. “Wind can be damaging and deadly,” he said, “but we need to be more afraid of the water.”
“If they”—hurricane crews—“are willing to fly into hurricanes for us, the least [the public] can do is get ourselves ready so when those data and forecasts and warnings and evacuation instructions start flowing…we know what we’re going to do.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer