International outreach mission builds relationships, promotes hurricane preparedness

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Hurricane season starts June 1 and to help communities prepare, the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters and a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters visited two Mexican and four Caribbean cities April 8-13, 2019, as part of the annual Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour.

The CHAT, a joint effort between NOAA's National Hurricane Center and the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, promotes hurricane awareness and preparedness throughout Latin America and the Caribbean region.

This outreach mission began in the 1970s, and is conducted annually prior to hurricane season.

More than 20,000 people attended this year's event, which stopped at Veracruz and Cozumel, Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rica; Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; Aruba and Curacao. Locals were able to tour the aircraft and talk to NHC forecasters, Reserve Citizen Airmen with the 53rd WRS, and crew members with NOAA’s P-3.

“While the CHAT educates the public about the mission and how the Air Force Reserve and NOAA Hurricane Hunters collect data for NHC forecasts and warnings, it’s also an opportunity for the NHC director and forecasters to meet with these countries’ elected officials, meteorological services, civil protection agencies, and media partners to brief them about the impacts of hurricanes in their region and the importance of being prepared,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, a NOAA facility in Miami.

“We coordinate our forecasts with these countries, which assists them in issuing their own warnings and communicating their local impacts from the storm,” he said.

This sharing of forecasts and data has been done for many decades. North America, Central America and the Caribbean reside in region four of the World Meteorological Organization. The WMO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, was created in 1947 to facilitate worldwide cooperation in sharing meteorological information and observations as well as standardize the field and encourage research and training. For those who have wondered how storms are named, it is the WMO that manages the process for selecting the names for Atlantic and Pacific storms each year.

The CHAT is one way the NHC builds relationships with the countries in their region.  “It is critical to build these relationships in the offseason so we can effectively work together when storms threaten any country in our region” Graham said.

"The CHAT is a great opportunity for the public to come out and learn about our mission and see the WC-130J, the equipment we use, and how we collect the data and provide it to the NHC," said Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron chief pilot and aircraft commander for the trip. “This way, when they are in a hurricane’s path they are more likely to realize that these forecasts are more than just guess work and they will heed the warnings and be prepared.”

During a tropical storm or hurricane, 53rd WRS aircrews can fly through the eye of a storm four to six times. During each pass through the eye, crews release a dropsonde, which collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and barometric pressure data. The crew also collects surface wind speed and flight-level data. This information is transmitted to the NHC to assist them with their storm warnings and hurricane forecast models in the Atlantic, Caribbean and eastern Pacific.

“When we are flying storm missions and sending data to the NHC, everything they do with it after that is transparent to us.  This mission allows us to interact with the NHC director, assist him and his staff with their behind the scenes coordination with the countries in their region, and get a better understanding of how it all works.  That information can also assist us when we are out there flying reconnaissance missions,” said Ragusa.

While last year’s storm season wasn’t as active as 2017, the 2018 season still had a devastating impact due to Hurricanes Florence and Michael. At its peak, Florence was a Category 4 hurricane but weakened to a Category 1 when it made landfall in North Carolina Sept. 14, bringing catastrophic flooding to the area. A month later, Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified into a Category 4 storm and made landfall Oct. 10 along the Florida Panhandle causing extensive damage to Panama City including Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Winds speeds up to 155 mph, 1 mph short of Category 5 status, were documented with Hurricane Michael. The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters were inside the storm center as it made landfall. Michael was the fourth-strongest storm to hit the continental United States, according to NOAA. Florence and Michael caused $50 billion dollars in damage in the United States and there were 24 direct fatalities from Florence and 16 from Michael.

“Historically in the United States, ninety percent of deaths in tropical systems are water related,” said Graham. “It’s not just about the wind, but it truly is about the water and not just on the coast but many miles inland.”

During Hurricane Florence, most of the water related deaths were due to people trying to drive through flooded areas, according to Graham.

“These statistics show us how much work we still have to do, not only with improvements in the forecasts, but with the preparedness part to make sure the risks and impacts of hurricanes are communicated clearly so the public can take appropriate actions,” he said. “It only takes one storm to strike an area to make it a bad hurricane season. That's why this pre-season hurricane operations coordination mission is so important. By sharing our information with other countries and raising the public's awareness, we can save lives and property."