—Rachel S. Cohen
John Henderson, left, assistant Air Force secretary for installations, environment and energy, and then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, right, look at the aftermath left from
Hurricane Michael from a CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to the
8th Special Operations Squadron above northwest Florida on Oct. 14, 2018. Air Force photo by SrA. Joseph Pick.
The Air Force is taking steps to learn from last year’s devastation from Hurricane Michael as it heads into peak hurricane season.
Hurricane preparation has long been a fixture of life on the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and throughout the Pacific. But in the aftermath of the Category 5 Michael, which decimated Tyndall AFB, Fla., last October, the service is revamping its approach.
Among the changes is a new continuity of operations policy, which includes “an installation-level common operational picture that will give installation commanders near-real-time situational awareness on the status of their installation during emergencies,” Air Force spokesman Rob Leese said in an email. These procedures ensure bases continue to meet mission requirements, even if some facilities become unusable.
“Shortly after Hurricane Michael, [then-Air Force Secretary Heather] Wilson directed the deputy commander of Air Combat Command to conduct a full-spectrum assessment of how the Air Force is postured to mitigate the risks of severe weather events,” Leese wrote. “This assessment was completed in early 2019 and resulted in approximately 130 recommendations in areas as diverse as command and control, weather infrastructure and forecasting, facility requirements, and more.”
Air Force officials are applying other lessons learned into reconstruction plans at Tyndall and also Offutt AFB, Neb., which suffered a massive flood earlier this year. Leese did not provide additional details about the rest of the recommendations.
Bad weather promises to reshape sustainment, too. ACC boss Gen. Mike Holmes told Air Force Magazine earlier this year the service is considering how it could change its flow of spare parts to bases at risk of major hurricanes, so it can be more productive in the off-season and protect assets when the chance of damage is highest.
“After Tyndall, I had people write me notes and say, ‘You know, this is why you should never have anything in a hurricane, you should move everything inland,” Holmes said in June. “I see your point, but with a hurricane, I get 72 hours’ notice. With the tornadic activity at Offutt or Tinker, I might get a few hours notice.”
ACC wants the service to be more proactive so it can not only evacuate from storms, but more effectively protect assets in place as well. The command’s new Severe Weather Readiness Assessment team produced a “Hurricane Ready Prep” strategy for the 2019 storm season, focusing on installations on or near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Those areas are home to major commands, including ACC, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Forces Central Command headquarters, along with bases like Hurlburt Field and Eglin and MacDill AFBs in Florida, Keesler AFB in Mississippi, Shaw AFB in South Carolina, and Robins AFB in Georgia.
The ACC team suggested changes ranging from updating exercises and training to writing facility inspection and sheltering plans, establishing response and recovery teams, addressing equipment and supplies, and hardening emergency and crisis action facilities.
“We’ve issued a planning directive to all ACC units, which basically puts into place the things they need to plan for, and the posturing actions they need to have done ahead of time,” ACC Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Christopher Weggeman said in a recent release.
Bases also need extra funding for spare emergency weather kits in case a hurricane or tornado hits, said Col. Gerald Sullivan, ACC’s weather operations division chief.
“It’s important from a command perspective to know where every base is postured so we can be prepared to help them when and if they need the assistance,” Sullivan said in the release. “In the grand scheme of things, a lot of the strategic level leaders are providing the resources and guidance for what is being done at the tactical level.”
ACC is headquartered at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., where Hurricane Florence forced the evacuation of F-22s and T-38s to Ohio last September in anticipation of possible storm surges. The base has since updated its emergency management plan based on that experience, the readiness assessment, and other hurricane-prep directives. Airmen practiced hurricane responses and continuity plans at Langley’s emergency operations center. New leaders were briefed on preparation, response, and recovery procedures, other disaster evacuation and assessment teams were trained, and 35,000 sandbags were filled, according to ACC spokeswoman 1st Lt. Tisha Yates.
Storm prep at the base also includes “positioning of key recovery supplies, assessment of environmental issues that may impact recovery operations, and review of key plans” on shelter, vehicles, museum protection, water and ice distribution, and contingency responses, Yates said.
“The base has initiated an extensive outreach program focused on hurricanes including a quarterly newsletter to all units, an article in the base newspaper, and outreach booths at public locations highlighting damaging effects of storms, the state tiered evacuation zones, family preparation, and evacuation routes,” Yates said.
Farther south at Eglin AFB, Fla., community outreach and town halls are held to educate people about everything from potential flood hazards to what to do with pets. The base hosts vast test infrastructure, F-35 stealth fighters, and the headquarters for the Air Force’s armament directorate.
“Our munitions are always protected and stored,” Eglin spokeswoman Ilka Cole said. “When we leave our area during an evacuation, everything from support equipment to explosives and vehicles go inside and are secured to the level required.”
Air Force forecasters stay in touch with civil weather authorities like the National Hurricane Center and nearby bases to ensure all have the fullest picture possible.
No two hurricanes are alike, so installations can’t necessarily tailor their practices based on last October’s Hurricane Michael alone, Lt. Col. Perry Sweat, commander of the 96th Weather Squadron at Eglin, noted in an interview.
“Each storm is different and it requires constant communication and that close relationship with the wing leadership to make sure they have the most and the best information … to make the proper decision,” Sweat said. Hurricanes are spurring changes to Air Force weather forecasting to provide authoritative alternatives to local weather reports, and driving decisions about how to install mechanical equipment to protect it from flooding, winds, and more.
“Just like any other near-peer adversary that we have, I think the Air Force is starting to recognize weather as an adversary,” Sweat said. “We need to look at it [through] the same lens.”
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