NHC, Hurricane Hunters CHAT preparedness in the Caribbean

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman

For the first time since 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” were able to team up for a Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico April 20-21.

“The CHAT is an incredible opportunity to get out and talk hurricane preparedness,” said NHC Director Ken Graham.

Each of the three stops on the tour featured a number of the respective islands’ government officials as well as entities involved with emergency response including Civil Air Patrol, port authority, law enforcement, local media, and more.

Graham said being able to get out and meet and speak with people face to face is great for bringing awareness to the importance of being prepared, and it’s a great way to get those preparedness efforts going now.

“For places here like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it’s not like there can be this mass evacuation before a storm, so preparedness is everything,” said Graham. “Getting through the storm is only part of the equation. It’s really rough afterwards when it’s hot and there’s power outages and debris. After the storm can be tough, so a lot of our focus is being prepared not just to get through the storm, but also having what you need for the aftermath.”

While organizations like the NHC and National Weather Service San Juan forecast office work to churn out accurate information to make sure people in the Caribbean prepare accordingly and/or get out of the way of a hurricane, the 53rd WRS’s role in preparedness is to fly into it.

From low-level invests of not-yet-developed storms to flying at 10,000 feet right through the eye of a hurricane, the 53rd holds the unique distinction of being the only unit in the Department of Defense to perform their flying mission of collecting atmospheric data from tropical systems for the purpose of forecast improvement.

The unit is equipped with 10 WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft that are fitted with special pallets inside for a dropsonde operator and an aerial reconnaissance weather officer and a stepped frequency microwave radiometer on the co-pilot side wing. This equipment, along with standard radar imagery, allows the ARWO to send atmospheric data collected in a storm to the NHC who inject the data in their models resulting in a more accurate forecast track.

“We do a lot of quality checking of our data to make sure what we’re sending to the National Hurricane Center is accurate,” said 1st Lt. Amaryllis Cotto, 53rd WRS ARWO. “In turn, when we get that quality data to the NHC, the NHC is able to inject it into their models allowing for a more accurate forecast allowing people to prepare accordingly and potentially saving lives.”

That more accurate forecast results in the issuing of relevant watches, warnings and advisories from the National Weather Service that allows local governments and emergency agencies to be better prepared when a storm hits.

“The partnership between the NHC and the Air Force Reserve’s Hurricane Hunters is incredible,” said Graham. “(They) give us the data we need to issue watches and warnings, and the data they send can improve the models by 20% which is just amazing. (The Hurricane Hunters) are heroes flying towards the storm as everyone else is going away from it, and we couldn’t do our job without them.”

Having grown up in Puerto Rico, Cotto has seen firsthand the devastation that storms can bring, She lived through Hurricanes Irma and Maria and knows the importance of preparedness and the vital role her Air Force Reserve’s unit plays in it.

“I personally know how hard it is not just to recover,” said Cotto to the crowd in St. Thomas. “It’s the trauma, the emotions of seeing everything you’ve known since childhood gone. We in the 53rd are all very motivated to provide this mission. A lot of us have lived through hurricanes as well, and know where you’re coming from. We’re honored to do this life-saving mission.”

For all things hurricane preparedness, visit ready.gov.