NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Prepare for the New Storm Season

Ninety percent of the fatalities in tropical storm systems are due to rising waters, and those deaths can happen hundreds and hundreds of miles inland.

by Jack Perry, The Providence Journal, R.I. / May 7, 2019

(TNS) — Imagine being a plate in a dishwasher.

That's what it's like flying into a hurricane, says Commander Nate Kahn, who pilots a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Lockheed WP-3D Orion "Hurricane Hunter" into tropical storms for a living.

"There's a lot of water, a lot of wind," Kahn, 37, said. "Every flight is different."

James Roles, 58, an electronics engineer with the crew, said, "You're kind of like a peanut in a can. It shakes you pretty good."

Kahn, Roles and other crew members were at Quonset State Airport on Monday to help raise awareness about the danger of tropical cyclones and the need to prepare for them. The Rhode Island visit, which also included a USAF Reserve WC-130J Hurricane Hunter, is part of a five-state NOAA tour during National Hurricane Preparedness Week. Hurricane season starts June 1 and continues until Nov. 30.

Students from several area schools toured the planes, which were then opened to the general public.

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service office in Norton, Massachusetts, talked about storms that have hit the region. National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham and acting Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, former director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, are on the tour. They talked about the threat hurricanes pose to people and property in Southern New England.

The conversation around hurricanes usually centers on wind speed, but the biggest danger comes from the water, Graham said. Ninety percent of the fatalities in tropical storm systems are due to rising waters, and those deaths can happen "hundreds and hundreds of miles inland," he said.

For Rhode Island, it's been 65 years since a Category 3 hurricane hit. That was Hurricane Carol in 1954, according to David Vallee, hydrologist in charge of the Northeast River Forecast Center. Vallee hadn't been born yet, but he recalls his mother telling him about the storm. She was a teenager, working at Shepards department store in downtown Providence, and she had to swim out of the store as the flood waters poured in. With more houses along the coast, the danger is even greater now, Vallee said.

"I know for sure what it's going to look like around here," he said. "It's not pretty."

Avoiding complacency was a constant theme. "Don't dismiss it because it never happened to you," said Gaynor, stressing the need to prepare. Residents should go online now, he said, to determine if they live in an area that's likely to be flooded and prepare a plan well before a storm hits.

"Know your risk," he said. "If you don't know your risk, I don't know how you can be fully prepared."

Meterologists are getting better at forecasting hurricanes. A big part of that is due to "hurricane hunters," according to Graham. Because hurricanes form and strengthen over oceans, it's difficult to know much about them, except through satellite information or by flying into them.

"They're heroes," Graham said of the crews. "They risk their lives to get us the information we need to give the public a good forecast."

Nicknamed Kermit, the plane that visited Quonset is one of two WP-3D Orions used by NOAA and based in Lakeland, Florida. With crews of around 20 people, the planes typically fly eight- to 10-hour missions, contending with hurricane winds, powerful updrafts and downdrafts, and heavy rain.

The airplanes produce a wide variety of information. As a plane flies through a storm, scientists can deploy GPS sensors that transmit information on air pressure, humidity, wind direction and speed as they fall to the sea, according to NOAA. That provides a detailed look at the structure and intensity of the storm, NOAA says.

The planes also have Doppler radar systems on their tails and under the fuselage that can scan the storm vertically and horizontally to give scientists and forecasters a real-time look. The planes can also deploy probes that measure the temperature of the sea, which can help determining whether a storm is strengthening or weakening.

Hurricanes generate winds well over 100 mph, but the people who fly into them play down the danger of their jobs. Maybe it's partly because they had dangerous jobs even before this. Kahn and Commander Chris Sloan, a 43-year-old navigator, were both in the Navy before joining NOAA.

"It's an incredibly strong aircraft," Kahn said.

Amid the chaos of the storms, they've learned to avoid the most dangerous conditions. For example, Kahn and Sloan are careful to avoid flying into graupel, a type of hail that can wreak havoc on flights. Roles says thunderstorms can be more unsettling than hurricanes.

Although he acknowledges he's had a few hairy moments in his 30 years, Roles says flying into hurricanes can actually be enjoyable.

"In the eyewall, it's spectacular," he said. "It's like you're in a stadium of clouds."

For Kahn, who's been flying into hurricanes since 2015, the bottom line is getting the plane and its crew back safely. Their mission is to gather information to help save lives, and he wants to be sure people use that information.

"If they tell you to evacuate, go," he said.

Kahn has taken his own advice. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, Kahn flew a mission, returned to his home, boarded it up, evacuated, and flew into the storm again the next day.

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©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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