Hurricane Hunters always ready for the next storm


SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - Purchased from Lockheed in the mid 1970s, an Orion-P3 hurricane hunter named Miss Piggy has flown through 83 hurricanes, including Katrina, Rita and Ike.

The planes have been in service nearly 40 years and a lot has changed on board since that first flight.

"Back in the old days we didn't have instrumentation that would measure things near the surface so we had to fly very low," said Dr. Jim McFadden. "It was very dangerous flying at low altitudes. Now we have new instrumentation. We can measure surface wind speed. We can measure profiles in the atmosphere using our dropsonde system. We measure temperatures of the ocean. As you know, ocean temperatures are very important for determining the intensity of hurricanes."

While some memorable storms such as Katrina and Rita come to mind, the Hurricane Hunters said they prefer to fly into storms they know are not expected to make any sort of landfall at all.

"I'd rather go out and fly a storm in the Atlantic that we know is not going to hit the United States," McFaddeb said. "We get as much information from those storms as we do with something in the Gulf that we know is going to make landfall."

Though weather technology has improved drastically over the decades with the use of radar and satellite technology, these tools still can't know exactly the wind speed and barometric pressure inside the storm, and that's where the Hurricane Hunters come into play. This is information is crucial to more accurately predicting the future strength and path of storms.

The information recorded by the aircraft must be relayed back to the Hurricane Center quickly and interesting technology on the plane make it possible, even from hundreds or thousands of miles from land.

"All the data we collect gets off the airplane in near real time," McFadden said. "All the data is processed on board, transmitted off the airplane, gets to the hurricane center, they can look at it, within a matter of minutes. It all gets into the computer models twice daily. All that is very beneficial to the public and it helps in providing them better protection."

Flying into a hurricane will obviously not be a smooth flight, but those on board are prepared to brace for the rocky ride.

"It can be no worse than your regular commercial flight," McFadden said. "Sometimes it's even more benign than a commercial flight, depending on the commercial flight. Sometimes particularly when you're penetrating the eye wall you're going to run into turbulence and it get quite severe. Fortunately it's a very short period of time. So we talk about hurricanes being 99 percent boring and 1 percent sheer terror."

Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said there will be new warning products rolling out this season to help residents decide how to react to an threatening storm.

"We absolutely want people to focus more on the individual hazards," Knabb said. "The winds, the tornadoes, the storm surge flooding, the inland flooding due to rains. Multiple hazards are what you need to focus on, because all of those hazards can occur in a tropical storm, in a hurricane or in a major hurricane.

"And if you think about the fact the US has not been hit by a major hurricane, a category 3 or higher, since Wilma in 2005, but you also consider the fact we've had multiple major impacts since then without major hurricanes, you realize you don't need a major hurricane to have a really big impact.

"Ike in 2008 was Category 2, wasn't a major hurricane. And then Irene, Debby, Issac, Sandy, none of those were major hurricanes, but they were major impacts locally. So we have to get away from focusing on the category, because no matter what kind of system you have, it can cause damaging and deadly hazards, water or wind where you live."

Knabb had some strong advice for Southwest Louisiana residents.

"If I'm in the Lake Charles area, I need to remind myself that I'm inland from the immediate Gulf Coast, but because of Calcasieu Lake and the river, you've got waterways that can bring the storm surge and flooding even in to downtown Lake Charles and surrounding areas," he said. "Our product will be able to pick up on that threat if your area is affected, and it will be just as simple as picking a point on the map and understanding that could happen in terms of flooding where I live given the uncertainties in track and intensity forecast, but ultimately what I hope it will do, is show people what could happen to the point where they're convinced, that they should do what their local emergency management agency tells them they should do with regards to evacuation."

Hopefully we don't need the HUrricane Hunters this season, but they're always ready for Mother Nature's next storm.

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