Hurricane Hunters Push Preparedness In Fla

Dated: 06/01/2016

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MIAMI – May 26, 2016 – Jim McFadden has flown into – and, thankfully, back out of – the eye of a hurricane 575 times. The patch on the shoulder of his blue flight jumpsuit says "Storm Eye Master."

On Friday, McFadden, 82, had his feet planted on the ground at the Naples Municipal Airport for the final leg of a five-city hurricane awareness tour that gave crowds of schoolchildren and curious adults an up-close look at the aerial backbone of U.S. hurricane forecasting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flew a shiny and sleek G-IV aircraft to Naples, and the Air Force Reserve flew in one of its gray, stalwart C-130 Hurricane Hunters, after a delay in Biloxi for mechanical repairs. The airplanes were the big draw, but they came with a message: Be Prepared.

The most accurate forecasts are for naught if people in the path of a storm don't move out of the way to safety when emergency managers order evacuations, Miami- based National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said.

"Just don't wish the hurricane is going to go somewhere else and stop there," Knabb said.

Emergency officials encouraged the crowd to get stocked up on supplies now, not in the panicky days before a storm hits, collect important papers in one place to take quickly when evacuating and have a plan for where to go.

Hurricane forecasters produce those familiar-looking tracking maps using data sent to them from the aircraft. Crews drop cylinder-shaped devices full of instruments that read humidity, air pressure, and temperature. Called dropsondes, they fall for 15 minutes, dangling from a parachute and transmitting GPS location data four times per second. Forecasters can determine wind speed and direction by tracking the dropsonde's path.

Forecasters are adding a new twist this year with maps predicting storm surge to help people better understand the dangers posed by land-falling hurricanes in low-lying coastal regions. Hide from wind, run from water, they say.

Southwest Florida is one of the most vulnerable areas to storm surge, which occurs when a hurricane pushes water up and out of the Gulf and into areas where people would never expect water to end up.

"The water is going to come in, and it's going to come fast," Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate said.

Hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November. The hurricane hunters are ready. On Friday, though, the storm was in the form of questions from fourth- and fifth-graders.

"Are we going to get in the helicopter?" No, came the answer from crew chief Angel Negron, who was showing off a model of an experimental drone that forecasting crews fly into storms to record data.

"How much does it weigh?" It's pretty light, 14 pounds.

"How fast does it go?" 60 mph.

"Does it come back?" No, and they cost $30,000 apiece.

The drone is sacrificed for the sake of data collection, keeping the G-IV flying safely ahead or around the storm, not into it. The plane flies seven miles per minute, at 45,000 feet, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth.

They are named after Muppets characters. The one that came to Naples is called Gonzo because of the size of its radar antenna. Others are named Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Each flight mission, which lasts about eight hours, is carefully plotted on the ground. But once the wheels go up, hurricanes often don't follow the plan, said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Mansour.

"It's a realization that the hurricane is alive," he said.

McFadden, now the chief of programs for NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center, said his journeys into the eyes of hurricanes, where the C-130s go, have ranged from "terrifying, sheer rock hard turbulence" to serene pleasure, he said.

None, though, compares to the flight into Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"I'm telling you, we were slammed around every which way," McFadden said. "Things were flying everywhere."

He's thinking about the 180-pound life raft, the one that slipped out from its straps when Hugo swung the back end of the cargo plane around.

The plane dropped, the raft jumped to the ceiling, and just as quickly came back down, landing six inches from where McFadden sat, still strapped in.

He said you can still see the dent the raft made in the overhead handrail.

Copyright © 2016 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.), Eric Staats. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Angelo F. Terrizzi Jr.

I am a New England native, born and raised in the Boston area. Growing up, I was always involved with extra-curricular activities through school and church. I spent 30+ years in Business and later in ....

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