Thursday, July 24, 2008

Military Tracks Hurricane Dolly, Readies Relief Support

Blog Editor Note: The cover story in the August issue of Monitoring Times magazine has an extensive article on monitoring the hurricane hunters. Issue is on sale now on newstands or is available from Grove Enterprises at

By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2008 - "Hurricane Hunters" from the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flew through Hurricane Dolly last night and this morning as it headed toward the Texas coast, relaying critical data to National Weather Service forecasters in Miami.

Six-person crews from the squadron have been tracking the storm since July 16, when it was a tropical disturbance over St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, reported Air Force 1st Lt. Douglas Gautrau, a squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer aboard last night's mission.

Since then, the squadron has been flying its C-130J aircraft 24/7 out of its base at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., delivering near-real-time data to the National Weather Service.

Gautrau and his fellow crewmembers took off from Keesler at about 7 last night for a 10-hour mission, crisscrossing Dolly in what Gautrau described as an "alpha pattern." They used sophisticated onboard instruments and small "dropsonde" canisters dropped by parachute to collect the most accurate measurements of the hurricane's location and intensity. The canisters relay details about barometric pressure, wind speed and direction and other measurements to the aircraft during their descent until they hit the water, Gautrau explained.

After a quick quality-control check on the data collected, the crew forwarded it every 10 minutes to the National Hurricane Center.

The aircrews, which consist of an aircraft commander and copilot, flight engineer, navigator, weather officer and dropsonde operator, fly through rough turbulence and heavy rains during the missions. The heaviest turbulence occurs in the "eye wall," the circular area directly around the hurricane's eye.

Gautrau described last night's turbulence as "moderate," but "nothing too bad" as the aircraft encountered 75-knot wind speeds. "It can get pretty bumpy," he said.

Toward the end of the mission, Hurricane Dolly had strengthened, and its leading edge was approaching the Gulf Coast near the Texas-Mexico border. Heavy rain and sustained 95 mph winds pounded the coast as Dolly's eye headed toward Brownsville, Texas.

For Gautrau, last night's flight through Hurricane Dolly was a rite of passage: his first hurricane mission without the benefit of an instructor watching over his shoulder.

"At some points, I'd think, 'Holy cow. I'm in a hurricane,'" he said. "Other times, I'd think, 'Holy cow. I still have to do my job.'"

But with that mission now complete, Gautrau said, he's thrilled to have "the best weather job out there." A native of New Orleans, he said he understands the impact of severe weather and knows he and his fellow crewmembers are giving the National Weather Service the best data possible so it can make accurate forecasts.

"I get a lot of joy out of this job, and I feel that what we are doing is a great benefit to the public," he said.

As the Hurricane Hunters continued their missions, some 600 Texas National Guard members were on the ground, preparing to offer assistance after Hurricane Dolly makes landfall, reported Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gregory Ripps, a Texas Guard spokesman.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry authorized the call for up to 1,200 Texas Guardsmen, to assist civilian emergency responders preparing for the first storm to threaten the United States this hurricane season.

Troops were fanning out across the region, poised to provide search-and-rescue support and emergency relief as required, Ripps said. Shelter management teams were standing by in Brownsville and McAllen, and the Guardsmen set up distribution points in the towns of Alice and Weslaco.

Meanwhile, the Texas Guard's Joint Operations Center is maintaining contact with the State Operations Center, as both monitor the hurricane.

Officials predict rain accumulations of four to eight inches, with isolated deluges of 15 inches, over much of southern Texas during the next few days. Coastal flooding of four to six feet above normal tide levels, with dangerous battering waves, was predicted north of the storm's landfall.