Hurricane Hunters: Flying two storms difficult, three impossible

Published: Jul. 24, 2013 at 10:20 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 25, 2013 at 9:55 AM CDT
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BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Hurricane Hunters are tracking Tropical Storm Dorian while also keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line. Military officials said with sequestration and furloughs, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is facing some tough choices as to which storms they fly into and how often. They said that means the forecast models we depend on to tell people to evacuate may not be as accurate.

The mission of the Hurricane Hunters is to fly into the eye of the storm and gather information to help predict where that storm is likely to head next. However, the 403rd Wing Commander is wondering with sequestration and furloughs, how much hunting Hurricane Hunters will be able to do.

"I'll be honest with you, it's a very significant cut in capability. It's a 20 percent cut," said Col Craig LaFave. "On any given day, we'll have air crew, maintainers, and support personnel on furlough. Of course, as these storms pop up, we'll have to move furlough days and probably use overtime in certain areas to keep flying the storm."

Even with juggling furlough days, military officials say they can only stretch the manpower so far. Hurricane Hunters will only be able to fly so many missions at a time.

"Three we can't do. Two I can do for a short time," Col. LaFave said. "We're going to test that theory here this weekend. We're going to send three aircraft to Hawaii to fly that Eastern Pacific storm and we're going to seen three aircraft to the east to St. Croix. But the two storm scenario is only sustainable for about five or six days. After that we'll run out of people, essentially. So we're okay now at the beginning, but the problem is that if at the end of that period if another wave rolls off and we've already burned off our crews on the first couple of storms, that's when the real problems come up."

Officials said if two simultaneous missions prove to be too much, it may come down to some hard choices.

"The options will be either we prioritize the storms, or we don't fly certain storms, or we fly to all the storms less often. Those are going to be some of the tough choices that will be in discussion with the Hurricane Center," Col LaFave said. "If you make the model less accurate more people will have to evacuate, if more people have to evacuate it costs more money. So we are a money saving organization, believe it or not. It costs about a million dollars a mile to evacuate a high population area."

LaFave said his team is trying to figure out ways to make the numbers work. He should have a better idea of how far resources can be stretched until he runs out of people able to work. 

"It is a little odd to tell somebody you're furloughed on a Wednesday, but I need you overtime on Thursday," said Col. LaFave. "But we are not exempt. I have to follow the law. We are not exempt from furloughs or sequestration. I have to furlough everybody two days a pay period, every two weeks. I can work them on other days so we can mitigate to a degree working people on their non-furlough days. I just cannot cancel or exempt members from being furloughed."

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