Unprecedented 2017 Hurricane Season Prompted Massive CAP Response
This month marks the start of the 2018 hurricane season. While no one knows what sort of activity the next few months may bring, the 2017 season proved unusually eventful, with three major storms striking in August and September and testing Civil Air Patrol’s ability to respond to such a destructive onslaught. Members from throughout CAP stepped up to carry out what quickly grew into one of the organization’s largest missions ever. Their training, dedication and capabilities proved more than equal to the task, and they stand ready to repeat last year’s achievements, if called upon to do so.
A trio of costly and deadly hurricanes put the training and capabilities of CAP members to the test in 2017.
In August and September, severe flooding near Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey devastated the area and caused more than $125 billion in damage, making it the costliest hurricane of the year. September also saw Hurricane Maria hammer the island of Puerto Rico, resulting in $90 billion in damage, and Hurricane Irma, which caused $50 billion in damage, swept over the Caribbean and Florida.
Combined, the hurricane season cost at least 251 lives and proved to be the most demanding ever for CAP, whose missions surpassed responses to previous record-setting storms like hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
CAP provided an unprecedented amount of support to impacted states during the 2017 hurricane season. In all, 1,061 volunteers from 44 CAP wings and regions across the country supported 1,196 CAP sorties; 118 aircraft flew 2,840 hours over affected areas in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. CAP provided 498,397 photographs to emergency management and responders to help focus response and recovery efforts. The 2,840 flight hours toward the end of the fiscal year put CAP over the 100,000 flying-hour mark for 2017.
Prepared for a Hurricane, not a Disaster
Capt. Luis Herrera, the Puerto Rico Wing’s inspector general, witnessed the chaos over his native island and neighboring islands from the air as a CAP pilot. Herrera and others were tasked with taking pictures of damage caused by Hurrricane Irma over Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
“Fortunately, Irma didn’t affect that much of Puerto Rico, at least in most of the areas, as it did in the other islands. Flying over St. Thomas and St. Croix, we saw everything from destroyed houses (even concrete ones), partially destroyed buildings and damaged roads,” he said. “When we were ready to wrap up the mission for Hurricane Irma, we received the Maria threat warnings.”
The Category 5 storm made landfall on the island on Sept. 20, and the devastation it wrought resulted in the Puerto Rico Wing springing into action to support flight operations in a full-scale disaster relief mission.
“Hurricane Maria has been the worst natural occurrence that has hit Puerto Rico, at least in my time,” Herrera said. “The people from Puerto Rico prepared for a hurricane, but we didn’t prepare for a disaster. This time it was us who were hit really bad. Puerto Rico suffered damages that I’ve never experienced before.”
From overflowed rivers to a nearly collapsed dam, Herrera witnessed the damage inflicted on urban areas and other communities that were basically wiped out. “Most of the things we took for granted, like water, electricity and cellular connections, were not accessible anymore,” he said. “Still today, there is approximately 40 percent of the population that is without power in their homes.”
Herrera felt the storm’s impact in his personal life, as he and his family depended on a portable generator to help keep their refrigerator as cold as possible, occasionally charging electronic devices and running fans in order to keep cool at their home in Bayamon, south of San Juan.
Civil Air Patrol provided assistance through aerial reconnaissance and damage assessment flights. Aircrews from the Puerto Rico Wing and other CAP wings took more than 80,000 photos during nearly 600 hours of flight time. The images helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency responders focus their efforts on the most affected areas.
Twelve-hour days were typical, with members assembling at 7 a.m. for a briefing before launching morning sorties. Upon debriefing after their return, crews took a quick lunch break before launching additional sorties in the afternoon. Days were wrapped up with a final debriefing before exhausted personnel uploaded their photos to FEMA..
Lt. Col. William Wallace of the Georgia Wing, one of four incident commanders who eventually flew to the island, oversaw the members from Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. as they put in long hours under stressful and uncertain conditions. Faced with washed-out roads and debris-strewn landscapes, they worked to re-establish their repeaters and mission base communications capabilities.
“For the members that came from the continental U.S. to help us, I can only say that it was a privilege working with them,” Herrera said. “They were key to the success of all the tasks requested of us. CAP training was essential for this. We worked as a team, like we knew each other from before.
“For my teammates from Puerto Rico, I was impressed with all we accomplished. We were going through the worst times; most of us lost a lot,” he said. “Some lost their jobs, their homes were damaged, and others lost everything. Still, we showed up day after day to volunteer our time in order to help as much as possible. We all worked as a team with one single goal, putting everything else aside, which made this mission a successful one.”
Col. Joe Smith, commander of CAP’s Southwest Region, was more than pleased with the organization’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. “Civil Air Patrol’s response to Hurricane Harvey was an outstanding example of ‘One CAP,’” said Smith, who officially became region commander a week after the storm hit. “It was certainly helpful that hundreds of members were attending the National Conference in San Antonio.”
Harvey hit southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana with 130-mph winds before dumping 50 inches of rain, with major flooding adding to the widespread catastrophic damage, especially in the Houston area. All 857 CAP members residing in the vicinity were affected, each with stories of lost family members or friends, rooftop rescues and destroyed property. Members of the Texas Wing took to the skies on Aug. 31 over Corpus Christi and Rockport, cities hit hard by Harvey. With the need to cover nearly 255 miles of shoreline and 23,000 square miles, Lt. Col. Rick Woolfolk, incident commander, realized that more help was needed.
From the first day of the response to Harvey, volunteers from four different CAP regions as well as National Headquarters were working at the incident command post. The second day saw more CAP members pouring in from the Great Lakes, North Central and Rocky Mountain regions, in addition to the Southwest Region.
A total of 582 volunteers from 44 different wings or regions and over 70 planes contributed in some way over a five-week period. The mission generated 375,973 digital photos, covering an area the size of Indiana. “I am extremely proud of the teamwork and dedication demonstrated by all of the volunteers who contributed to this very significant disaster response,” Smith said. “This would not have been possible except for our strong CAP-wide emphasis on safety, training and professionalism. ‘One CAP’ is why we were successful.”
John Desmarais, director of operations at CAP National Headquarters, summed things up: “This hurricane season was incredibly busy,” he said. “We had personnel from all over the country involved, and it made a huge impact. It was resource-intensive and forced us to support several large operations at the same time, and with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, we had to work to move resources that we normally wouldn’t. It all worked out, though, and CAP worked as a large team to make it happen.”