Hurricane preparation changing at Florida Air Force bases
By JIM THOMPSON | The Walton Sun, Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. | Published: September 8, 2019
EGLIN AFB (Tribune News Service) — Hurricane Dorian bypassed Northwest Florida's military bases, but Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm that leveled Tyndall Air Force Base in October, has remained front and center as those bases, and the rest of the Air Force, have taken a new look at preparing for hurricanes and other severe weather.
"Shortly after Hurricane Michael, Secretary Wilson (former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson), directed the deputy commander of Air Combat Command to conduct a full-spectrum assessment of how the Air Force is postured to mitigate the risks of severe weather events," Rob Leese, press desk officer with the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Office, explained in an email.
Earlier this year, Air Combat Command sent out more than 100 recommendations for improving responses to hurricanes and other weather-related challenges, Leese said. The recommendations cover everything from weather forecasting to command and control, the process of assigning human and material resources to addressing problems like severe weather.
"Additionally, many of the 'lessons learned' identified in the report are being incorporated into ongoing reconstruction efforts at Tyndall Air Force Base," Leese said.
Some of the recommendations from Air Combat Command were implemented prior to hurricane season, Leese said, without specifying which recommendations.
Leese did say, though, that one recommendation updates an existing "continuity of operations" policy designed to ensure installations can, to the extent possible, continue their missions during severe weather. Part of that update calls for installations to work from a "common operational picture" — real-time and uniform digital data shared among commanders on the status of their installation at any given moment during severe weather.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher P. Weggeman, deputy commander of Air Combat Command, led the work of the Severe Weather Readiness Assessment Team. In an Air Combat Command news release, Weggeman said severe weather can be thought of as an adversary.
"I only have two things I can do to these threats," Weggeman said. "I can retrograde, which is what we call an evacuation. Or I can defend in place, which is, shelter in place, hunker down, and then I have things that allow me to ride out the storm."
"What I want to do," Weggeman continued, "is to make sure that we are the best prepared that we can be to combat the severe weather adversary and go back to having the operational mission readiness we need, and to preserve life and limb when it comes to airmen and their families."
At Eglin Air Force Base, lessons learned from Tyndall AFB's catastrophic experience with Hurricane Michael are being included in Eglin's hurricane checklists, according to Ilka Cole, media operations chief at the 96th Test Wing, Eglin's host unit.
The base holds regular hurricane workshops, and a recent workshop focused on the Air Force's changing posture toward severe weather included representatives from Tyndall AFB to share information on "what worked and didn't work for them during Hurricane Michael," Cole said.
"One of the main driving factors behind ... (the) hurricane workshop was due to changes to hurricane preparedness, response, and recovery checklists based on lessons learned from last hurricane season," Cole said in an email. "These changes include evacuation guidance/locations, availability of accountability and communication assets, and what the right recovery team looks like."
Input from Tyndall AFB now is being included in Eglin's hurricane checklists, Cole said. Also, Cole said, "Eglin incorporated some of the recommendations from the Air Combat Command assessment and also participated in ACC's Hurricane Response & Recovery Summit and the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference."
Beyond the workshops, Eglin holds an annual hurricane exercise, and individual agencies across the installation hold their own hurricane preparedness briefings, Cole said. This year, according to Cole, the briefings include "emergency management topics, the 2019 weather outlook information from the 96th Weather Squadron, Airman & Family Readiness Center resources, Tricare (government health care) and claims information from the wing Legal Office."
"These briefings also discuss what to expect if the base is impacted by a hurricane; how the evacuation process works and the helping agencies available to help if a family needs assistance," Cole said.
Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, also is taking steps to improve hurricane preparedness after Hurricane Michael and the Air Combat Command recommendations.
"Since last year, we've evaluated our hurricane ride-out team composition," 1st Lt. Steven Bodovinitz, officer in charge of media operations for the 1st Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt's host unit, said in an email. "Our plan is to keep mission-essential personnel on base for Category 1-3 storms. In the event of a strong Category 4 or 5 storm, we have formed a small multi-function assessment team that will evacuate with the aircraft and return to the installation, once cleared, to do an initial base damage assessment."