Riding out the storm on bases in ‘Typhoon Alley’
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Some people believe there’s a downside to living under Okinawa’s subtropical sun. From June 1 through November there’s a good chance a typhoon is just 72 hours away.
That’s life in “Typhoon Alley,” an area stretching from southeast of the Marianas Islands to the Japanese main islands, with the Philippines, Taiwan and Okinawa in the middle. Each year, about 27 typhoons, known as hurricanes in the United States, churn north through the alley, with seven threatening Okinawa and three hitting Kyushu and points north, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.
“The typhoons keep us busy, that’s for sure,” said Air Force Capt. Aaron J. Williams of Kadena Air Base’s 18 Weather Flight. “Last year we had six storms threaten and three that we actually went into TCCOR-1.”
TCCOR-1E is when winds of 57 mph or greater wallop the island and the bases are sealed tight, with all outside activity prohibited.
Except for Williams and his crew.
“We get to go outside and take measurements,” he said. “Makes us feel like the guys on the Weather Channel.
“There are usually about 25 to 30 typhoons formed in the Western Pacific every season and we’ll watch all of them closely,” he said. “For us, they’re all a threat. We’re right in the middle of ‘Typhoon Alley.’”
When typhoons threaten, the military on Okinawa goes into several steps of readiness. On Kadena, fighter aircraft and other 18th Wing assets are placed in secure shelters, said base spokesman Chip Steitz.
Some aircraft, usually the larger planes, “must be flown off island for protection,” he said. They are flown to other Pacific bases out of the storm’s path.
Cmdr. Scott Gureck, 7th Fleet spokesman, said each Navy base reacts differently to storm threats, depending on how safe its harbor is. At relatively protected Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, ships generally stay put, he said. Ships elsewhere usually have enough time to move out to sea if a big storm is coming.
When TCCOR-1E is declared and typhoon-strength winds are blowing, all outside base activity is prohibited at Kadena.
Maxx Gallo, with the Eye Candy Glamour Studio at the USO on Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, says he looks forward to typhoons.
“I don’t take them too seriously,” he said. “Okinawa’s built to withstand them. So, when I hear one’s coming I think it’s fun.”
Typhoon time is party time, he said. “When I had my shop on Gate Two Street in Okinawa City, I’d always have a party. My military clients would cancel and everyone who lived out in town knew it, so they’d come out and we’d buy a case or two of beer and just hang out. It was a time to get together, a good excuse to party.”
Not on U.S. bases: Typhoon parties have been banned on Marine bases for years, and sales of alcohol halt when the bases enter TCCOR-2.
“All personnel are considered to be on duty in case they are required in an emergency,” said Capt. Chris Perrine, a Marine media relations officer. The parties also are frowned upon at Kadena.
Airman’s wife Kristeen Connolly says her family usually just settles in at home and watch movies as the storm rages outside.
“We take the typhoons pretty seriously,” she said. “I keep some Tupperware full of stuff we might need and avoid the usual last-minute rush at the commissaries and exchanges.”
Typhoon Nari, in 2001, caused about $2.5 million damage to U.S. bases on Okinawa, Steitz said.
The worst was Super Typhoon Bart in September 1999, which caused about $3.8 million of damage.
— Juliana Gittler contributed to this report.
The storm Air Force Capt. Aaron J. Williams of Kadena Air Base’s 18 Weather flight remembers best is Typhoon Nari, a slip of a storm that moved in unpredictable ways in September 2001.
“At first, when it passed over us it was just a tropical storm,” he said. It had winds blowing under 57 mph.
“Then she decided to stop in her tracks and come back over the island as a typhoon.”
Nari passed over Okinawa on Sept. 7 with mild winds and rain, and then lingered off shore before reversing and passing directly over Kadena with winds topping 113 mph, catching most Okinawans off guard.
At the time, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Mike Cutler said, the reversal caught him flat-footed; he managed to lug his lawn furniture into his Kishaba Housing home just in time.
“It crept up on us,” he said.
But that was just the beginning. Nari passed to the west and then spun in place some 150 miles off shore before deciding to pay the island another visit Sept. 11.
Most Americans on the island were locked up tight in their homes listening to Typhoon Nari’s 68-mph winds shake the banana and palm trees outside when those who still had power watched in horror as two passenger airliners struck the World Trade Center in New York City and another plowed into the Pentagon.
When TCCOR-Recovery was declared, it was Thursday on Okinawa and a changed world.
“It was a long week for everybody,” Williams said.
— David Allen