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During Hurricane Irma, a dinner table was ground zero for Air Force Reserve rescue ops

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Stephen J. Collier
  • Special to the 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

When it comes to a military command and control facility, many conjure up visions of sophisticated technology with dozens of high-ranking officials furiously coordinating activities.


For 920th Rescue Wing operations leadership and an encroaching Hurricane Irma, controlling and managing the Air Force Reserve’s rescue operations response to the Category 4 storm meant a laptop, radio and cell phone – while waiting patiently at a dinner table.


That was the scene the evening of Sept. 10 as Col. Michael LoForti, 920th Operations Group commander, together with Chief Master Sgt. Shane Smith, 920th OG superintendent and Lt. Col. Jeff Hannold, the groups’ mission commander, rode out the historic storm in Smith’s house. Sitting around the chief’s dinner table, listening to roof shingles fly off the house, the three ensured the AF Reserve’s response to state and federal officials was ready to go the moment the storm passed.


“We used (Smith’s home) as an interim rescue operations center until the worst of the storm passed,” LoForti said. “For two days prior to the storm, we used text messaging, e-mails, chatrooms, and, if need be, satellite phones. Our plan was to shelter in place at the home, and once the storm passed, we were hoping to get back on the base.”


LoForti said the wing was already aware of Hurricane Irma’s impending lurch toward the Sunshine State, even before they deployed in support of Hurricane Harvey to support search and rescue operations over the greater Houston area. Coupled with the fact that the majority of LoForti’s aircrews and maintenance personnel lived on Florida’s Space Coast, LoForti said members were eager to get back.


“We knew we needed to get back to help prep our families back home, and that Hurricane Irma cold potentially be a devastating storm,” he said. “As soon as we returned, we prepared to evacuate for the looming storm, tightening up the unit and getting the aircraft out of harm’s way the best we could. But we noticed if this storm hits, there will be no Department of Defense assets south of Tallahassee. This could potentially put us at least a day behind for squadrons to respond to those in need of rescue-the difference between life and death.”


With his own family preparing to evacuate to Georgia, LoForti continued to search out options for his Reservists. An idea that had previously been considered, but never explored, was now thrust forward as the operations group’s response plan – housing helicopters at the Orange County Convention Center in the interior of the state.


The facility, rated for 140 mph winds according to the colonel, could be a viable option to keeping the unit’s HH-60 Pave Hawk aircraft as close to South Florida as possible. The closer the helicopters are to affected areas, the faster life-saving search and rescue operations could be employed. And when lives are at stake, for this unit, seconds count.


“Lt. Col. Mike Walsh and his team at the 301st Rescue Squadron had been working on this for a few years,” LoForti said. “But to this point, no one had been willing to try it because they haven’t seen it necessary. So, we did a site survey in Orlando, and they determined we could land the helicopters, and that the aircraft could be rolled into the convention center and secured. We signed a zero-dollar lease with the Sheriff’s Department, allowing us to store helicopters while the storm passed. While we had the aircraft taken care of it, we still had to worry about crews, maintenance personnel and others. So, we scattered our members throughout Florida, ready to respond to different portion of the state as quickly as possible.”


The storm approaches


Together with basing the wing’s HC-130N King aerial refueling aircraft in northern Georgia, all aircraft operations were accounted for. But changes in the storm’s path toward Patrick meant a change in plans. It was time to evacuate the barrier islands.


Expecting to operate the ROC out of his own home north of the base off the Banana River, LoForti looked to Smith for another solution. And that meant crossing the waters to the mainland where his house was located.


“I think we wanted to be in the best position at the best time,” Smith said. “Out of the options we had, my house made the most logical sense. It had underground power lines, and that worked out because we had both power and internet the whole time. Maintaining communications in that situation was really important. You use the resources you have to make it work.”


With Patrick and the surrounding areas evacuated, the three made their way to Smith’s house. There, they quickly set up the necessary equipment to prepare for multiple conference calls to coordinate response activities between local, state and federal partners, as well as with higher headquarters such as Air Force Reserve Command and Air Forces Northern, the air component to U.S. Northern Command. The three even ensured coordination with other Air Force search and rescue outfits, like Moody Air Force Base, Georgia’s 23rd Wing.


Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma’s bands were passing over Florida’s east coast, ensuring the three were reminded of impending storm.


“The whole experience was truly surreal,” Smith recalled. “We knew as soon as the storm passed, we needed to get to work. I knew the house was going to get damaged, but not sure how much. The next morning, we were able to file out of the house and see it, firsthand.”


As the night went on and the storm got stronger, LoForti said they peered out of one of the windows, witnessing Smith’s shingles flying off the house. Moments like made the situation even more stressful.


“One of the things we were concerned about ended up being the 40 tornado warnings [issued] from the time the tropical storm winds hit to when the hurricane passed. We constantly were thinking about sheltering,” LoForti said. “At one point, while we were talking with Lt. Gen. [Maryanne] Miller, she couldn’t even hear us over the winds. The next day, we noticed about 20 percent of his roof was gone. While it was exciting, we ensured safety was always paramount.”


Miller is Chief of the Air Force Reserve, commanding more than 69,000 Reservists at any given time.


Time to launch


The storm, according to Space Coast Daily, slammed the region with more than 50 mph sustained winds. At one point on the night of Sept. 10, a 94 mph wind gust was recorded at Cape Canaveral. As the now-tropical storm began to move northward, LoForti, Smith and Hannold emerged from the evening’s chaos.


“We had a generator and made ice all day,” Smith said. “We planned for the worst and prepared for it. We lost power briefly, but we still continued to have internet. It’s that pre-planning that really helped, and we were extremely fortunate.”


The three now changed their focus from survival during the storm to ensuring search and rescue assets were ready to be employed smoothly for civilian officials requesting them. Throughout Sept. 11, the wing’s active partners, the 45th Space Wing, was hard at work returning Patrick’s airfield back to operational status. Aircrews and maintainers that hunkered down in Orlando were preparing helicopters for flight, ready to assess damage and save lives. All the while, King aircrews were standing by outside of Atlanta at Dobbins Air Reserve Base for the storm to pass over.


“The 45th Space Wing did a fabulous job getting the airfield open just 24 hours afterward — a tremendous feat. And that included opening for both day and night time operations,” LoForti said.


As the 920th RQW prepared for surge operations, other search and rescue units from throughout the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Army National Guard poured into the state. Aircrews from the 920th launched from the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, flying over portions of South Florida, assessing the damage and seeking out those in need of help. Additionally, a crew ferried Col. David Garfield, 482nd Fighter Wing and Homestead Air Reserve Base commander, to the South Florida installation, helping to quickly get that base up and running for crucial relief supplies.


The decision would be made soon after to stand down 920th RQW personnel from responding to Hurricane Irma, allowing members to return to their homes and assess the storm’s damage.


Lessons learned


Fresh in their minds, LoForti and Smith have already identified important lessons from both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.


“We learned from Hurricane Harvey that pre-positioning assets sooner rather than later is crucial,” LoForti said. “Harvey proved to us that under Title 10 (active duty) orders, working with the 23rd Wing and a Navy rescue unit out of Norfolk, all three units could support the Harvey ROC seamlessly. The interoperability exercise was very important from a command and control standpoint.”

From August 29 through September 3, 920th rescue teams saved 235 Texans, 21 dogs and 5 cats.


And for Hurricane Irma, LoForti believes a formal agreement with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department will allow for a swift use of a facility like the OCCC in the future.


“Even though this is a concept, we never had a formal agreement with the Sheriff’s Department at the OCCC until we signed a zero-dollar lease after arriving for a site survey. This would give us something more permanent, without doing it at the last minute. This would also lead to a command center in the shelter where the helicopters are located. Perhaps even a mobile vehicle for it, which would give us the opportunity to move to a safe location to keep command and control functions continuously throughout the event.”


Smith also believes there may be a future in smaller, more agile maintenance kits being transported with the helicopters – to any location.


“One of the problems we were trying to solve is if we sent the helicopters to South Florida, how do we get the maintenance materials down there? We can get the helicopters there no problem, but keeping them going would be a challenge. One idea we may consider is placing smaller maintenance kits under the helicopter, and moving them using sling loads. Together with maintenance personnel on the helicopter, we could be even more agile in the future. Thinking outside the box is what rescue is all about. If we can continue to do that, we’ll be more effective in the future.”


Looking back on hunkering down at his home in a serious hurricane, Smith was adamant about preparedness.


“If there’s no reason to be in hurricane, you don’t want to be. But being prepared helped out.”