FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- As hurricane season approaches, Fort Rucker leaders and staff from across the post took time to participate in a tabletop exercise that ran through in great detail who does what and when they do it if a hurricane takes aim at the area.
More than 70 commanders, senior staff and managers of almost every unit and agency on post participated in the virtual event, including some commanders coming on board this summer to ensure continuity throughout the 2021 hurricane season, according to Maj. Gen. David J. Francis, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commanding general.
“The intent here today is twofold, one is to recap as we head into the hurricane season next week, and No. 2, as we go through a significant period of transition this summer that we don’t lose any ground in terms of all of the incoming folks understanding what their roles and responsibilities are in this process,” Francis told those online during the exercise. “We all need to walk away with a shared understanding as we are about to enter what is anticipated to be a highly active hurricane season in the Gulf Coast. We need to have all of our ducks in a row, and with the amount of transition that’s going to be happening, I want everyone on the same sheet of music.”
That sheet of music is an extensive one, with plans in place for everything from flying aircraft away from the danger area, to stacking them into hangars, to stopping flying training, to managing stock levels at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service and commissary, to estimating available community medical support, to deciding when to tell people to stay home and shelter in place, and many more, according to Francis.
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season.
“Forecasters predict a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season, and a 10% chance of a below-normal season,” NOAA put out in a May 20 press release. “However, experts do not anticipate the historic level of storm activity seen in 2020.”
At Fort Rucker, one of the first signs of danger comes to the command team in the form of an email from Cindy Howell, Fort Rucker Weather Operations.
During the exercise, Howell started things off with a spaghetti chart showing the many predicted paths of the simulated Hurricane Frank at H-120 – 120 hours before expected impact.
The chart clearly showed the erratic behavior expected from storms, and history itself reveals the finicky nature of hurricanes, according to Col. Chad Chasteen, USAACE chief of staff, who was a brigade commander the last time Fort Rucker had to fly away aircraft from a storm.
“At 96 hours, the models are still very sloppy,” he said, adding that the general needs to decide whether to fly away the aircraft or not well before the hurricane impacts Fort Rucker – while the weather is still good enough to fly in. “Right at the point where the CG really needs to decide if we’re going to fly away or stack the aircraft, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like he has a good model to make a good decision, but he’s going to have to make a decision.
“In my experience, these things never go exactly where we think they’re going to go or where we hope they go. The one that required us to fly away changed tracks so many times – it looked like it was going to cut across Tampa Bay, and then shifted left and went all the way up towards Fort Campbell (Kentucky) where we actually put aircraft,” Chasteen added. “One thing we all need to understand is to intuitively know these forecasters do the absolute best they can, but it is so dynamic that we will require daily, possibly twice daily touch points once we get around that 72-hour mark.”
All staff deftly handled each scenario highlight and discussed considerations they had in reaching each decision to allow all others to know their roles, responsibilities and thought processes, according to Col. Whitney B. Gardner, Fort Rucker garrison commander, who will be turning garrison command over to Col. Robert J. Holcombe in June.
“We have a great plan in place to ensure the safety of all who call Fort Rucker home – everyone who works, trains and plays here,” he added. “Every storm will be different and each one will come with its own wrinkles, but I think we’ve built in enough flexibility to handle any scenario Mother Nature might throw at us.
“We have a great staff and directors at the garrison,” Gardner said. “Many have been through this before, so (Holcombe) has a great team and he’s going to be able to handle this as commander.”
Francis was pleased with how the exercise played out, but he also let everyone know that their work needs to continue throughout hurricane season.
“A lot of work went into prepping for this and I really appreciate it,” he said. “I’m feeling a lot better going into this hurricane season – I think we’re pretty tight.
“But a hurricane is not an event you can just cram for and be ready,” he added. “This has to be an ongoing process of keeping your plans and estimates current – you need to be running estimates all the time between now and the end of hurricane season. When these things happen, they will happen fast and there will be a lot of different things going on.”
While leadership and staff on post will continue to hone their plans, Gardner reminded the entire post community that each of them owe it to themselves to ensure their personal readiness for hurricane season.
“Now is the time to prepare – don’t wait until a hurricane is bearing down on us,” he said. “Each of you is critical to our success at Fort Rucker, and while we do everything we can to protect you, there are some things you need to do for yourself to be ready to deal with severe weather.”
For more on getting ready for the 2021 hurricane season, visit https://ready.army.mil/.