By Alfonso Serrano and Michael Pizzi
A low pressure area crawling across the Yucatan Peninsula is likely developing into a tropical cyclone over the next 48 hours, and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the U.S. Air Force's "Hurricane Hunters," is flying into the eye of the storm. The National Hurricane Center needs the information only they can gather to determine the storm threat.
But with 250 civilians and Air Reserve Technicians of the 403rd Wing, which includes the 53rd WRS, furloughed because of the government shutdown, the squadron is shorthanded — and working for free. The crews are to be back paid when legislators agree on a budget.
“The (National Hurricane Center) won’t notice any difference from what we’re providing them,” says the 403rd's Wing Commander Col. Frank L. Amodeo, who said a plane had been deployed into the low pressure area to gather data on Wednesday.
When a storm is on the horizon, the National Hurricane Center, which issues warnings and forecasts for tropical storms, calls in the Hurricane Hunters from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. Despite its extensive satellite capability, the NHC requires data that can only be obtained by plane in order to fully assess the threat posed by potential hurricanes.
James Franklin, chief of hurricane operations at the NHC, told Al Jazeera America that clouds typically obscure the lower parts of the atmosphere, and a plane needs determine the center of circulation that lies beneath.
"Having an airplane is really the best way to determine what the strength of the system is," Franklin said. "You can estimate intensity from other methods, but there is no substitute for actually going in and measuring it."
About 16 hours after NHC gives the Hurricane Hunters a call, a crew from the 53rd is on board a WC-130 aircraft collecting crucial information that helps determine whether a tropical storm is in fact developing and where it might head. The NHC, in turn, assesses whether anything from a tropical storm watch to a mandatory evacuation is required.
There was no imminent danger posed by the depression, which the NHC predicts will weaken as it moves through the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, the NHC needed to know what lay in the heart of the storm, so Col. Amodeo recalled essential maintenance personnel and four five-person crews to respond to the NHC request for aerial surveillance.
"Our ability to do our job is not impacted in the short term," says Col. Amodeo, but, "if this shutdown continues, readiness will be impacted."
The furlough could limit the nation's Hurricane Hunters from tackling multiple storms simultaneously. When fully staffed, the 53rd can deploy multiple teams to provide data simultaneously on more than one storm.
The NHC has determined from satellite imagery alone that there is a 70 percent chance the low pressure area will evolve into a tropical cyclone, and take the name Karen, by Thursday.
Residents of hurricane-prone areas, however, can rest assured that there is no indication of second storm brewing — yet.
The 403rd may be handling this shutdown adeptly, because it has become accustomed to dealing with shrinking budgets.
Military officials say that cuts have clipped the Hurricane Hunters’ wings and tackling multiple storms in the heart of hurricane season had become arduous even before the shutdown.
Then Wing Commander Col. Craig LaFave told Southern Mississippi's WLOX news in late July, as Tropical Storm Dorian was approaching Florida, that the 53rd was only able to track two storms at a time for a few days. Tracking three was out of the question.
"As these storms pop up, we’ll have to move furlough days and probably use overtime in certain areas to keep flying the storm," Col. LaFave said.
The NHC certainly hopes the shutdown will not further erode the 403rd's mission readiness. James Franklin says the Hurricane Hunters are indispensable.
"We know that our track forecasts are better when they fly. Our estimates of the initial position are better when they’re flying. We put out better watches and warnings when they’re there," Franklin says.
"It's information that we really can't get any other way."