Hurricane Irene is bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard.
“We’re right at the point where we have to start making decisions,” observed Patrick Moylan, director of Health, Safety and Environment at Signature Flight Support. Based in Orlando, FL, Moylan is directing the emergency operations of eight FBOs that appear to be in Hurricane Irene’s path as it sweeps along the East Coast.
Moylan certainly isn’t making up his plan on the spur of the moment. The plan, which is posted at each Signature Flight Support Center, is a time-driven checklist, he said.
“There’s a series of events that start 72 to 96 hours from the event,” Moylan explained. “We start looking at our fuel tanks, making sure we have enough fuel in them for ballast. We start making the initial notifications, going through staffing. Then we get to 48-hours from a storm and there’s a whole different series of things we have to do.”
At Banyan Air Services in Fort Lauderdale, Vice President Mike O’Keefe is a hurricane veteran. He agreed with Moylan that the best way to deal with an approaching storm is to have a plan already in place.
“Whether it’s a tropical storm or a Category Five hurricane, we approach it in much the same way,” O’Keefe pointed out. In the case of Hurricane Wilma in 2005, he said that approach paid off in ways he never expected. Hurricane Wilma was briefly the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, with sustained winds of 185 mph. Although it was considerably less powerful when it crossed the Florida peninsula, it still wreaked havoc at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE), where Banyan is based.
“It took the roof off our maintenance department. There was a lot of wind. It was a lot worse than we thought it would be.”
Although Wilma was certainly not O’Keefe’s first hurricane, he said it was perhaps one of the most instructive. For one thing, he said, it made him realize that companies which insure aviation assets will often make demands in the face of destructive weather.
“When Wilma came through and caused so much damage, we heard story after story about insurance companies that were denying claims,” he said. The insurance companies told clients they had ample opportunity and sufficient warning to move their aircraft out of harm’s way. Failure to do so, they said, would negate coverage.
Banyan now has a strict policy of notifying owners and operators of all aircraft in its hangars and on its ramp about approaching storms and the urgent need to move their assets to safety, O’Keefe said. Both O’Keefe and Moylan pointed to checklist items pertaining to fuel strategies.
While Moylan worried about above-ground tanks floating away for lack of ballast in the event of airport flooding, O’Keefe’s strategy includes keeping fuel trucks topped off so that they can be used in post-event recovery operations.
“If we lose power, we’re unable to pump fuel from the underground storage tanks into the truck,” O’Keefe said. Power outages could last days or even weeks. “We have people on site at any given moment just trying to keep our fuel trucks full just to support emergency medical types. Even during the storm, we have guys out in the wind and rain fueling (emergency) aircraft.”
Personal safety is, of course, top of the list when it comes to storm preparedness, both men said. Securing anything that might be dangerous if picked up by hurricane-force winds is also high on the list, Moylan pointed out. O’Keefe also warned about data protection. “We try to keep (all data and backups) on-site specifically so we can lay our hands on it in the hours and days after an emergency,” he said. Other companies use remote data backup services which store information in hardened, bunker-like structures throughout the US.
O’Keefe also has his employees wrap all computers in heavy-duty plastic, hoping to keep them dry should something happen to the roof. “Our servers and our computers and our fiber-optic network are the lifeblood of this organization,” he noted. “In our computer area, we’ve got a quasi-umbrella system set up so that, in the even the roof were to leak, we’ve installed a second barrier system to prevent water from going into the servers.”