SAVANNAH — In the office of Patrick Graham, A.A.E., executive director of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, there is a large framed picture of Hurricane Hugo as it was bearing down on this Southern tourist magnet in 1989. It’s a fitting symbol, as Graham would later become the focal point of relief efforts through the devastating hurricane seasons of 2004-2005. What started out as a friendly gesture to another airport has blossomed into a nationwide network of regional airport groups who are on call in the event that one of their group is hit by disaster. It’s all about bringing in personnel and equipment that will get the local airport operational so that other relief efforts can take place. Today, the network knows who is available to respond, what equipment is needed, and where it is located. At the end of the day, it’s about airports helping airports.
It all started with a phone call as Hurricane Charley was bearing down on Pensacola, FL in 2004.
Recalls Graham, “I called Frank Miller at Pensacola and said, ‘Look, if you get hit I’ll send somebody to help you. So we got two crews together and got them situated and ready. I sent them down to Brunswick and Steve Brian there actually sent a couple of his guys along with them. Then they talked to Jacksonville and they said they’d bring police officers.
“It was kind of an ad hoc thing.”
Hurricane Charley subsequently slammed Central and North Florida, causing considerable damage to Pensacola Regional Airport. “My guys were down there for three weeks,” explains Graham, “sleeping in sleeping bags on the tarmac. I sent eight people originally.”
A month later, Hurricane Ivan would follow suit, again hitting North Florida.
Says Graham, “By that time it had gotten around that we had helped them and so I created a little organization, the Southeast Chapter Disaster Organizational Group — SEADOG.” The organization was put under the auspices of the Southeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives, a group that Graham previously headed up as chair and in which he remains active. [For more information on SEADOG, visit www.secaaae.org/seadog.]
“At first we tried to make that a very formal organization; what we found was that by trying to put it in writing we were getting conflict. Some of these airports would have to take it to their city or whatever to get it approved; and if they had to do that it was not going to go anywhere because they weren’t going to get approval to take assets somewhere else.”
Graham says that while the airports helping airports initiative is relatively new, the electrical power industry has had formal procedures and agreements in place for years. It’s why power companies are able to respond so quickly in emergencies. “They have come to agreement on how they pay each other and how they do everything else,” he says.
Graham says that the airports that responded learned many lessons from the Pensacola outreach, which would prove beneficial to airports in Biloxi, New Orleans, Lake Charles, and Beaumont in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. “By that time we had formalized,” he says. “We had listings of assets from airports that could be committed.”
Creating a united effort
Graham says that while he initially “dreamed up” the concept of airports coming to the rescue of other airports, he credits his director of operations Greg Kelly with actually implementing the effort.
“Now, we have it where we switch the command center based on where the hurricane hits. It can be us, Pensacola, Orlando, or Houston,” he explains.
By the time Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the game was already changing and airports in the region were now thinking of ways they could assist. “Houston really stepped up to the plate with New Orleans,” says Graham. “Houston took over New Orleans. Roy [Williams, airport director] had contracted almost all the work out, so when everything happened he didn’t have a lot of people return. The contract people didn’t come back.