In the Eye of the Storm

When the 2004 hurricanes hit, one man reached out ... and an industry responded.


“Houston brought a couple of 18-wheelers full of equipment along with their people, and they basically took over New Orleans airport and brought it back up. {Houston Airport System director] Rick Vacar basically called his mayor and said, ‘I’m going to do so and so,’ and the mayor told him to go for it.

“That was it, a telephone call.”

Ironically, as the Houston crews were helping to make New Orleans International Airport operational again, Hurricane Rita was following a path directly toward Houston. That led to airports from all across the country to get involved in the relief efforts.

Explains Graham, “We’ve gotten involvement from a lot of people — Seattle; Portland; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Washington, D.C. Everybody was sending people and equipment; it wasn’t just the Southeast Chapter. The West Coast people have now created WESTDOG. They are centered more around earthquake type of situations and tsunamis.”

As Robert White, then-division manager for the Houston Airport System, explained at the time, “We learned ... how important it was to be able to have other airports available to assist no matter what the occasion, but certainly (during) a disaster like a hurricane that could shut down an airport. The airport is very important in the recovery from this type of disaster in that disaster relief very often comes through the airport.”

Meanwhile, Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport was suffering the same fate as New Orleans. Graham sent crews there along with others from Jacksonville International and Orlando International.

“One of the big things is water treatment,” explains Graham. “Minneapolis-St. Paul had some water treatment specialists they sent down. We got a lot of different help from a lot of different people.

“Gulfstream [headquartered in Savannah] gave us planes and we flew supplies in, specifically for the airport. We weren’t trying to get involved in the recovery effort for the community. Our whole focus was to help get the airport back up and operational, and then the community will take care of itself.

“But nobody could fly stuff in until the airport got operational. So the main people we sent were people who could get in there and fix the electronics, the electricity; fix runway or taxiway lights or anything else. And we weren’t talking about the terminal — number one is always runways and taxiways because you can’t get the recovery effort in until your runways and taxiways are operational.”

Another relief team that joined in was from Portland (OR) International Airport, headed up by Mark Crosby, chief of public safety and security. “They were looking for a big group and that’s where we plugged in,” he recalls. “We provided nine people and took the lead from a management of resources standpoint.

“We built a team of folks from San Diego and Phoenix. When we got there, there were people who just showed up from Huntsville and Lincoln.”

Crosby says that the organization of SEADOG was a central coordinating tool, particularly as Hurricane Rita was coming close on the heels of Katrina.

“We were literally able to respond and be deployed through this network. Phoenix spent the night in Texas; San Diego was in New Mexico. When the Lake Charles and Beaumont airports were hit [by Rita], we sent Phoenix to Lake Charles and San Diego to Beaumont. They’d already started a caravan.”

Among some of the other efforts, according to Graham: “Memphis had a big 700KW mobile generator; that went to Gulfport-Biloxi. Augusta [airport] is the fixed base operator, so they had some big tankers. They filled them up and that went to Gulfport-Biloxi, because they were having trouble getting fuel. It seems like each airport had something it could put in the mix.”

Lessons learned
Among the lessons that came out of these relief efforts, according to Crosby, one that stands out is that in a time of disaster airports helping airports is the way to go when it comes to getting a facility up and running. He adds that the successful coordination provided by SEADOG led him and others out West to consider forming a similar group.

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