In the Eye of the Storm

March 11, 2008
When the 2004 hurricanes hit, one man reached out ... and an industry responded.

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]

“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.

“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.

Says Crosby, “Those of us out West came back and thought we should have a WESTDOG, a Western airport group. And since then we’ve worked with the trade associations to tie together a network of regional volunteer organizations.” This has led to the formation of other groups, including NEDOG in the Northeast, MIDDOG in the Midwest, and AIRDOG, the national coordinating effort.

Graham at Savannah explains that, despite no formal agreement, the procedures, needs, and coordinating priorities are much more clearly defined today. “We have a SEADOG procedure manual that we go by; we have a website for it so airports can go on and see what personnel and equipment are available.

“We’ve all come to the basic understanding that for ten days you have no commercial service. And you might not have any power.”

Among some of the others lessons learned since 2004 ...

  • “I’d never send my people without RVs,” says Graham. “There’s an RV Campworld a few miles down the road from here — if I send them again I will go down and buy whatever I need. When they get there they have nowhere to stay.

“We all know now that they need to be pretty much self-contained when they get there, where they don’t need anything else from anybody. Again, we’re talking a week to 10-day period. All we’re doing is trying to get the airfield and the airport operational, and then back away.”

  • Fuel for vehicles — diesel and gasoline — becomes a big issue, according to Graham. “We’ve worked out agreements with the National Guard,” he says. “They have a lot of fuel over there and we’ve worked out an agreement so we can use that fuel. Now we have written agreements with the government.”
  • Knowing who and what is available, and from where, are critical, all agree. Comments Graham, “Greg’s [Kelly] got a listing of things that are needed on a normal basis. And he’s got a listing of which airports have them.”

Adds Crosby, “Part of the problem we had in New Orleans was that we had calls from 40 or 50 airports to ask if they could help. If you have one airport as the screening airport, it’s helpful. For example, I can coordinate all the things the West has to offer. If we have four or five DOGS around the country, an airport like New Orleans will have to make [only] four or five calls.”

  • While the efforts remain voluntary, the procedure has become much more formalized, says Graham. “If it’s bearing down on Jacksonville or Savannah, then Pensacola or Orlando is going to be in charge of the relief effort for us, because we’re going to have our hands busy doing other things. We basically said that anything north of us, we’ll take the responsibility — like Charleston or Wilmington, North Carolina.”

Savannah’s plan
For its own part, Savannah/Hilton Head International recently constructed a new operations center, the design of which was greatly influenced by the SEADOG experience, relates Graham. He says the last direct hit on Savannah came from Hurricane David in 1978, with minimal damage because it wasn’t a major storm. “We’ve been very lucky with the big ones,” he says.

The new operations center is built to be hurricane-resistant and is today the center of command in an emergency — for airport personnel and local fire and rescue.

“We and the county have a contract here with a company to build a tent city here if we ever need it,” says Graham.

“Another thing we learned is, if you can’t provide housing for the airport’s employees and their families, then you’re not going to get your employees back. If your employees have lost their housing and you want them to work you have to provide them shelter. We’re structured to do that; we have a contract to build a tent city and for operating it.”

He explains that Savannah has put life support systems in the terminal to keep the airport operational. “Our food and beverage operator is hooked up so they can provide food. We have a couple of gates that are hooked up so that we could provide gate useage,” he says. “But again, the focus is not on getting back up on a commercial operation basis because that will come around.

“We’re 70 percent tourist traffic; if we just got hit with a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, it’s going to be a while before those tourists come back. So you’re not really going to have that much traffic. Your traffic is going to be the traffic in your relief effort.”