On Wednesday, hurricane and emergency management experts were present to display one of the huge metal birds that assist weather forecasters in tracking storms. The WC-130J was flown into St. Thomas a little after the start of the workday, carrying with it some of the daring individuals who fly into the eyes of hurricanes.
The WC-130J plane is the main weather data collection unit for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The 53rd is a part of the 403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve, and the individuals who make up the crew are known as hurricane hunters. They are responsible for hurricane missions in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern and central Pacific Ocean.
“We’re all doing it because we’re passionate about it. We’re all doing it because we’re here for the people. We want them to be as safe as possible,” said Amaryllis Cotto, first lieutenant of the 53rd.
The information the hurricane hunters collect is useful for hurricane preparation and evacuation planning, days and moments before a storm makes landfall. Data is sent directly to the National Hurricane Center and can then be relayed to various states and cities. However, it would be challenging to get updated information without the assistance of storm chasers.
Dwight Manganaro, captain of the 53rd, has been flying with the squadron for the last year and said that he knew as a young person that he wanted to fly.
“I always knew that I wanted to fly, ever since I was a kid. I’ve been fortunate to fly many different airplanes,” said Manganaro.
Manganaro started his flying career in the Air Guard. He has flown C130s, C5s, and 130s. When asked if the work that the hurricane hunters do is similar to that of the tornado chasers in the movie “Twister,” he laughingly agreed.
“When they were throwing in Dorothy with all those little sensors, that’s similar to what we’re doing with our weather instruments,” said the captain. “And we’re taking similar readings of the temperature, the humidity, the winds, all the way from the altitude of dropping, all the way down to the surface.”
Cotto said that she also decided from a young age to become a hurricane hunter. After experiencing Hurricane Andrew while living in Florida as a young girl, Cotto said she knew what she wanted to do when she got older.
“I was in Hurricane Andrew when it struck Miami, and it actually destroyed all of our home,” said Cotto. “After that, that was kind of a done deal that decided my faith.”
Though the duty of being a hurricane hunter can be scary, Cotto said that it is actually bittersweet.
“It depends on the storm. Every storm is different. I think the landfall missions for me are bittersweet because they’re very emotional,” said Cotto. Cotto referenced the beauty of the storms but also the destruction and negative impact that they cause.
Kristen Pittman, a public affairs specialist for the 403 Wing, who has had experience in the 53rd, agreed the experience can cause a mixed array of emotions.
“It’s the less developed ones that seems like it’s harder for them to maneuver. So those are a little more scarier, a little more bumpy,” said Pittman.
Cotto, however, is a bit more daring and says though some people don’t, she actually enjoys the bumpier flights and has flown about 10 storms thus far.
Roberto Garcia, meteorologist-in-charge for NOAA’s National Weather Service in San Juan, Mike Coyne, director for the National Weather Service Southern Region, Kenneth Graham, director for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, Daryl Jaschen, director for the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, and Carlton Dowe, director for the Virgin Islands Port Authority, were present to share remarks.
Graham addressed the impact storms have caused and said that there have been 85 named storms in the last two years and $320 billion worth of damage since 2017. He also added that “We’ve had more Category 4 and 5 landfalls since 2017 than we did from 1863 to 2016.”
Some of the speakers referenced the greater frequency of storms that have been impacting the territory in recent years and that being able to track the storms as early as possible is the best chance community members have to prepare. Thus, the role of the WC-130J aircraft.
The WC-130J plane was flown to St. Croix on Wednesday afternoon and will be flown to Puerto Rico on Thursday for a similar showing.