The storm before the storm

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Rob Tebben
  • 17th OWS
On Aug. 19, a tropical depression formed in the Central Pacific Ocean. The depression was numbered 01C, and its name eventually designated as Ioke.

Although forecast storm development was initially moderate with maximum wind speeds less 115 mph with no hint of impact to Wake Island, this system would turn into the strongest Central Pacific tropical cyclone in 41 years. Ioke increased to Super Typhoon, with sustained winds equal to or greater than 146 mph, strengthened three times resulting in the highest sustained wind speeds greater than 160 mph. As with any tropical cyclone forming in the 17th Operational Weather Squadron area of responsibility, the lead meteorologist created a presentation summarizing the storm and its potential effects. This briefing was then forwarded to the Pacific Operations Support Center Director, Air Mobility Division operators, US Army Pacific Staff Weather Officer as well as many other agencies.

The POSC Director incorporated the weather effects to a larger briefing presented to Kenny Headquarters Commander, Maj. Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. While the storm was impressive, its current path did not require activity other than AMD re-routing certain flights.

Initially, Ioke was forecast to track toward Midway Island, located about one-third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo. This information was briefed to General Rice and his staff. Although the storm was potentially dangerous to Midway, keeping the forecast track in the area of uncertainty, any impact was still at least 96 hours away. AMD's only concern at this time was flight routing, therefore interactions with the lead meteorologist would increase because both offices are co-located in the POSC.

As the weekend approached, Ioke was still forecast to move between Midway and Wake Island with no major impacts upon either island.

On Aug. 26 at 2:00 a.m., the newest bulletin came out from the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in coordination with the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. There was a marked change in the forecast path. The track now brought Ioke's closest point of approach, or CPA, to within four nautical miles of Wake Island. This CPA was forecast to occur on Aug. 30 at 2:00 a.m. Even though CPA was 96 hours out, the winds, which are generally the greatest concern, were about 72 hours out due to the extent of the 40 mph wind radii.
Tech Sgt. Toby Helton, the Tropics Zone Boss, saw that even though the winds were strong and that Wake Island's runway is only 12 feet above mean sea level, the deciding factor on severe damage would be the sea height coupled with wave heights. The runway would no longer be usable due to flooding as the waves/surge was forecasted to arrive within 48 hours, even earlier than the winds. Sergeant Helton conferred with the Lead Meteorologist, Tech Sgt. Dave Doler and noted conditions warranted activating the severe weather action plan as well as alerting the AMD and the POSC Director. The Air Mobility Division immediately began identifying the air assets needed as well as putting crews on alert. The POSC Director contacted Wake Island, alerting them to the potential need for possible evacuation of all 188 personnel assigned to Wake Island.

Once all agencies were alerted to the special circumstances, a 15th Airlift Wing Battle Staff was conducted on the Aug. 26 at 5:30 a.m. to determine potential courses of action. The Hickam Weather Flight NCOIC, Tech Sgt. Rodney Jacobs, and 17th OWS Commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Romolo, attended the Battle Staff. Potential impacts of Super Typhoon Ioke were briefed to 15th AW leadership. At 9:00 a.m., a Kenny Headquarters working group stood up to ascertain their involvement.

Because Wake Island is a 15th AW asset and aircraft are under control of the 15th AW commander, the group decided that the Wing would handle the evacuation. At this same meeting, recovery operations were also discussed. Colonel Romolo indicated that conditions looked favorable on Sept. 3 to conduct initial surveys of the damage such as fly over, satellite recon, and hazardous materials assessment. Initial damage assessment was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and an Air Force Crisis Response Team stationed at Andersen AFB, Guam. Follow on assessments were conducted by members of Team Hickam who provided pictures that subjectively verified forecasts of super typhoon wind speeds before the NOAA weather sensors failed on Aug. 31st.
The Hickam AFB Weather Flight took the lead in providing the 15th AW Commander needed information as well as briefing the flights that evacuated the 188 people on Wake Island. Sergeant Jacobs briefed updates to the wing battle staff concerning evacuation efforts. Colonel Romolo attended daily Kenney Headquarters Operations Planning Group meetings in order to provide updates on when the storm would pass the island and recovery operations could commence. Kenney Headquarters was the lead agency in charge of coordinating recovery activities.

According to Col Jeffery Stephenson, 15 AW Vice Commander, "The timely and accurate information provided by the 17th OWS in response to Super Typhoon Ioke was critical to Team Hickam's success during the Wake Island evacuation. Their support was key to ensuring the mission was conducted ahead of the typhoon's impact."

Two organizations administratively controlled by the 17th OWS, the Hickam Weather Flight and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, as well as the squadron operations floor worked in synergy to provide weather data for numerous agencies charged with the safe evacuation of 188 people and recovery efforts. By using all possible resources, the OWS stayed "ahead of the weather."