Katrina lessons pay off during recent hurricanes

 - October 1, 2008, 5:13 AM

The aviation industry took a hit last month from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The back-to-back storms affected more than a dozen airports along the Gulf Coast, resulting in temporary flight restrictions, numerous airport closures and short-term loss of ATC services.

Hurricane Gustav made landfall as a strong Category II storm on September 1 and forced airports in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to close. Most of the closures were due to power outages, according to Addie Fanguy, regional vice president and general manager of Million Air New Orleans at Lakefront Airport. “As bad as Hurricane Gustav was, it didn’t affect the airport,” Fanguy said. “A little water came over the north end of the airport, but we were closed for two days because of electricity issues.” Lakefront, the designated evacuation airport for New Orleans, was closed to the public but remained open for military and corporate relief flights.

The city of New Orleans, which suffered billions of dollars in damage after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was spared during Hurricane Gustav, Fanguy said. “It seems like every time we turn around, we get hit. But we really dodged the bullet for once,” he said. “In the city there was some wind damage, but the main crux of the problem was the electrical issues. We got by a lot better than we thought.”

Baton Rouge, La., didn’t fare as well, according to Ronnie Pickard, marketing and air service manager of Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, which is home to Executive Aviation and Baton Rouge Air Charter. The damage to the airport was “much more significant” than damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“We suffered significant wind damage,” he said. The wind, which reached 95 mph, downed trees, damaged a glass rotunda in the main passenger terminal and ripped the roofs off two hangars. “There was significant damage to those buildings. We’re probably going to have to rebuild them,” he said. The airport also suffered power outages and did not regain full power until September 4. 

Preparation Pays Off
The impact of the storm was not as bad as it could have been, however, due to the airport’s preparation in the days before Gustav hit. “We started making preparations a week beforehand,” Pickard said, adding that lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina gave the airport a “leg up” for this particular storm. “We were fortunate in that we were the reliever airport during Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “A number of airports along the Gulf Coast were out of commission for a period of time and we became the only air service provider, as well as the only emergency response and emergency aid provider for a pretty large area.” The day before the storm hit, the airport evacuated passengers and coordinated military and medevac flights into the area. “We skated on thin ice but we’re OK at this point,” he said. “Everything ran seamlessly.”

Hurricane Ike made landfall in Galveston, Texas, on September 13 as a strong Category II storm with winds of up to 110 mph. Scholes International Airport in Galveston appears to have sustained the worst damage. A temporary flight restriction around the Galveston area was still in place at press time. “The airport is trashed,” said Michael Frye, facilities manager of Houston-based Southwest Airport Services. “From what I understand, the airport was under six feet of water, and the fuel farm was under 10 to 12 feet of water at some point. [The airport is] going to be out of commission for a while.”

The Scholes-based Lone Star Flight Museum reported on its Web site that damage is “extensive….The hangars and Texas Aviation Hall of Fame had seven to eight feet of water in those areas. The gift shop and lobby area had three to four feet of water. The southwest sides of both hangars appear compromised. The entire contents of the gift shop are lost. Every exhibit in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame was destroyed.” The Web site also reported that a number of airplanes received “major water damage.”

Houston-area airports escaped major damage, however. Ellington Field, home to Southwest Airport Services, sustained minimal damage, Frye said. Ellington lies 15 miles south of downtown Houston and is a joint civil/military airport. “The storm was ugly, but it didn’t close us down,” he said. “There was a little bit of roof damage, and we’re fixing that right now.” The FBO had 100,000 gallons of jet fuel on hand the day the storm hit and had prepared on-site living quarters so that employees and their families could stay at the airport during the storm. “We’ve been prepared for the worst ever since Katrina,” he said, adding that Southwest remained open throughout the storm and used generator power until electricity was restored on September 15.

Million Air Houston, located at William P. Hobby Airport, also remained open throughout the storm. According to a Million Air spokeswoman, “Roger Woolsey and a few other people stayed during the hurricane and the facility stayed open,” she said. “They provided fuel immediately after the hurricane when nothing else was open. GA stepped up and supported the community.” She said the FBO is assessing damage.

“The team here at Million Air through that hurricane was amazing,” said Million Air CEO Roger Woolsey. “They didn’t want to go home. These people didn’t do it for the paycheck or for an extra day off. They did it because they have a passion for aviation.” The airport itself suffered some wind damage, but no aircraft were damaged.

Wilson Air Center, also located at Houston Hobby, suffered little damage as well. “We had some minor hangar damage, but we had absolutely no aircraft damage and all of our employees were safe on the other side of the storm,” said vice president Dave Ivey. He and Wilson Air Center president Bob Wilson flew in supplies and staff from the Memphis FBO in a PC-12 following the storm. “We even brought some good old Memphis barbeque ribs and put them on the grill for the folks,” Ivey said. “Needless to say, they were gone quickly.”

Meanwhile, business aviation groups such as NBAA and the Corporate Aviation Response and Emergency (Care) are prepared to arrange relief flights if necessary. Care president Marianne Stevenson said the organization works with NBAA and other groups, such as Mercy Medical Group and Convoy of Hope, to arrange supplies, resources and transportation to and from disaster areas. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the group transported thousands of pounds of supplies to the New Orleans area, Stevenson said.