For U.S. Gulf Coast residents history repeated itself at the end of August when Hurricane Isaac struck, seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and nearly drowned New Orleans. The storm caused the temporary closure of several area airports and forced others to declare “ATC-zero” status due to tower shutdowns or other lapses in contact with ATC. According to Jim McClay with NBAA’s Air Traffic Services, while Isaac forced the closure of traffic routes over the Gulf of Mexico for less than two days, a shorter period than anticipated, most business aviation operators heeded the warnings and stayed away. “Overall because of the storm there wasn’t a lot of traffic headed down there anyway, so the impact was pretty minimal,” he said.
Alhough Isaac lacked the ferocity of its predecessor, the storm was responsible for extensive flooding at the city’s Lakefront Airport, which was finally nearing recovery from the $80 million in damage suffered during the 2005 Category 3 hurricane. According to an airport spokesman, under normal conditions the facility could handle the approximately 18 inches of rain the area received. However, the storm pushed water into neighboring Lake Ponchartrain (which is actually a saltwater estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico), raising its level by more than five feet, and the facility found itself inundated by up to six feet of water. “The new section of the airport drains directly into Lake Ponchartrain, and as the lake rises the drains back up,” said Louis Capo, executive director of the airport’s Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority. “It came in through the drain and it came over the northeast quadrant where there is no bulkhead.” Capo told AIN that the northeast area of the airport is a known vulnerability that has concerned authorities since the days before Katrina. The airport is still searching for funding to build a stronger defense against storm surge there.
Once the storm passed, the water took approximately 36 hours to drain sufficiently for crews to clear the debris from the airport’s three runways and its taxiways. The flooding closed the airport from August 28 until September 2, when it reopened to VFR traffic only. By the end of the week lighting and navigational aids had gone back online, restoring flight operations to normal.
FBOs Begin Clean-up
Isaac, however, was responsible for severe flooding damage to the airport’s three FBOs, forcing them to switch to backup generators until power was restored, and begin renovations. The recently rebranded Hawthorne Global Aviation Services facility (formerly the AeroPremier Jet Center) had completed an extensive renovation project earlier this year that eradicated the final scars from Katrina. It and the Landmark Aviation location at the airport were forced to bring in temporary trailers to house their operations as their terminals are emptied, gutted and rebuilt. Workers at the locations described removal of sodden sheetrock and soggy furniture and damage to phone and computer systems. At Flightlinefirst, the impact was not quite as jarring as the FBO was already about to embark on a renovation project, with new carpeting and furniture waiting to be delivered. General manager Brayton Matthews estimated damage of up to $200,000 at the facility and said the business will remain in its building throughout its renovation. Fueling operations from the airport-owned fuel farm were unaffected once power was restored.
While most aircraft owners removed their airplanes from the airport before the storm, those that remained may have regretted their decision to sit tight. Matthews told AIN that a pair of King Air 90s that weathered the storm in his hangar likely require landing-gear rebuilds after standing in salt water, while the handful of piston singles that remained could possibly be totaled.
Matthews said he has committed to hiring a hydrologist familiar with the region to study the situation. The area where the airport’s terminal and FBOs are located lies in a bowl ringed by bulkheads, which is where flood waters at the airport accumulate. “This is just happening too frequently, too severely,” Matthews noted. “If someone is at fault, we’d like to get our hands on them.” Among the possible solutions suggested is that the airport establish a retention pond on nearby property to hold water pumped from the FBO area during floods.