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Navy Is Preparing for Hurricane Season with 2-Week Storm Simulation

Naval Air Station Pensacola Air Ops personnel remove cargo straps on one of several pallets of belongings to Hurricane Matthew evacuees from Guantanamo Bay, Oct. 2, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Cathy Whitney)
Naval Air Station Pensacola Air Ops personnel remove cargo straps on one of several pallets of belongings to Hurricane Matthew evacuees from Guantanamo Bay, Oct. 2, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Cathy Whitney)

NORFOLK -- Seaman Apprentice Maegan Wilkerson sat in a large windowless room at the Fleet Weather Center at Naval Station Norfolk on Tuesday, double-checking her data.

The fictional Hurricane Brady had just walloped Cape Fear, N.C., about 300 miles south, and Norfolk was seeing wind gusts of more than 100 mph.

Wilkerson's data lay plotted across a graphic of the East Coast, warning of the storm's closest approach for a series of cities. By Wednesday night, Brady was projected to churn just 16 miles from the Navy's submarine base in New London, Conn.

With thousands of personnel and billions of dollars in aircraft, ships and infrastructure scattered along the East Coast, including here, the Navy relies on real-time weather information to keep its sailors and resources safe.

Though Brady wasn't real, hurricane season is, and it starts June 1. To prepare, Navy commands throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southeast are in the midst of a two-week annual simulation in which one storm strikes the Gulf of Mexico and another hits the East Coast.

"It's out there to exercise all of the emergency action plans that we have at the different bases to make sure that the actions that we do take are the correct ones for the safety of our people and our resources," said Lt. Cynthia Williamson, the Fleet Weather Center's tropical operations officer.

U.S. Fleet Forces Command relies on the center's forecasts to determine safe movements of ships during a storm, including whether they should remain in port or head to sea, an expensive process.

The center relies on forecasts from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and it can provide detailed predictions with a focus on sea conditions and wind speeds for about half the world. It can tailor them to a specific ship or region based on need. Another weather center is in San Diego.

Aircraft and ships are in danger in sustained winds of 50 knots, or 57 mph. By the time a storm nears Mayport, Fla., officials in Norfolk would need to start considering moving from "Sortie Condition Charlie," or preparing to get under way within 48 hours, to "Sortie Condition Bravo," under which ships prepare to leave within 24 hours, said Patrick Dixon, deputy operations office and senior meteorologist at the Norfolk weather center.

Hampton Roads last saw a "Sortie Condition Alpha," in which ships head to sea and planes move inland, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Navy issued a partial sortie in 2015 during Hurricane Joaquin.

The weather center modeled Brady on Hurricane Matthew, which pummeled Haiti and dumped as much as 12 inches of rain in Hampton Roads as it moved off the coast of North Carolina into the Atlantic Ocean in early October. But Matthew initially threatened to become one of the worst storms to strike the region in nearly a decade.

With 100 mph winds bearing down on Norfolk as Brady struck North Carolina, the Navy throughout Hampton Roads would already have taken preparations well in advance.

"We would have probably gotten ships under way," Williamson said.

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Navy Hurricane Military Bases

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