The quiet aftermath of Irene


When a hurricane threatens the east coast, it is a big story. And why not? The east coast is home to millions and millions of Americans whose lives are affected. Hurricane Irene was no exception. There were plenty of articles about over-hype and sensationalism, but when a third of the entire population of the U.S. is impacted, and over two million people are told to evacuate their homes, it makes headlines.

What you did NOT hear – and if you did it was because you searched for it – was that the fleet sortied out of Norfolk in advance of the storm (see article). You didn’t hear about it because it happened several days in advance, about the time Irene was pummeling the Bahamas.

Such a decision has consequences. The cost of moving a couple of dozen ships adds up to a lot of money and disrupts thousands of lives; but if the fleet stays in port and a hurricane strikes, damage could (and probably would) be a multi-million dollar consequence. Ships are most vulnerable when they are tied to the pier. Lines can snap, sides can be damaged as they slam against cement piers, and in a worst case scenario floating hulks can be cast adrift in the channel.

The Navy pushed for five day forecasts several years ago to allow time for vessels to get underway in time to avoid a threatening hurricane and the initiative has paid off many times over the years. In truth, the five day forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center (in partnership with military forecasters) are as accurate today as the three day forecasts were a couple of decades ago. The longer lead time allows emergency organizations to spin up and put supplies and personnel where they need to be, and well before the winds pick up.

This time, the storm track was well defined, and predictions were that the Naval Station would experience damaging winds in excess of 50 knots (around 58 mph). As Hurricane Irene reached its closest point of approach to Hampton Roads last week (about 25 miles away), wind sensors at Chesapeake Light recorded sustained winds of 53 knots.

Chesapeake Light (USCG photo)

The Naval Station reported 50 knots on station. It was a fantastic forecast, and the decision to sortie was absolutely justified.

So it was without fanfare that the Navy began to return to port on Thursday after circumnavigating the hurricane safely. No damages, and no injuries. Most of the nation didn’t notice, but some dedicated forecasters, ship routers and Naval decision makers quietly breathed a sigh of relief.

I hope they also allow themselves a pat on the back.


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