Riding Out the Storm
By Gina Kvitkovich
Hurricane Irma was on the way.
Since August 30, the hurricane had been watched by meteorologists — and eventually the entire region — as it tore through the Caribbean. Eventually, it became clear that the powerful storm was headed for Florida.
Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, declared a state of emergency on September 4. While Florida residents had a few days to prepare (Irma didn’t touch down there until September 10), first responders knew they needed a location where they could safely shelter during the hurricane.
The solution: the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). The second largest convention center in the United States (behind McCormick Place in Chicago), the OCCC is located in Orlando. Unlike coastal cities, Orlando’s central location insulated it from the worst of Irma, while also making it an ideal location to depart from for any post-Irma operations.
According to Tim Wood, OCCC security manager, the convention center was a logical staging location. “As a major event destination, our teams are accustomed to moving and staging large equipment, ranging from helicopters and airplanes to trucks and roller coasters.”
If you attended HAI HELI-EXPO 2015, you’ve been to the OCCC. So it’s no surprise that it had room to house 34 aircraft during Irma; after all, 57 aircraft were on display there in 2015.
Wood had been getting calls from various agencies about a week before Irma was due to make landfall. The convention center had been used for similar staging during previous storms, but OCCC personnel say this was one of their larger efforts.
The convention center had seven shows scheduled in the 10-day window leading to and during the hurricane. However, as it became obvious that Hurricane Irma posed a real threat to the area, the OCCC worked with its clients to reschedule those events, freeing up the convention center to stage the aircraft.
Just as they did for HAI HELI-EXPO 2015, aircraft were able to land in a parking lot of the OCCC North Concourse. Aircraft were then either pushed or towed into Hall B of the North Concourse. When aircraft are being exhibited, the OCCC normally imposes fuel limits as a safety precaution. However, considering the circumstances, the convention center suspended its fuel limits, in part to ensure that the responders could begin mission operations as quickly as possible.
Aircraft started arriving late in the week before Hurricane Irma arrived. Once inside, the aircraft stayed put until it was safe to return to operations after the storm had passed.
As it passed through the area, Irma delivered sustained winds of 56 miles per hour, sufficient to down trees and cause other property damage. Although the Orlando Sentinel reported that more than 80 percent of Duke Energy’s customers were without power, the OCCC never lost power (and if it had, the facility has several back-up generators).
The OCCC put together a “ride-out” team of staff members who stayed in the convention center to monitor the building and assess for any damage. A limited number of first responders and crewmembers were permitted to stay as well so they could be in place to respond quickly.
The aircraft and personnel spent four to six days in the OCCC, but it wasn’t all downtime. Some responders sorted and dried supplies that were still wet from their work in Texas, coping with the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
According to Wood, if the U.S. Air Force could not have staged its six Black Hawks from the convention center, the aircraft would have been forced to operate from Georgia, greatly increasing their potential response time.