Hurricane hunter

NOAA's A. Barry Damiano has been storming his way into hurricanes for 18 years and calls it 'a great job.'

Courtesy of NOAA

With both meteorology and computer science degrees, NOAA scientist looks powerful storms in the eye from high above

Flying straight into a hurricane is all in a day's work for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist A. Barry Damiano, who's seen the eyes of the worst Atlantic storms for 18 years now.

His closest call came when an aircraft engine shut down and the hurricane surveillance mission had to be aborted.

Other times, 'when we hit a good updraft or downdraft, things will levitate for a few seconds,' he said, 'but we have good pilots. We strap in only for turbulent weather. Sometimes there will be a 20- or 25-mile eye, and we'll have three or four minutes to get up and walk around and take pictures' of the sunny sky at the center of a hurricane.

Fascinated by weather since childhood, Damiano spent six years at the National Hurricane Center before coming to NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. 'It's a great job,' he said of chasing the biggest storms. 'I didn't plan it, but the opportunity came up.'

NOAA began hurricane surveillance flights in the early 1960s, as did the Air Force and Navy. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., now is the only other group conducting hurricane flights. NOAA currently flies two Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprops into storms at about 10,000 feet and a Gulfstream IV-SP jet much higher, around 45,000 feet, to get a large-scale hemispheric view. The Orions can carry up to 18 people'NOAA's crew plus researchers, local officials and media. The Gulfstream is limited to 13 people.

'We only fly the storms the scientists are interested in, not every hurricane,' Damiano said. The toughest year he can remember was 1995, which had 19 named storms. While in flight, the NOAA crew releases a sensor bundle called a dropsonde every few minutes. Each nonrecoverable, $550 dropsonde slowly descends via parachute and radios back its measurements of air temperature and pressure, humidity, and wind speed and direction every half-second.

'A dropsonde falls faster when it's high up,' Damiano said. 'At 10,000 feet it slows down. It splashes into the water going about 20 miles an hour.'

Other radar and Doppler radar sensors mounted outside on the aircraft fuselage can produce a 360-degree view of the hurricane below and its precipitation profile. The raw data gets compiled aboard each aircraft on an ancient Hewlett-Packard 1000 CPU running software written in Fortran 77, with an identical unit for backup.

Damiano holds a computer science degree as well as a meteorology degree. 'Our software is homegrown and doesn't have any special name,' he said. Post-processing software written in C and C++ has a graphical interface, unlike the Fortran program.

The aircraft transmits the sensor and radar data over a 402-MHz satellite link in near-real time to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, which does the main number crunching to tell how severe a storm is and where it's likely to go. The hurricane center assigns each storm a number on the Saffir-Simpson scale:
  • Category 1: Winds up to 95 mph, storm surge up to 5 feet above normal and no great damage to buildings. Examples: Allison of 1995 and Danny of 1997

  • Category 2: Winds up to 110 mph, storm surge up to 8 feet above normal, and some damage to roofs, windows and trees. Examples: Bonnie and Georges of 1998

  • Category 3: Winds up to 130 mph, storm surge up to 12 feet above normal, and some structural damage to small residences. Damage to trees; evacuation of low-lying residences. Examples: Roxanne of 1995, Isabel of 2003 and Fran of 2004

  • Category 4: Winds up to 155 mph, storm surge up to 18 feet above normal, and more extensive building and tree damage. Low-lying escape routes are cut off; massive evacuation of residential areas might be required as far inland as six miles. Examples: Felix, Luis and Opal of 1995, and Charley of 2004

  • Category 5: Winds greater than 155 mph, storm surge greater than 18 feet above normal, and severe and extensive damage with massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground up to 10 miles inland. Examples: Gilbert of 1988 and 2004's Ivan.

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