KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- During Maj. Sean Cross' first flight into what became Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, he and his WC-130J Hercules crew joked and asked themselves why they were even tasked for the mission. "There was absolutely nothing to it at that point," he said. By his second flight, the jokes stopped and were soon replaced by concern for their own families and homes after the hurricane crossed south Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico on a direct path toward the Mississippi coast where the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron are based.
Katrina was only the most extreme example of the dilemma Hurricane Hunter crewmembers face while collecting data in storms that sometimes threaten their homes and loved ones in south Mississippi.
Eight years since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $95 billion in damage, Cross has even more at stake as he begins his 13th season with the 53rd WRS. While he's flying through storms, he now has 3-year-old son Cooper with his wife Apryl Ready back in their home in Biloxi.
"We have crewmembers all across the Gulf Coast, so at any one time, anyone in the squadron can be directly affected by a storm," Cross said. "The tough part is when you're looking at the forecast as you're coming in to fly. Then, we go fly, and we're basically dropping crumbs along a trail as we're tracking the storm. We look at where we live and where this track is going and where it's shifting, and we're playing mind games with ourselves, basically trying to wish this storm somewhere else. No. 1, you've got to stay focused on the safety of the crew and the plane. But No. 2, you're thinking about the people on the ground and the lives that are going to be affected." Storm preparation must begin much earlier in the Cross home, along with other Hurricane Hunter crewmembers, than most of their fellow Gulf Coast residents. When most coastal residents are trying to get as far inland as possible the day or two before a hurricane reaches the Biloxi beaches, Cross is flying at 10,000 feet in the teeth of the storm itself. Their preparation cannot wait until a hurricane reaches the Gulf. "We have to sit down with his calendar and my work calendar and try to clear everything from July to October," said Ready, a Biloxi attorney. "We don't plan any vacations during that time. We don't plan any trips, and I try not to set any trials. Because I know that he's going to be gone most of that time, I'm going to have Cooper by myself, and I don't need the extra stress of having a trial or a trip on top of that." The family uses a clothes hamper to store important papers, laptop computers, portable hard drives, and other important items such as Monkey, Cooper's prized stuffed animal. Cross makes sure his family has a plan in place, and his wife knows what to do, which eases his mind so he can concentrate on the storm, the plane and his crew during hurricane missions. "As a crewmember, it's easier on me knowing that I have a plan, and we put that plan into action sooner rather than later," Cross said. "The last thing I need to have on my mind and worry about while I'm flying a plane is when Apryl is going to leave. I'd rather know she and Cooper are out of the way, and she knows that, too. She doesn't want me to be thinking about them while we're in a storm." The 2013 hurricane season, which began June 1 and continues through November, is forecast to be another active year for storm formation. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 13 to 20 named storms with sustained winds of 39 mph or higher, with seven to 11 becoming hurricanes and three to six major hurricanes, said James Franklin, National Hurricane Center specialist unit branch chief. Hurricane reconnaissance flights like NOAA and the 53rd WRS, improve the National Hurricane Center's forecasts by at least 15 percent, Franklin said. Cross transferred to the 53rd WRS in 2001 from the 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Three years later, he flew into Hurricane Ivan as the Category 4 storm was headed for the Florida Panhandle where his parents, Henry and Jerry Cross, live. By 2005, Cross' experience with hurricanes made him painfully aware of how bad Katrina was going to be. He told his wife and friends, who didn't believe him until they saw the devastation left after the storm passed.
"My wife had never experienced a direct hit from a major hurricane before," Cross said. "I told her the coast is not prepared for what's going to happen here. This is probably going to be a direct hit on the Biloxi area. The coast is going to be changed forever." At least half a dozen 53rd WRS members lost their homes during Katrina, and the squadron relocated to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga., for the rest of the season and never missed a tasking from the National Hurricane Center. The family put their evacuation plan into action last year as Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Mississippi coast. The squadron evacuated the 10 WC-130Js to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston. On Aug. 28, the day before the seventh anniversary of Katrina, the 200-mile-wide hurricane made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, 75 miles from New Orleans, bringing high winds and significant rainfall to Biloxi. "I'm in the Gulf flying through Isaac knowing that Apryl and Cooper are right here taking care of the house by themselves," Cross said. "I spent the night in Houston, biting my nails wanting to know if I could get back here. Fortunately, we had enough air crewmembers willing to stay with the aircraft and fly the mission, and I came home the day before landfall to take Apryl and Cooper, and we headed to Florida out of harm's way."
Now that they have a child of their own, Cross and Ready are even more resolute to make sure they're not in a situation that could jeopardize their lives whether the next hurricane that impacts the coast resembles Isaac or Katrina. One of Ready's friends and her 4-year-old daughter stayed in their hurricane-damaged house after Katrina, and Cross saw the impact the experience had on the child.
"I can only put myself in (Cooper's) shoes, to come home as a 3 ½ -year-old, and everything he's got is destroyed," Cross said. "The most important thing to him is probably his Monkey. If you can plan ahead and take something that is a valuable thing like a special toy for your child, it makes a huge difference in the long run." When Cooper is old enough to understand, they also plan to talk to him about what his father does for a living and about hurricanes. They have The Weather Channel's current TV show, "The Hurricane Hunters," along with photos of their house that was damaged by Katrina and their own stories. "I remember my parents telling me the story about Hurricane Camille (in 1969) and how they lost everything," Ready said. "That's how you learn - from stories other people tell of their experiences with hurricanes. We will sit him down, tell him stories and show pictures to tell him he has to prepare just like we do to get out of the way when a storm is coming."