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The Caribbean Connection to Hurricane Katrina

In 1994, when the U.S. Navy was downsizing on Antigua, the
403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve investigated several potential
new locations for a Forward Operating Location – a place to get closer to
Caribbean storms. Lt.-Colonel Mark F. Stevens
surveyed the island of
St. Croix, liked what he saw, and connected with the
owner of Bohlke International Airways at the
St. Croix airport.

“After Bill Bohlke arranged for us to
meet with the Lieutenant Governor, the Port Authority, the major hotel
operators, and a number of local merchants and restaurants, it was even more clear to me that St. Croix
would be very hard to beat,” says Lt.-Colonel Stevens. “All of our
critical requirements were in place on St. Croix,
and in the end it was selected.”

Civil
Engineers from the Air Force Reserve in Minneapolis
brought in a C130 load of personnel, equipment and materials, and built a new
hanger facility ahead of schedule in only nine days.

“On
the 10th day, I had the CE team survey the coral reefs off
Cane Bay
(went diving) to make sure the island was securely anchored,” jokes
Stevens. “We sampled some of the local restaurants to validate the
quality of the bushwackers, painkillers, lobster, and
steaks… and confirmed that St. Croix was
the right choice.”

Ever
since then, the Hurricane Hunters transport vehicles, vans, ground power
equipment, and trucks by air to their hanger each May. They also bring along an
inventory of parts and supplies, unique communications equipment, and computers
for mission planning while deployed. In December, they pack everything back up
and fly it home to Keesler Air Force Base in
Mississippi.

From St.
Croix, Hurricane Hunters can extend their mission range out to about 55 West
and still have what Lt.-Colonel Stevens calls “loiter time in the storm
environment.” Typical flights involve about three hours to go out, up to six hours in the storm, and three hours to
return.

A usual
deployment will have about 25 maintainers and 25 air crew with three to four
aircraft. For St. Croix hoteliers, who
normally face empty rooms during the summer and fall, this represents between
2,500 and 3,000 room nights per hurricane season.

“I
am sure that is why there has always been such an appreciation among all the
business, restaurant, and hotel owners on island. That’s a significant
volume of business, and is one of the prime reasons we felt it was important to
keep it in a U.S. Territory,” says Lt.-Colonel Stevens.

Usually
on a crew as a Navigator, Stevens in years past has served as deployed Mission
Commander, coordinating Hurricane Hunter activities and schedules while on St.
Croix as POC (point of contact) for the unit. “Being on a crew is
definitely the less stressful option,” he says. Stevens and his wife
Diane are boaters themselves who own Nomad,
a small trawler offered for bareboat charters in the New York State Canal
System near Syracuse
(www.cruise-usa.com.)
They live near Biloxi in
Coral Springs, Mississippi
and were among the fortunate few whose homes suffered only minor damage in
Katrina.

Crucians
go to church each July to pray on Hurricane Supplication Day, then again in
late October on Hurricane Thanksgiving Day to rejoice when they have been
spared. This year, they are expressing tangible thanks by helping the Hurricane
Hunters who have become members of their island family.

“These guys and gals are terrific, and I understood that many of
their homes were destroyed,” says St. Croix
jewelry store owner Sonya Hough. She made a cash donation to the nonprofit
Hurricane Hunter Foundation and her daughter, jewelry designer Diana Hough,
created a “Katrina bracelet.” The Hough family, through their
business, Sonya ltd, will donate 20% of each Katrina bracelet sale to the
foundation, which is helping reservists who lost their homes and possessions.
For information: (340) 773-8924 or www.sonyaltd.com.

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