Kearsarge Weather Team Provides Crucial Support During Humanitarian Mission

Story Number: NNS171106-09Release Date: 11/6/2017 9:46:00 AM
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By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaitlyn E. Eads,
USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) Public Affairs

CARRIBEAN SEA (NNS) -- A U.S. Navy ship is like a clock. It can't run without all the cogs working together. Every cog is important, no matter how large or small.

The meteorological and oceanographic team is one of the cogs of the clock aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). And although they are a smaller part of the machine, they played a crucial role in all aspects of the ship utilizing its unique capabilities to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the Caribbean following hurricane Irma and Maria's impact on the region.

The team, consisting of enlisted aerographer's mates augmented from Strike Group Oceanography Team from Fleet Weather Center, Norfolk, Virginia, along with Kearsarge's Meteorological/Oceanographic Officer Lt. Cmdr. Chad Geis, provided support for Kearsarge, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), and the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), by collecting and analyzing data, and making tactical and environmental predictions for air, amphibious and shore operations.

"We gave the pilots and the LCU (landing craft utility) operators the weather conditions and tidal information every day for different points on the island," said Chief Aerographer's Mate Kristian Shelley, the leading chief petty officer of the Strike Group Oceanography Team. "We were constantly updating them with expectations, like rainfall amounts and any other things that could affect the mission."

Weather, being the reason for the ships' deployment, and a theme throughout, needed to be closely watched during the majority of the mission. Kearsarge was first tasked to respond to Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf region, but was redirected when Irma formed in the Caribbean.

The team sprang into action, giving guidance for avoiding Irma, while also getting the ship to the islands as quickly as possible to provide aid in the aftermath. A couple weeks later, it was the same game with impending Maria.

"We came up with a plan to avoid Irma by using Cuba and Haiti as a shield and to get the aircraft off to respond as quickly as possible," said Aerographer's Mate 2nd Class Jason Fisher, assigned to Strike Group Oceanography Team. "The biggest part of the plan was to make sure we could still conduct the mission while avoiding the worst of the weather."

The team developed storm avoidance and on-station plans throughout the mission and presented the best possible plan to senior leadership; a task which takes professional expertise and old-fashioned experience to complete, according to Geis.

"When you talk about weather forecasting, you are really limited by the technology," said Geis. "We use models to predict our weather, but our models are only as good as the information that goes into them and we cannot perfectly portray a current state of environment."

Prior to the formation of Maria, the team gave an advanced five-day forecast of the storm before it made landfall in Puerto Rico.

"Given today's technology, there is good confidence in a three-day forecast, but normally outside of that, confidence decreases given the variability of the atmosphere and the state of modeling," Geis said. "However, the team felt confident in their analysis and was able to provide the admiral the five-day advance notice so he could reconstitute his forces and get everyone safely back on the ship."

Geis also highlighted benefits of having a team aboard a ship, versus on shore.

"The major benefit is the face-to-face communication between the team and the chain of command, and the capability to explain the findings behind their assessments in person," Geis said. "Another benefit is the timeliness of information. We are able to give reports to the chain faster as new information became available."

Geis said the team did nearly triple the amount of work they would do on a standard seven-month deployment. He said since Aug. 31, they have made a total of 2,608 observations, averaging more than 24 per day; not just for Kearsarge but for the citizens of Puerto Rico when their forecasting equipment failed due to Maria.

Additionally, Geis said that the team has delivered 2,555 products, to include forecasts for Kearsarge, Oak Hill and Comfort, tidal predictions, five-day impacts, environmental information, and more. They conducted a total of 880 briefs, averaging 15-20 per day.

"This mission was an incredible experience," Fisher said. "I have tropical cyclone forecasting experience, but the amount of work put into this mission was incredible and it was due to the great team we have, as well as the team effort throughout the ship."

The Department of Defense is supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria to minimize suffering, and is one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort.

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