With the 2022 hurricane season ending (we hope) on November 30th, we thought we’d peel back the curtain and give a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to get our favorite airport ready for Jim Cantore, er, impending tropical weather.
At Pensacola International Airport, we coordinate over a dozen agencies and companies, including the airlines, TSA, FAA, rental car companies, parking, janitorial, concessions, and maintenance service providers that make it possible for passengers to get to and from their destinations through PNS. Several other entities use the airfield, from general aviation to flight schools and other businesses, such as ST Engineering and UPS.
All of these organizations, their equipment, and their facilities must be secured, and their non-essential employees evacuated before a storm arrives. Then many of them have to be reactivated when danger passes.
We sat down with Byron Burkhart, the Assistant Director for Operations at Pensacola International Airport, to talk about everything it takes to get the airport ready for a hurricane – and then back up and running.
What happens at the beginning of hurricane season at PNS?
Before hurricane season even starts, we are reviewing and updating our Emergency Plan, which includes planning for storms and what we call “Damaging Weather.” That plan is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for every commercial airport to be updated each year.
Every March, we’re doing our internal emergency training. We also check in with all the airport tenants to make sure they are reviewing their hurricane plans and letting us know if there are any equipment or personnel changes we should be aware of going into hurricane season.
What else do you do when it looks like a storm is heading our way?
Just like we do with our homes, as soon as that cone of concern points our way, we start checking our supplies and equipment. We have a room that has hurricane supplies that will last us at least a week because if there’s a major disaster here, we will have people living here. Our fire personnel stay here, other essential personnel stay here.
We work in concert with Escambia County Emergency Management, and they provide us the wind and rain timeline. Our emergency plan lays out a timeline that starts 72 hours before tropical winds are predicted, all the way to landfall. We begin doing the smaller things like ensuring our equipment is fueled and functioning properly. At 48 hours we start positioning things so we don’t have to worry about getting to them in a storm.
At 24 hours we start tying things down and securing anything outdoors. Our tenants, including the airlines, have activated their own plans at this point. At 12 hours out, the airlines need to have their flights out of here, because we are shutting down. We need to make sure our own employees, and our tenant employees and staff, are getting home and off the roads too. By eight hours from landfall, we’re buttoned up and closed down.
So the airlines don’t keep their planes here during the storms?
Typically the airlines will get their planes out of here. When I was working at Fort Lauderdale Airport during Hurricane Wilma, I saw airplanes spinning around on the ground during the storm. I’ve seen tornadoes flip planes over. Not everyone heeds the warning, but most of the time the airlines get their flights out of the area. Even last month, when Hurricane Ian was moving through Orlando, we were getting phone calls to park planes here.
What happens after a storm passes?
After tropical storm force winds die down, our emergency plan kicks in again, this time on the recovery efforts. Our first priority after a storm is to get our runways and taxiways open. That way we can be in a position to receive any of the relief agencies, like FEMA, the national guard, and others can start staging at the airport.
What else would you like the community to know about hurricane preparedness and response here at PNS?
First, that safety is a top priority for us. We spend a lot of time training for emergencies – whether that is a desktop exercise or a live exercise with first responders and even actors who play the part of accident victims, we take safety very seriously. All of our employees go through FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) training. Our airport fire department is constantly training for all kinds of emergencies. We are always looking ahead and planning ahead, so when an emergency of any kind does take place, we’re ready and prepared to act.
The other thing for the public to know is that there are many things that we don’t control when it comes to emergency response. Our job is to close the facility when we need to so everyone can get home before a storm, and we open the facility when it’s safe to do so. We don’t control the airline schedules or the rental car schedules, so check in with them if you have a flight canceled or a rental reservation due. We’re all working to get things back to normal as soon as possible, but it doesn’t happen all at once.
Like we saw with Hurricane Ian recently, roadways were flooded, causeways were breached, and you couldn’t get in or out. So all the help – supplies or personnel – had to come in vertically by helicopter or plane. Often the airports become the hub of the recovery effort after an emergency or a disaster.
But once we’re able to clear and secure the airfield, we begin to reverse the shutdown process and try to get the airport and our tenants back to normal operations. Just because the airfield is clear doesn’t mean we can open the airport to passengers. We still have security requirements for TSA equipment and staff. Our perimeter fence line has to be secure, and the airlines have to be able to staff their ticketing and gate counters.
The airport has backup generators, so power is not an issue, but we still rely on other utilities like water and communications. If the water treatment and sewer pumps are knocked out, we can’t open the airport to the public. All the airlines manage their reservations through computers, so if you don’t have phone and data service, you can’t process passengers. So there are a lot of other things out of our control when it comes to reopening.