Navy's Annual Hurricane-Preparedness Exercises Have Added Significance After Matthew, Irma
By Joe Daraskevich
The Florida Times-Union
An annual Navy exercise to prepare for hurricane season has an extra element of relevance this year at Naval Station Mayport and other area bases after Northeast Florida was hammered by storms in 2016 and 2017.
“It’s secretly a monumental task,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Dockmaster Vincent Lookebill.
Lookebill stood on one of the Mayport wharves Thursday as sailors practiced a heavy-weather mooring exercise to secure the USS Fort McHenry to the dock. Most sailors spend at least some time pulling lines while on active duty to learn the basic skills needed in the Navy, but Lookebill said many of the participants Thursday had never worked with the larger nylon lines used to secure ships during storms.
The double-braided nylon lines can endure much greater tension than the smaller Kevlar lines used to normally tie ships to the dock. The Fort McHenry is a Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship, and one of the largest ships at Mayport. The nylon lines used to secure it Thursday were 8 inches in diameter.
Lookebill said the base has about 420 nylon lines of different sizes that can be used for the smallest ships to the largest. They are kept in a warehouse on base for about 90 percent of the year, he said, but it’s vital to have them when they are needed.
“It’s kind of an intriguing thing to me how much actually goes into it,” he said of preparing a base for an incoming storm.
Lookebill was assigned to his current role in port operations a week before Hurricane Irma hit land in September. He said he was impressed with how quickly and efficiently everyone worked to get the base ready.
He said the year before, when Hurricane Matthew barreled through, it changed course a few times before turning toward the area. It usually takes about a week to send ships to sea, to get all the loose equipment off the pier and to make sure all the fenders are secured to the dock before a storm comes, Lookebill said.
All the preparation had to be done in a couple days when Matthew hit in 2016, Lookebill said, so they started getting ready much earlier when Irma was on the way.
Thursday’s training was for the extra consideration that there are usually ships with ongoing repair work and others that just aren’t functioning at the appropriate level to leave port, and for that reason they have to be secured to special heavy-weather mooring bollards anchored with concrete 150 feet below the surface of the wharf.
Chief Warrant Officer Earnest Pippen of Destroyer Squadron 14 said the base turned into a ghost town when the storm finally arrived last fall. Most of the people assigned to Mayport learned how severe a storm can be with Matthew, so they didn’t take any chances with Irma.
“We don’t want any ships in port,” Pippen said. “The safest place is out to sea where you can look at the radar and see where the storm is to avoid it easily.”
All but two ships were able to leave ahead of Irma, he said. There was no significant damage to speak of following the storm, which was a reflection on the training and implementation of protocol.
“When you have to write those reports afterwards and you took damage, you have to explain what you did to prepare,” Pippen said.
Reporting only minor damage shows the people who coordinated the hurricane efforts did what they were supposed to do.
Thursday’s drill was part of Hurricane Exercise/Citadel Gale 2018, a Navy-wide exercise that started Tuesday and runs through May 11.
They don’t have the Navy ships to worry about at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, but the base’s location on the St. Johns River was cause for concern during Irma when the water level rose significantly.
“With two hurricanes hitting this area the past two years, it is vital that we are ready for any adverse weather conditions,” said NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Michael Connor. “Our upmost priority is to keep our sailors, civilian employees, families and assets safe.”
Most of the operational aircraft at the base fly to safer locations when a storm approaches, and Connor said they work hard to keep open communication with the city to put out accurate and timely information during any kind of emergency situation.
Pippen said it’s actually safer for some of the small patrol vessels at Mayport to move up river when a storm approaches rather than out to sea. There’s a special mooring buoy in the river that they used for the first time last year to successfully ride out Irma.
“It was something that we trained for last year and had never done before, and then we went back and actually did it in real life,” Pippen said. “That was awesome.”
Preparing a Navy base for severe weather is something people don’t generally think about when they think of the armed forces, Lookebill said, but the job of coordinating the preparedness effort is enormous.
“I call it the being-a-sailor part of being in the Navy,” Lookebill said. “This is the seamanship part.”
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308 ___
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