Out of the eye - into response

Calling a hurricane 'God's handiwork' could raise a few eyebrows, especially nowadays.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 22, 2006

Ross Dobben of New Creation Builders in Miramar, Fla., fits hurricane-rated shutters to windows on a home in Plantation as part of My Safe Florida Home program.
Credit: P.J. Heller

Calling a hurricane 'God's handiwork' could raise a few eyebrows, especially nowadays. But it's how Robert Sharp describes flying through the eye of a storm.

"You punch through the eye wall," he says. "Then the plane might go up 4,000 feet or come down 4,000 feet. Like a roller coaster. And then you have a stadium effect as long as you're flying inside the eye, with that circle of clouds around you. You can see blue sky. The eye is always calm. And it's awesome to see God's handiwork."

A Hurricane Hunter pilot for 27 years before he retired in 2005, Sharp sees hurricanes in his own light. He doesn't know how many storms he flew - "there's a point where you don't keep track," he says. "But I've got 6,742 flight hours. You do keep track of that."

And there's always a storm a Hurricane Hunter never forgets. For Sharp, it was Hugo, a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall in South Carolina on Sept. 21, 1989. Earlier, while still well out in the Atlantic, Hugo reached Category 5 status.

"In Hugo, in that environment, winds were already 150 knots out in the South Atlantic," he remembers. (That means winds were about 172.7 mph - well above the 155-mph sustained winds needed for a Category 5 designation.)

"I had black-and-blue marks from the shoulder harness," Sharp recalls. "It was continually severe to moderate turbulence through all the quadrants of the storm. That's where you hold on and hope the plane stays upright. You have no control in that environment."

Every storm behaves differently, and pilots can't predict by looking how much damage a storm will cause when it makes landfall. "At that level, it's hard to tell what it's doing," Sharp admits. "I mean, it's dark with a lot of rain hitting the windscreen. It's the data we gather that tells the story. All the Ph.D.'s and meteorologists down there make the forecasts. You can't do much predicting."

Sharp's last flight was through Tropical Storm Jose, a short-lived system that formed Aug. 22, 2005, and made landfall the same evening in Mexico. Six days later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Sharp, who lives in coastal Mississippi, didn't ride out the storm. "I actually got to evacuate with my wife instead of leaving her as usual," he said. "I was at the end of my career."

In some ways, Sharp will always want to fly into storms. "Most of us like the adrenaline rush. I will miss that," he says, "especially those minutes before you punch through the eye wall, those 4 to 6 minutes of intense flying. That's the fun part."

As a Hurricane Hunter, Sharp was part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the Air Force Reserve - the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes. The Hurricane Hunters' fleet of ten Lockheed-Martin WC-130 aircraft and crews are part of the 403rd Wing, based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina forced the Hurricane Hunters to set up shop in Georgia.

Before becoming a Hurricane Hunter, Sharp spent time in the Navy and was also an Army Green Beret. "But there's a point you get too old to be in the military. I'll be 54 years old," he says.

After only a few months off - with part of that time spent evacuated in the face of Katrina - Sharp went from the eye of the storm to caring for people on the ground. He's now the east regional disaster relief coordinator for the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. He sometimes works 16-hour days that leave him little time to dwell on how much he misses flying into hurricanes.

"My gifts are in logistics and scheduling, thanks to the military," he says. Hundreds of thousands of hurricane survivors are still struggling, and Sharp's job - along with his colleagues spanning across the region - is to set up a fair way to help people most in need.

"Case management" may sound like a bureaucratic phrase, but it's a system of care that helps families map their own recovery plan - and that's what gives them hope, Sharp says. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has supplied training and funding for case management in Mississippi and many other states.

"After we got the case management side of the office up and running, I am a firm believer in case management. It takes the least and the lost that would have slipped through the cracks. That case manager becomes an advocate for the family."

Given the extent of need, Sharp's job - like that of many faith-based responders - would seem overwhelming to most people. "I would be extremely frustrated if I hadn't spent six years in a special forces unit," he said. "But it's unconventional. You adapt and improvise. That's what the Green Beret was about. And that has kept my frustration level down. I try to understand the variables."

Sharp also tries to emphasize preparing for next hurricane season. "We're in for an intense season. We've got to have a plan in place."

And sometimes, Sharp says, he still takes to the skies. "I do fly a little civilian plane. I am addicted to flying. I have that."

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