NOAA Hurricane Hunters help victims from the sky with aerial imagery


TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Before and during the storm, the NOAA Hurricane Hunter fleet of aircraft played — as always — a pivotal role in tracking and forecasting Hurricane Michael. After the storm made landfall,  a multi-purposed NOAA aircraft, the twin-engine King Air Beechcraft carried out a different critical task.

NOAA’s Commander Rebecca Waddingon flies this lesser-known airplane. “The King Air’s mission is coastal mapping so it’s used throughout the year. We fly all along the coastline and see where the water is at high tide levels and low tide levels which is very important for nautical charts.”

In the four days immediately following Michael’s landfall, NOAA crews captured almost 10,000 high resolution images of the damage below. For some of the thousands of people displaced from their homes, these pictures were a first glimpse at the aftermath. The bird’s eye view the king air provided was the only possible way for many survivors to check on their homes.

 “The hardest thing for people is the not knowing” said Commander Waddington. “When they can look at our photos which are geo-referenced and they can zoom in and know ‘hey my house is there – I have something to go home to” or sometimes the unfortunate “My house is not there, there’s no need to rush home’. It still gives them a sense of peace – of just knowing. It’s very humbling to be a part of that.”

NOAA’s street-level damage photographs were immediately made available to the public online.  With WFLA-TV sister station WMBB-TV knocked off the air by the hurricane, News Channel 8 used the photographs to help. WFLA crews then took that aerial imagery and showed it to people who watched live online and on Facebook. Many of those impacted by Hurricane Michael were searching for any possible information on the condition of their homes and communities.

“People who had fled the area, people who had gone to neighboring states, they could punch in their address and we would look it up live on the stream” said News Channel 8’s J.B. Biunno. “We could show them from the air from these images what their home was like and what  had happened to their neighborhood.”

News Channel 8’s Melissa Marino described the live stream as emotional and intense. “I remember as we were looking up all these different areas, we were shocked. The  viewers were shocked. It was intense. We were kind of discovering the damage and the destruction with people, together.”

Commander Waddington says the pictures taken after Michael’s landfall even proved to be life-saving.

“During Michael, we happened to fly over an area and somebody had seen our imagery. They noticed that someone had spelled out “Help” using downed tree limbs. Our high-resolution cameras were able to capture that and fortunately another citizen happening to be zooming in on our photos and saw it. They were able to get the people the help they needed.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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