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Lakeland-based Hurricane Hunters fly into Laura with minimal crews, frequent COVID-19 tests

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Hurricanes don’t stop during a pandemic and neither do National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters, who are based at Lakeland Linder International Airport.

However, as they gather data and fly into Hurricane Laura in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not as if the pandemic doesn’t exist.

Photo courtesy: NOAA

“There is a lot more caution taken at every single step of the way. We’re having to think three, four, five steps ahead of everything,” said Commander Chris Sloan from the Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland.

According to CDR. Sloan, crews collecting data on an intensifying Hurricane Laura have been together since the beginning of the storm.

“No crew-to-crew contact because we don’t want to contaminate both crews if that were the case,” said Sloan. “The crews aren’t intermingled at all. The eight or nine folks that we have on the aircraft right now, are the eight or nine folks that will stay together for that entire hurricane series.”

During this “marathon” of a hurricane season, Hurricane Hunter crews are working in cohorts for every storm to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.

People who enter the hangar to interact with crew members answer a questionnaire and are screened.

“They will shelter in place for a requisite amount of time depending on who they’re interacting with then they will be folded into our workforce with the need to take a weekly COVID-19 PCR test to make sure that they’re not bringing anything in from the outside,” said Sloan. “Because all it takes is one and the infection can run rampant through a crew, especially when you’re in close contact.”

Sloan told 8 On Your Side the routine testing has caught seven cases from thousands of tests.

“Our testing regime for those crews that support our primary mission of essential functions of hurricanes and emergency response imagery are tested every Monday and every Thursday,” Sloan said.

Shared aircraft are aerated and cleaned before use.

Keeping everyone healthy is crucial, after all, it was the Hurricane Hunters who first saw Laura transforming into a real threat.

“People stand up, they take notice, they get out of the way when the forecasters provide that data and we’re the ones that provide that data to the forecasters,” Sloan said.

Hurricane Hunters have flown nearly 300 mission hours so far this hurricane season.

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