Air ambulance services on the East Coast of the United States, from North and South Carolina to New York, are on hurricane alert as Hurricane Irene gets closer to making landfall in the US. The storm, currently a Category 3, left a wide trail of destruction behind it as it left the Caribbean Sea, and it now has its course set for several of the United States’ most densely populated areas – which are, relatively, unprepared for a direct hit from a powerful hurricane.
Air Medical Services Respond
Three fixed-wing air ambulances from an air medical service in Pennsylvania were placed on alert by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency for possible work ahead, which may include transporting sick and injured patients out of Irene’s warpath. If FEMA contacts them, the air ambulances will have 6-12 hours to fly three planes full of air medical physicians, staff, and pilots to an airport located closer to the hurricane. The same Pennsylvania air medical service was called upon by FEMA to do the same for a hurricane that hit Texas last year.
Air medical services as far away as Arizona have been dispatching air medical flight crews and air ambulances to the East Coast in preparation for evacuating people out of the path of the storm. There is a high probability they will be called upon in the coming hours to evacuate critical care patients from their homes, hospitals, or other healthcare facilities.
Moving Aircraft Out of Harm’s Way
Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is again being looked at by the FAA and airlines as a safe place for airline and corporate/charter aircraft to park outside of the hurricane’s reach. PIT has been used this way for similar situations in the past. Its three long runways and sizable ramp space may soon be accommodating many airlines and other aircraft owners who want their aircraft to be out of the path of the storm.
The FAA said the airlines have plans in place and that more information may be revealed later today. It also remains to be seen whether, and in what capacity FEMA will utilize the fixed-wing air ambulances it has on standby from several U.S. air medical services.
Nationwide Air Travel Disruptions
Seeing the risk, some charter jet operators have canceled flights to Boston and New York over the weekend, or asked clients to alter their travel plans to avoid the storm.
Meanwhile, over 2,400 airline flights have been canceled nationwide. Major airlines like Delta, American Airlines, and JetBlue have grounded many planes as they wait to see what impact Hurricane Irene will have, not just during the storm, but on airport infrastructure as well.
Even if flights are able to resume immediately after Irene passes, the scattered relocation of so many aircraft will make resuming normal air travel schedules a complex task. In the meantime, delays caused by canceled flights and relocating of aircraft can be expected to have a rippling effect across the entire air traffic control system.
Seven major U.S. airports will likely be hit by the storm, which is projected to travel over Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The last hurricane of this magnitude that threatened the East Coast was Gloria in 1985, which followed a similar path. Gloria was responsible for the deaths of 11 people, and nearly a billion dollars in damage.
Irene’s powerful rains and wind are not the only challenge airports are facing from the storm. Power disruptions, very common to hurricanes, may make it more difficult to restart service after the storm passes. In addition, there is no telling if flight crews may face obstacles preventing them from commuting to work.
Unfortunately for air travelers, Hurricane Irene has arrived in the midst of record numbers of full seats on aircraft. Passengers who have had their plans disrupted by the storm will find it very difficult to find available seats immediately following Irene, as it will be just before Labor day, a peak air travel week, in August-September, both peak air travel months.
It is not unreasonable to expect that some travelers with important business may have to reach their destinations by chartering flights rather than using the major airlines. For travelers with health conditions and the means, air medical companies that specialize in charter flights will offer an alternative to finding an available seat on a packed airliner as well. Nevertheless, the probability (or extent) of damage to airport property/infrastructure remains the wildcard in many Americans’ post-Irene travel plans.
New York City Prepares to be Hit
The response to the hurricane by residents of New York City has been mixed. As a gauge of NYC residents’ concern, some areas of the city are experiencing packed supermarkets with empty shelves, while others have been experiencing empty supermarkets with packed shelves. Mayor Bloomberg decided to shut down the entire mass transit system of the city on Saturday, and to evacuate more than a quarter million New Yorkers who live in low-lying/beachfront areas along the southern coast of the city, including parts of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Rockaway.
The city has been evacuating hospitals, senior centers, and psychiatric homes. Almost 250 patients have been transported from Coney Island Hospital to facilities further inland. The NYPD has deployed about 50 small crafts to areas along the shore in case people get stranded. After the storm, New York State helicopters will be deployed to identify damaged areas.
The Carolinas, who experience direct hits from tropical storms and hurricanes much more frequently than upper East Coast states, are also bracing for the impact of Hurricane Irene, resorting to their normal precautions for a Category 3 storm.
For Northerners, a small bit of comfort can be taken in the fact that a number of fixed-wing and rotor air ambulances from air medical services located all over the country are within range of major populated areas like New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston, ready to evacuate people should they get the call.
As this article is being typed, Americans in places like New York City are taking unprecedented precautions in preparation for the storm. Are you in the path of Hurricane Irene? As an employee or operator of an air medical service, have you ever experienced a powerful hurricane firsthand, or helped out following the aftermath of a large storm? Let us know your stories below.