Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Forecasters are grateful to Cuba

Miami Herald

In cooperation that three years ago would have been unprecedented, U.S. military planes flew over Cuba to help scientists track Tropical Storm Ernesto.

BY DAVID OVALLE
dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

U.S military planes soared over Cuba this week.

The sorties did not spark any international incidents -- but they did help South Floridians indirectly prepare for Tropical Storm Ernesto.

Between Sunday and Monday, U.S. Air Force C-130 ''hurricane hunters'' flew into Cuban airspace at least twice a day, sampling storm conditions such as wind speed, barometric pressure and other meteorological measurements.

Despite nearly five decades of tension between the United States and Cuba, storm safety overrode all that.

''We are both in the same business -- we're trying to save people's lives,'' said Lixion Avila, a Cuban-born hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade.

On Tuesday, U.S. forecasters publicly thanked Cuba for granting access to island airspace so they could obtain data vital to tracking Ernesto.

Forecaster Stacy Stewart, who was tracking the storm overnight, tossed in a brief note of appreciation in one of his storm advisories: ``Special thanks to the government of Cuba for permitting the recon aircraft to fly right up to their coastline to gather this critical weather data.''

In truth, said John Pavone, who coordinates hurricane hunter flights for the hurricane center, the Cuban government has never had problems with helping out U.S. forecasters.

Civilian WP-3D Orion jets operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flew in Cuban airspace for years. But their capabilities were limited.

The U.S. Air Force has 10 prop-engine C-130s -- but that branch of the military long had a self-imposed rule barring its aircraft from the COmmunist island's airspace.

''Fidel always said we could come on down,'' Pavone said. ``But [the Air Force] wouldn't do it.''

An old reminder of the rule hangs in Pavone's office: a giant wall map with an offlimits red zone blocked out around the island.

That began to change in 2000 when Max Mayfield became the hurricane center's director.

One of his goals was to improve communications with Cuban meteorologists on storm tracking.

''It helps them and it helps us too,'' Mayfield said of hurricane hunter flights into Cuban airspace.

Mayfield's international influence also may have helped. He chairs the Regional World Meteorological Organization's Regional Association, which includes 26 members from Caribbean countries, including Cuba.

After Mayfield announced last week that he was retiring in January, he received a heartfelt e-mail of congratulations from José Rubiera, head of Cuba's Institute of Meteorology.

The U.S. State Department eventually saw it Mayfield's way.

Three years ago, C-130s made their first flights into Cuban airspace to help track storms. Their use is not uncommon -- they flew during Katrina last year when it was still a tropical storm.

Now, to request permission to fly weather missions into Cuban airspace, Mayfield sends a request to the State Department, which forwards it to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.

Last Friday, Mayfield sent off the letter, writing that ``interrupting the data flow will be harmful to the track and intensity forecast process.''

The data helped forecasters gauge Ernesto's prolonged westward dawdle over the island -- and eventual weakening.

''We knew everything. [Barometric] pressure, maximum wind speed, wind. . . . We knew everything,'' said forecaster Avila.

Mayfield said he can't remember ever acknowledging Cuba's cooperation on recon flights in writing, but he sees no problem with what Stewart said.

''I'm not sure we've ever thanked them in a public advisory, but it was a nice touch,'' Mayfield said. ``I've certainly thanked them informally.''

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