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How GA Airports Serve Their Communities When Disaster Strikes

When disaster strikes, as it did when Hurricane Ian struck Florida last year, airports like Fort Myers’ Page Field (FMY) on Southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast prove to be an essential part of the rescue and recovery efforts for surrounding communities.

“We are fortunate to have a well-prepared, dedicated team at the ready,” said Scott Sheets, director of Page Field. Pummeled by Category 5 hurricane winds last September, “Our staff demonstrated incredible selflessness. The ride-out team sacrificed being home with loved ones while the storm passed, and we had a number of employees who reported early the next morning to help reopen the airport.”

The ride-out team is pulled from airport support and Base Operations’ FBO teams, a combined staff of 41, said Sheets.

Sheets added, “I’ve been here for 24 years and worked through every hurricane since Charley in 2004. Hurricane Ian, by far, was a different beast. This was something we don’t want to go through again.”

Crawling across the Gulf, Ian rapidly intensified before making landfall in Cayo Costa near Fort Myers on Sept. 28, 2023, as a Category 5 hurricane. According to Sheets, “. The storm blew building debris, signage and vegetation throughout the aircraft operation area and the winds subsequently relocated some older T-hangars. Our first priority after the storm was clearing these obstacles to ensure a safe operating environment.”

Checklist Planning

“Having a meticulously documented plan pays dividends,” Sheets said. “This was not our first hurricane. We’ve had many ‘practice runs’ with less impactful experiences that improved our plan. Each storm is different and each one teaches us something new.”

Destroyed aircraft after hurricane
A series of proactive checklists gives the plan structure, said Derek Faulkner, operations manager at Page Field. “It starts with the preseason preparations like ensuring storm drains are clear, inventorying supplies and replacing worn ropes on the airport’s 196 tiedowns.”

Tenant communication is also part of the checklist, starting before hurricane season begins on June 1, and then at 72 hours prior, 48 hours, 24 hours, and, finally, for post-storm cleanup.

At 72 hours prior to the anticipated storm impact, the airport sends tenants a relocation notice, addresses loose objects and tops off the fuel farms, airport vehicles and generators after their test runs. Storm shutters go up at 48 hours, supplies are staged and remaining outside aircraft secured. At 24 hours, the airport empties sumps, closes fuel farm valves and conducts a final airport survey.

Key Communication

“At first light on Sept. 29, the day following the storm, it was all hands on deck. We assessed the airport starting at the middle and making sure the runways were safe to open. Then, we worked outward, following the taxiways leading to Base Operations,” said Faulkner.

Fortunately, the airport signage and airfield electrical systems were good and backup generators provided power. Crews quickly began clearing debris. The fuel tanks and farms were inspected, and all the quality control checks were performed, which came back clean and dry.

Communication is key in any emergency. “Somehow, we had internet service during the whole thing,” said Faulkner. “This enabled Wi-Fi calls and web-based chats with other Port Authority staff, county staff and state EOCs that coordinated everything from food and ice to plywood and porta-potties. It was a lifeline because we could update people on the recovery of power and other services.”

Rescue and Recovery Efforts

The use of rotorcraft was the ideal way to quickly evacuate hospitals and reach the barrier islands, whose bridges to the mainland had failed. “The first night, we heard from pilots that we were the only open FBO with fuel, which was critical to keep them flying,” Faulkner said. After putting in a full day, two members of the ride-out team raised their hands and volunteered to stay up all night to fuel helicopters.

Page Field became a fuel stop for helicopters transporting neonatal intensive care unit babies and mothers rescued from the flooded Golisano Children’s Hospital. The following day, rescue efforts continued with Coast Guard and National Guard missions involving the evacuation of stranded residents from the islands, as well as additional medevac operations transporting critical care patients from Gulf Coast Medical Center.

Fixed-wing flights started arriving several days later. In addition to recovery and logistics organizations, teams from big box grocery and pharmacy chains, electric service providers, transportation companies and disaster response missions were coming and going constantly. Additionally, FMY was a near-daily stop for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Page Field was not the only player in the recovery efforts. Southwest Florida International Airport RSW, Naples Municipal (APF) and Punta Gorda (PGD) were heavily involved in post-storm recovery. Southwest Florida is a textbook example of how even a few miles between airports and their communities can make a big difference in terms of response.

While FMY was ideally positioned to assist in the evacuation of nearby hospitals and coastal areas, these other airports are less than 30 miles away and each played a critical role in reconnecting the supply chain, reuniting loved ones and offering accessibility to areas that could not be reached by ground.

During the flurry of rescue and recovery activities, one of FMY’s tenants, an empanada shop owner, showed up with a trailer of food. Instead of letting it spoil, he started cooking for the employees and first responders in the FBO’s kitchen. Word quickly spread amongst the visiting flight crews. After they landed for fuel, they would ask, “Where can we find the empanadas?”

Post-hurricane, commenting on Page Field’s Google profile, a local resident wrote, “This airport has done an awesome job as a base for [many] of the rescue efforts for the barrier islands. As for me, I appreciate what our airport does for the community in times of need and on a daily basis.”

“General aviation airports are the backbone of America’s infrastructure,” said Alex Gertsen, NBAA director of airports and ground infrastructure. “On beautiful, sunny days their essential role and contributions may be somewhat obscure to their neighbors and others who are not aviation users. But, when Mother Nature turns stormy, the value of these life-saving facilities becomes clear. Even in a two-airport system that Lee County is fortunate to operate, there is no doubt that FMY and its dedicated staff proved this value in the aftermath of Ian.”

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