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MAGICTORCH (DIAGRAM); STOCKTREK/GETTY IMAGES, NASA (HURRICANE)

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS3.B    

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1    

TEKS: 6.2E, 7.2E, 8.2E, E.8A

Into the Storm

When hurricanes strike, teams of scientists spring into action to keep others safe

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What jobs might require people to stay on duty during a hurricane?

Anytime a big hurricane hits, last year included, most people shelter at home until the storm passes or evacuate to get out of harm’s way. Some people, though, head to work in critical jobs to protect others during a dangerous storm. In addition to emergency responders, many brave scientists and engineers remain on the job through a hurricane.

The 2017 hurricane season was tough on the U.S. In August, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas. Weeks later, Hurricane Irma destroyed many homes and businesses in Florida. Then Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, with catastrophic effects. Science World caught up with some of the researchers and technicians who worked through these record-breaking storms.

When a big hurricane hits, most people shelter at home during the storm or evacuate to get out of danger. That happened with last year’s storms too. But some people head to work during a dangerous storm. It’s their job to protect others. And it’s not just emergency responders. Many brave scientists and engineers also stay on the job through a hurricane.

The 2017 hurricane season was tough on the U.S. Hurricane Harvey slammed Houston, Texas, and nearby areas in August. Weeks later, Hurricane Irma destroyed many homes and businesses in Florida. Then Hurricane Maria created a disaster in Puerto Rico. Researchers and technicians worked through these record-breaking storms. Science World spoke with some of them.

HURRICANE HUNTERS

Most people would rather not be anywhere near a hurricane. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) hurricane hunters head straight into the heart of the storm. These researchers fly with some of the world’s most skilled pilots aboard special aircraft to monitor and collect data on hurricanes (see Flying Through a Hurricane).

“Satellite data can show clouds gathering, but you need to get inside a storm, where the strongest winds are, to understand how much of a threat it poses,” says Jack Parrish, a NOAA flight director and meteorologist. Parrish has completed hundreds of flights through hurricanes, including Harvey and Irma.

Most people would rather not be anywhere near a hurricane. But hurricane hunters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) are different. These researchers head straight into the heart of the storm. They fly with some of the world’s best pilots on special aircraft. That’s how they watch and collect data on hurricanes (see Flying Through a Hurricane).

“Satellite data can show clouds gathering, but you need to get inside a storm, where the strongest winds are, to understand how much of a threat it poses,” says Jack Parrish. He’s a NOAA flight director and meteorologist. Parrish has made hundreds of flights through hurricanes, including Harvey and Irma.

Scientists on the ground feed the data hurricane hunters collect into computer models that simulate a storm’s development. The models allow forecasters to predict its strength and path and to issue hurricane watches and warnings. That information helps officials determine whether to order an evacuation. “Without these missions, we’d be in big trouble as far as getting good forecasts, which help protect people’s lives,” says Parrish.

Parrish flew through Irma and saw its nearly perfect eye, or center. “As a meteorologist, it was amazing,” he says. “But as a human being, it was horrifying to know there were so many people in its path.”

Hurricane hunters collect the data, and scientists on the ground feed it into computer models. These models show how the storm may develop, so forecasters can predict its strength and path. Then they can give hurricane watches and warnings. That information helps officials decide whether to order an evacuation. “Without these missions, we’d be in big trouble as far as getting good forecasts, which help protect people’s lives,” says Parrish.

Parrish flew through Irma. He saw its nearly perfect eye, or center. “As a meteorologist, it was amazing,” he says. “But as a human being, it was horrifying to know there were so many people in its path.”

LT. KEVIN DOREMUS/NOAA

MONSTER STORM: Hurricane hunters approach Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

ANIMAL PROTECTORS

As last year’s hurricanes headed toward land, zoos and aquariums went into emergency mode to keep their animals safe. Zoo Miami and the Houston Zoo are each home to thousands of animals representing several hundred species.

Many people evacuate with pets, but “moving an antelope or a lion isn’t like packing up a cat or dog,” says Ron Magill, a spokesperson for Zoo Miami. The stress of moving can be deadly for zoo animals. To best protect their animals, zoos typically secure them in place during hurricanes.

During last year’s storms, zoo staff prepared for days in advance, stocking up on food, water, gas, generators, and cleaning supplies. Animals like lions, apes, bears, and rhinoceroses were moved into their sleeping quarters as the storms approached. These sturdy structures are made of materials like metal and concrete. Smaller mammals and some species of birds were put into kennels or other enclosures inside hurricane-safe buildings. Sometimes that meant putting animals in unusual places, like the zoo’s public restrooms.

When hurricanes headed toward land last year, zoos and aquariums got ready for an emergency. They needed to keep their animals safe. Zoo Miami and the Houston Zoo each have thousands of animals from several hundred species.

Many people evacuate with pets. But “moving an antelope or a lion isn’t like packing up a cat or dog,” says Ron Magill. He’s a spokesperson for Zoo Miami. The stress of moving can be deadly for zoo animals. Zoos usually keep their animals safely in place during hurricanes. That’s the best way to protect them.

During last year’s storms, zoo staff got ready for days. They stocked up on food, water, gas, generators, and cleaning supplies. The staff moved animals as the storms got closer. Animals like lions, apes, bears, and rhinoceroses went into their sleeping houses. These strong structures are made of materials like metal and concrete. Smaller mammals and some kinds of birds went into kennels or other containers. Staff placed them inside hurricane-safe buildings. Some animals were put in strange places, like the zoo’s public restrooms.

WILFREDO LEE/AP PHOTO
  • TAKING SHELTER: A keeper leads a cheetah into a hurricane-safe building at Zoo Miami shortly before Hurricane Irma (left).
  • SAFE AND SOUND: Spoonbills and flamingos ride out Hurricane Irma indoors at Zoo Miami (right).

As soon as it was safe, a team of staff who had weathered the storm on site went outside to check on damage and care for the animals. After Irma, some trees and fences were down at Zoo Miami, and debris was everywhere. But overall the zoo’s structures and animals fared well.

At the Houston Zoo, workers had to repeatedly rescue fish that kept being washed out of their outdoor pool by shifting floodwater levels after Harvey. But most animals stayed high and dry in their shelters. After waters receded and debris was cleared, the zoo reopened and welcomed 50,000 visitors in the early days of the city’s recovery. Curator Kevin Hodge, who camped in the zoo’s Bug House during the storm, says, “I hope we don’t have another experience like that for a long time. But if we do, I’ll know we’re well prepared.”

A team of staff stayed on site at both zoos during the storm. As soon as it was safe, they went outside to check on damage and care for the animals. After Irma, some trees and fences were down at Zoo Miami. Litter was everywhere. But mostly the zoo’s structures and animals did well.

At the Houston Zoo, workers had to rescue fish over and over after Harvey. Floodwater levels kept changing and washing the fish out of their outdoor pool. But most animals stayed high and dry in their shelters. Finally, waters went down and litter was cleared. The zoo reopened and welcomed 50,000 visitors early in the city’s recovery. Curator Kevin Hodge camped in the zoo’s Bug House during the storm. He says, “I hope we don’t have another experience like that for a long time. But if we do, I’ll know we’re well prepared.”

OSVALDO GUTIERREZ GOMEZ/AP PHOTO

DOLPHIN TRANSFER: Aquarium staff in Cuba prepare to move dolphins to another site before Irma strikes.

SPACE STATION GUARDIANS

NASA’s Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston provides ground support for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). “We work in shifts 24/7 to make sure systems on the ISS are running well,” says flight director Courtenay McMillan. And that didn’t change even when Harvey hit.

McMillan and her colleagues control the space station’s steering, power systems, and temperature, as well as life-support systems that provide astronauts with water and breathable air. “The crew are trained to handle problems,” says McMillan. “But we try to take care of as much as we can so they can focus on things we can’t do,” like spacewalks and experiments.

NASA has a Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The center provides support for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). “We work in shifts 24/7 to make sure systems on the ISS are running well,” says flight director Courtenay McMillan. And that didn’t change even when Harvey hit.

McMillan and her co-workers control the space station’s steering, power systems, and temperature. They also run life-support systems that give astronauts water and air to breathe. “The crew are trained to handle problems,” says McMillan. “But we try to take care of as much as we can so they can focus on things we can’t do,” like spacewalks and experiments.

ROBERT MARKOWITZ/NASA/JOHNSON SPACE CENTER (MISSION CONTROL); DOROTHY RUIZ-MARTINEZ/NASA (FLIGHT CONTROL TEAM, SLEEPING QUARTERS)
  • MISSION CONTROL: NASA engineers on the ground manage several systems for the International Space Station (left).
  • HARVEY CREW: Team members from Mission Control stayed on site through Hurricane Harvey (right, top).
  • HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Makeshift sleeping quarters at Mission Control during the storm (right, bottom)

NASA has backup facilities that can serve as Mission Control in an emergency. But the agency decided it was safe for flight control teams to stay in Houston during Harvey. Knowing that it might be hard to travel during the storm, people came prepared to stay at the space center for the duration of the hurricane. “A lot of us were here for the whole storm,” says McMillan, who remained on site for five days straight. “Everybody was keeping an eye on the weather and getting news about their homes and families.” That included the ISS astronauts, many of whom live in Houston.

NASA has backup centers that can serve as Mission Control in an emergency. But NASA decided it was safe for flight control teams to stay in Houston during Harvey. People knew that it might be hard to travel after the storm. So they came ready to stay at the space center until the hurricane ended. “A lot of us were here for the whole storm,” says McMillan, who stayed on site for five days straight. “Everybody was keeping an eye on the weather and getting news about their homes and families.” So were the ISS astronauts, because many of them live in Houston.

NASA

ORBITING EARTH: The International Space Station

ISS astronauts were able to continue their mission through the storm without much disruption, thanks to the uninterrupted support from the ground crew in Mission Control. “Luckily, this is one of my favorite places to be,” says McMillan. “When you’re doing something you love, that makes it easier to work through tough times.”

ISS astronauts continued their mission through the storm. They didn’t have many problems, thanks to the nonstop support from the ground crew in Mission Control. “Luckily, this is one of my favorite places to be,” says McMillan. “When you’re doing something you love, that makes it easier to work through tough times.”  

CORE QUESTION: Use evidence from the text to suggest how regular people can prepare for a hurricane.

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