A Year Later, Some FBOs Still Bear Hurricane Scars

Aug 17, 2018 - 8:15 PM

The 2017 hurricane season in the Atlantic was the costliest in history, with damages totaling more than $280 billion. The three major storms—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—were responsible for more than 99 percent of the damage.

Harvey was a Category 4 storm when it reached Houston on August 23, dumping more than 30 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding throughout the region and shutting down the airports to all but emergency operations. Although they could not host private aviation traffic, most of the local FBOs provided vital aviation services to the rescue agencies—fueling aircraft and offering a rest area (and in some cases meals) for crews. In Texas alone, more than 300,000 people lost power. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated the damage from Harvey alone at $125 billion.

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Turks and Caicos

Next came Hurricane Irma, packing winds of 185 mph, which left a trail of destruction through the Caribbean, wreaking havoc with Barbuda, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands before veering north of Puerto Rico and striking the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was the first time the Turks and Caicos were hit by a Category 5 storm, according to Deborah Aharon CEO of the Provo Jet Center, located at Providenciales International Airport.

Ahead of the storm, she requested that her fuel supplier top off the FBO’s fuel tanks in anticipation of post-storm rescue and humanitarian flights. She and many members of her staff sheltered in the FBO terminal, which saw its sliding hurricane-resistant glass doors blown open during the height of the storm, letting its fury into the building’s atrium until six men were able to wrestle the doors shut again and pile more sandbags against them. The terminal, which was built in 2015, suffered minor water damage and the loss of roof tiles.

The airport’s commercial terminal fared far worse, as it and the road to the airport suffered flooding. Provo Jet Center was ready to go when the airport resumed operations three days later. Aharon spent much of her time in the days after the storm finding food and water for her staff encamped in the terminal. While every power line and telephone pole was felled, Aharon explained that since much of the island’s development was relatively new, its tourism infrastructure weathered the storm better than many of its neighbors. As a result, Turks and Caicos has rebounded well.

St. Maarten

St. Maarten's Princess Juliana Airport, like much of the island, was severely damaged. The General Aviation Terminal (GAT), home to FBOs ExecuJet and Signature Flight Support affiliate Arrindell Aviation, suffered slight water exposure but came through the storm in better shape than the commercial terminal, which a year later is still undergoing reconstruction.

For three months the cleaned up GAT handled the airport’s commercial passengers as well, as Irma ripped away most of the commercial terminal’s roof, exposing it to the torrential rains that accompanied the storm. Commercial passenger handling was then relegated to large tent pavilions on the airport ramp. Due to a shortage of office space at the airport, the GAT’s two waiting lounges are still occupied by Customs and Border Patrol and by a Dutch police contingent that was sent to the island after the storm, according to Sheldon Palm, Execujet Caribbean’s flight operations and CSR manager. Earlier this summer, the airport authority announced that the roof had been replaced, a major milestone on the path to reinhabiting at least a portion of the terminal later this fall.

The storm was projected to make a direct hit on Miami but instead veered to the west, heading toward the Gulf Coast side of the state. The Florida Keys found themselves in Irma’s sights and were heavily impacted by the then-Category 4 storm.

Florida Keys

At the Florida Keys Marathon International Airport, the terminal and a 10,000-square-foot hangar at the Marathon Jet Center were leveled by a combination of wind and storm surge, while the associated Marathon General Aviation facility, which caters to piston aircraft on the east side of the airport, was flooded and required gutting and refurbishing.

“We have a better idea of what a really significant Category 4 hurricane can do in terms of flooding,” said Martin Hiller, president of the National Air Transportation Association and a principal in North Shore Holdings, which owns the two FBOs. “Having a plan for backup power is a pretty important [lesson] that we had, because the power on the island was very spotty for a number of weeks.” He credits fuel supplier World Fuel Services with quickly shipping a large generator that allowed the company to get its fuel farm up and running again. Hiller noted that one of his first concerns was the well-being of his employees, and the company hired a contractor to assess damage to their homes and conduct repairs, partially funded through a GoFundMe campaign that received many donations from the industry. The funds covered meals and hotels for Hiller's displaced employees, as well.

The ruins of the jet center were removed and the company is currently processing its turbine customers from a space in the leased on-field U.S. Customs facility along with offices in a temporary trailer on the ramp as it awaits permit approval for construction. “Today we sit with one FBO fully refurbished, completely operational, and we've upgraded our self-serve to be two points of fueling,” Hiller told BJT sister publication Aviation International News. He added that he expects to have a multimillion-dollar jet center with a 12,000-square-foot hangar, built to withstand 180 mph winds, in place early next year. This time, he said, the terminal will be raised to avoid possible seawater flooding. He noted that the area’s tourism has made a comeback as well, as several resorts reopened at the beginning of the year.

By the time it made landfall on the mainland in Naples, Florida, Irma had diminished to a Category 3 storm, but it was still powerful enough to shred cloth hangar doors, blow out windows, and turn ramps into lakes.

St. Croix

The last monster of the season was Maria. While residents of some islands in the Caribbean considered themselves blessed to have avoided Irma’s full wrath, their luck ran out with Maria. St. Croix’s Bohlke International Airways, the lone FBO at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, was a hub of humanitarian and rescue activity in the wake of Irma, but the storm destroyed the company’s 28-year-old, 5,000-square-foot terminal and adjoining 12,000-square-foot hangar. Its other two hangars suffered damage, forcing the company to swiftly relocate to the lone vacant hangar on the airport, but they had to update its electricity, lighting, communications, sanitation, and security systems to make it suitable. It was the second time the location had to be rebuilt, as it was also leveled by Hurricane Hugo back in 1989. The family-owned company also brought in several trailers to house its offices. “What we learned from this is that you might lose your hangar [in a storm], but you don’t realize how vital your office space is for all your IT stuff,” said president and chief pilot William Bohlke. Much of the island’s fiber-optic communication lines are underground, so the location was able to maintain contact with the outside world.

Bohlke added that there was a silver lining in that all of the FBO's fuel farm tanks were full before the storm hit. “If you don’t have your tanks at full capacity, you get a pressure differential in the tanks,” he explained. “During Hugo, a lot of tanks on the island collapsed on themselves, as some did this time, but not here at the airport.” Fully operational days after the storm, Bohlke's facility resumed its support of rescue and humanitarian operations, bringing in relief-line workers from Florida to support the frenetic operation. The company supplied bottled water, generators, and free fuel to its employees and for the first month provided at least one hot meal a day.

A year later, after the company tangled with the insurance companies, the bones of the former facility are finally being dismantled to make way for construction to begin on a strengthened facility. With a cost of more than $5 million, it will consist of an 8,000-square-foot multi-story terminal and an adjoining 30,000-square-foot hangar, which Bohlke expects will be completed within two years. With that expenditure, the company also renegotiated its lease terms with the airport.

“The big thing is understanding your insurance policy,” said Bohlke. “It’s kind of common sense, but it's just making sure that you’ve got clarity on what you’re insured for and making sure that you’re properly insured. It’s just a cost of doing business, and you think you will never need it. But then you do.” With many of the island’s major resorts still out of commission a year after the storm, the tourism sector has been slow to recover. Unlike neighboring islands, St. Croix lacked the marina infrastructure to cater to mega-yacht owners, who in essence bring their own hotel rooms with them and are unaffected by a shortage of accommodations.

St. Thomas

St. Thomas, which had been the recipient of many humanitarian flights during Hurricane Irma, was struck by its second Category 5 hurricane in 14 days when Maria passed overhead. Susan Hancock, owner of the St. Thomas Jet Center at Cyril E. King International Airport, likened the aftermath of Irma to being in a war zone. “First of all, you can’t drive down the streets. They’re full of debris and trees and live electrical wires and water,” she said. “So it's not like the storm passes and then you drive down to the jet center and start to get busy.” Despite all that, the facility was back in operation three days later. “I’m proud to say that our employees who lived close enough by were able to make their way to the airport,” said Hancock, “and our senior vice president of operations actually lived in our lobby for the first couple of months.”

The airport lost its control tower and was taken under military control to handle the assistance flights, and according to Hancock, work only recently commenced on the damaged commercial terminal.

Her facility suffered relatively little damage, mainly water incursion from broken windows. While the doors on its 10,000-square-foot hangar were blown in, destroying the three small aircraft within, the structure remained sound. As the company continued to clean up and shake off the effects of Irma, it was pummeled by Maria and once again was able to quickly return to service. “You know, by the time we finished the second one, we kind of got it down,” Hancock quipped.

After Maria, any power line and utility poles that had been spared by Irma had toppled, leaving much of the island without electricity for four months and necessitating the widespread use of generators. One of the immediate effects of the tandem storms was a severe shortage of all sorts of fuel on the island. That shortage led to a cell phone signal outage when the equipment that powered the cell phone towers ran out. Hancock, who also owns a fuel-distribution company, became virtually St. Thomas’ sole source of gasoline, avgas, jet-A, and marine fuel for months as her company worked to reestablish supply lines and on-island storage.

The company has turned its storm scars into a badge of honor, noting in its advertising “Two Category 5 hurricanes and still standing!” Yet, as a family-owned business, Hancock envies the chain FBOs on some of the other islands because they could call in reinforcements from other locations to help with the restoration and spell exhausted employees. “Those companies supported those facilities in a way that, unfortunately, we couldn't,” she explained. “They sent aircraft down; they sent satellite phones down; they sent equipment down. They did all sorts of beneficial things for their FBO, and as a mom-and-pop location, we didn't have that kind of backup.”

Nearly a year later, the hangar doors have yet to be repaired, but Hancock noted that a shipping container with building supplies is finally on its way after being cleared by insurance. Three staff members who lost their roofs in the storms have yet to return to their homes.

The still-damaged commercial terminal is limited to six commercial flights a day, but with the loss of approximately 700 hotel rooms, Hancock says the island likely cannot currently sustain more flights than that. St. Thomas lost its last winter tourism season, but Hancock has seen some signs of returning normalcy, as vacation homeowners are returning along with mega-yacht customers who also use the FBO. “I don’t think we’ll be back to a 'normal season' just yet, but I do think that we will have a season and that it will be a healthy one,” she concluded.

Puerto Rico

After Irma, Puerto Rico served as a staging area, shipping tons of relief supplies and equipment to its neighbors. Just a short while later, it would be the place in need as the U.S. territory took a direct hit from Maria. As soon as the storm left, relief and rescue flights began descending on the island. Airport Aviation Services, the older of the two service providers at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, had been in the midst of a remodeling project on its 45-year-old terminal when the storm hit, shattering windows and causing water damage, yet the facility was ready to receive aircraft the next day, operating on generator power.

“We had some damage and there was a lot of water, but we could deal with that," said Linda Matienzo, the company’s director of operations. “We never stopped operating because of that.” She added that due to the damage inflicted upon Puerto Rico’s aging electrical grid, full-time generator power was required only for the first 10 days or so, as the airport was one of the priority areas to receive repair, but there were sporadic power outages for the next two months. It wasn't until last month, nearly 11 months after the storm hit, that the island’s authorities declared that power had been fully restored to the entire island.

Matienzo noted that it took seven months to fully repair the damage to the terminal once the insurance claims were settled. The recently opened U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at the FBO was under construction at the time, and its debut was delayed by five months as a result of Maria. The island’s tourism infrastructure was not heavily damaged, and as a result, it has rebounded well, with most hotels and restaurants back in operation. Matienzo said that private aviation is still recovering to pre-storm levels. “We’re getting there,” she said.  “It’s not as before, but there are good numbers of passengers coming in and out of the airport.”

Across the field, while Jet Aviation San Juan’s new terminal suffered no damage, an adjoining vintage 6,000-sq-ft hangar with office space was destroyed. Despite the relentless pace of humanitarian aircraft arrivals on the FBO’s ramp during the following weeks, the company managed to remove the hangar debris within a month, opening up its footprint for additional ramp space. A 5,000-sq-ft addition to the terminal was constructed to replace the lost office space, and construction on a new 20,000-sq-ft hurricane-resistant hangar, which was planned before Maria and will be able to accommodate aircraft up to a G650, will be completed this fall.

Given the emergency response training of the location’s founder José Maldonado, a former U.S. Army officer and past head of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, the FBO’s staff went to great lengths to prepare for the storm, including designating rallying points for its staff to be picked up for work in case there was no transportation available, and in the aftermath, Jet Aviation took a survey of how badly each employee was affected by the storm. The company assisted those who were displaced by finding shelter for them and supporting them until FEMA funds came through. While the FBO had its own water supply from a cistern, flowing water was problematic on the island until the electrical grid was repaired enough to power the water pumps that distribute water throughout the system, a period of months after the storm.

Frances Ryan, the location’s marketing director, said that the ramp-up in emergency activity from Irma served to jump-start the preparations for Maria, and while cell phone service was back within a week of the storm, at least in the San Juan area, the facility has bolstered its telecommunications with backup systems to ensure better connectivity in the next emergency.