Atoll Rallies Against West Winds

Kwajalein Atoll and the rest of the Marshall Islands were battered by one of the worst El Niño-related weather episodes in recent history. A ferocious pack of westerly winds swooped through the region during the morning of Oct. 7, holding the islands hostage for nearly 24 hours.

Pumping in sustained gusts of up to 43 mph, the front wrecked residents’ boats, stranded nearly 850 Ebeye residents overnight on Kwajalein and tested the garrison’s emergency responses capabilities.

For safety reasons, all ferry runs were halted during the late morning hours of Oct. 7. This wasn’t necessarily an unprecedented move: In the months of exceedingly damaging winds that this year’s El Niño system has produced locally, ferry runs have been occasionally halted. Wind-driven chop in the lagoon had made it unsafe to run the ferry boats at times, and allowing time for the lagoon to calm down and make for safer passage between the islands had usually solved the problem. But on Oct. 7, that calm never came, and garrison leaders had a serious problem on their hands. 845 Ebeye residents who had come to Kwajalein earlier in the day had no way of getting home. They were stuck on Kwajalein overnight for the first time in recorded history.

Kwajalein Range Services President Cynthia Rivera and garrison leaders immediately set up a plan to house and provide meals for their Marshallese guests, Rivera said. The decision to immediately ramp up the meal counts at the Zamperini Dining Facility was made, and a plan to find beds for the guests began.

“We talked through all of the potential housing options and capacities and other resources, such as blankets, pillows and cots,” Rivera said. “We knew that our community would step in to help, so our first option was to request volunteers to house colleagues and friends. We prioritized the facilities that we would use, if needed, beyond the Kwaj Lodge, Macy’s and BQs, such as the CRC, ARC, REB, MP room, MDA homes, etc.”

381 individuals were, fortunately, able to check into the Kwaj Lodge, and they did so in less than three hours, a true record, Rivera said. 140 stayed overnight in the work areas, and many others found a place to stay in the homes of residents who pulled together all the extra bedding they could find. Volunteers within the community, such as Protestant Pastor Heather Ardrey and residents Mike and Linda Lowry, also stepped up to take care of the 60 Ebeye residents stranded overnight at the DSC. An influx of food, blankets and pillows helped get the R.M.I. citizens through the night until the ferry runs opened up again early the next morning.

U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Michael Larsen said that show of support at the DSC was special.

“I was blown away by the local citizens’ donations of food, pillows and blankets for some of the folks who got stranded at the Dock Security Checkpoint,” Larsen said. “The people here in our community amaze me every day.”

Kwajalein Atoll local government leaders commended the garrison, KRS and the Kwajalein community for their response to the incident. And Rivera, while acknowledging a few areas that her team could improve in, said she was proud.

“All of the KRS staff really went the extra mile to do their best on this very long day,” she said. “It was a tremendous amount of work for quite a few people, and we really appreciate everyone’s hard work and support. … While we can always improve, especially in communications, we did a lot right. We made the right decision to not put people in harm’s way; we pulled together as a team to figure out how to proceed; and we executed the plan safely and effectively. Above all, we are grateful for our Kwaj community who we can always count on when help is needed.”

Larsen agreed.

“My hats go off to the KRS team for making this all happen,” Larsen said. “It was a great effort getting our Marshallese teammates a place to stay for the night and a good meal. I really appreciate CMSI and KRS and others for covering the dining cost for the R.M.I. workforce. That truly displays your commitment to taking care of the team.”

For some garrison residents, such as Ed and Sue Zehr, the mark the Oct. 7 winds left was more lasting than for others. Each had gotten the phone call that morning that all boat owners fear: Their yacht, Casa Chica, had broken free of its mooring and had washed up onto the rocky riprap outlining the island. Making matters worse, a second yacht, this time Panacea, broke its mooring and impacted Casa Chica. Together, the two yachts heaved against the rocks with the rushing water of each wave.

Ed Zehr, a Kwajalein resident and yacht owner, assists a heavy equipment crew relocating this damaged vessel to the shipyard.

Hopeful onlookers speculated that the yachts might yet make it out in one piece with the rising tides later in the day. Others were a bit more realistic—and with good reason. Casa Chica’s stern, after an hour’s time butting against the starboard hull of Panacea, pierced Panacea below the gunwale introducing water into the vessel. With each impact, more of Panacea’s wooden hull was chipped away. With water now rushing into the cabin, the yacht hunkered down, became weaker and slowly broke apart.

The next morning, as Kwajalein’s Heavy Equipment crew hoisted still-intact Casa Chica off the riprap and onto dry dock, the remains of Panacea—scraps of wood, lines and metal—bobbed in the surf. The Zehrs’ boat hadn’t broken apart, though it sustained some hull damage. They said they were relieved Casa Chica appeared reparable, but their hearts went out to the owners of Panacea.

The Zehrs weren’t the only residents whose boat was impacted by last week’s fierce winds. Brad and Beth Mitchell’s small yacht, Emma, completely sank during a rescue effort. Fortunately, the volunteers were able to recover the boat the next day using lift bags, motor boats and a tractor. But when, and if, the boat will hit the water again is hard to tell. Moreover, Dragon Princess, a small boat owned by Will and Jenny Smith, broke from its mooring earlier in the week and impacted island infrastructure, and at least one yacht still hanging on in the mooring field lost its mast.

The ravaging winds Oct. 7 amounted to only the latest of many wild weather events that Kwajalein Atoll, the rest of the Marshall Islands and other nations throughout the equatorial Pacific have experienced in 2015.

It’s all due to “The Little Boy”—El Niño, said Joel Martin, the Reagan Test Site Weather Station’s chief meteorologist. Consisting of a natural, one-two year warming cycle of Pacific equatorial waters, an El Niño can alter normal wind patterns and precipitation levels for one-two years at a time in the region and go on to impact weather trends elsewhere on the globe.

A particularly strong El Niño can have particularly strong impacts on local and global climates. 2015 just happens to be host to one of the stronger El Niños in recent history, Martin said. Locally, it has produced extended, severe west winds and abnormally high amounts of rain.

“Based on research by Mark Bradford, our Chief Scientist Emeritus, the last time we experienced this frequency and severity of west winds was 1997, 18 years ago,” Martin said. “That was also the last major El Niño. 2015 appears to be shaping up as a record El Niño year and, yes, we are seeing extremes in west winds that we don’t see in records.”

The weather on Oct. 7, stood out from that of previous weeks and months during this El Niño. The reason: nighttime convection collapsing. As part of the Earth’s energy cycle, air that had risen due to heating by the sun’s rays at or near sea level during the day had fallen back down via cooling during nighttime hours. The effect can sometimes result in small-scale wind bursts, Martin said; and they are almost always unpredictable.

“These wind bursts are on smaller time and space scales,” he said. “They are essentially the monsoon trough exhaling after a hard night’s work developing convection, which is usually strongest between midnight and sunrise. Broad clear areas sink at night, which squeezes up much stronger convection before sunrise. When that convection collapses, the down rush can sometimes focus localized wind bursts.”

Through it all, the Kwajalein community came together, learned from the experience and seems better prepared to weather similar situations in the future.

“Thanks to everyone for being so flexible, dynamic, and compassionate in regards to taking care of our fine Marshallese partners,” Larsen said.