May 30, 2020 – The U.S. Coast Guard’s response to Hurricane Dorian was unlike any storm response in history. With a constantly changing track, unprecedented wind speeds and slow surface movement, Dorian proved unpredictable and deadly.
Hurricane Dorian became a tropical depression on Saturday, August 24, 2019. As late as August 26th, many thought the storm would roll through the mountainous island of Hispaniola, weakening the storm and its impact, but Dorian had other plans. Over the next couple of days, the hurricane’s path shifted east, crossing over the eastern side of Puerto Rico. On September 1, Dorian strengthened into a major hurricane and made landfall in the Bahamas with wind speeds of up to 185 miles per hour.
On average, hurricane categories change in 20 mph increments. A tropical storm becomes a Category 1 hurricane at 74 mph, and a Category 5 hurricane starts with winds of 157 mph. If a Category 6 existed, it would start at 178 mph. Hurricane Dorian peaked at 185 mph. With wind speeds similar to a NASCAR racer, the sound of the wind was deafening. One eyewitness likened it to the sound of a jet engine—wind, water and debris rushing past at breath-taking speed with no place to run and no place to hide.
CG-6019 idles on a runway in the Bahamas during Hurricane Dorian response operations. CG-6019 conducted search and rescue and humanitarian aid missions supporting the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency and the Royal Bahamian Defense Force. (Courtesy U.S. State Department)
It would be nearly impossible to recount the heroic stories of more than 1,000 Coast Guard men and women who provided assistance during Hurricane Dorian. However, we can highlight the heroic efforts of one aircrew that braved the storm. The crew of the MH–60T Jayhawk helicopter CG-6019, one of the first Coast Guard helicopters responding to the storm, included pilot Lt. Justin Pacheco, co-pilot Lt. Cody Eager, Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Dickey, an avionics electrical technician, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Vicchiariello, a rescue swimmer.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 3, 2019, the crew of CG-6019 lifted off from Andros Island. Their mission was to fly toward Treasure Cay Airport on Great Abaco Island to determine how far north Coast Guard aircraft could safely go. Their instructions were to turn around once they faced 80 mph sustained winds. On takeoff, the crew faced 70 mph winds right away and the weather deteriorated as they flew north.
With the storm’s eye 40 nautical miles away, the sustained winds were just below 80 mph and they could only see for a quarter of a mile. At that point, Lt. Pacheco tried to abort the mission, then things went from bad to worse. Pacheco made his turn away from the eye of the storm, but one of Dorian’s storm bands had slipped behind the helicopter.
Pacheco recalled, “In an instant, one of Dorian’s spiraling storm bands sideswiped the aircraft from the left,” and then “we immediately punched into a wall of clouds without warning.” According to Pacheco, darkness closed in and the noise from heavy rain hitting the windscreen was deafening.
The ground vanished under the clouds and the helicopter snapped into a 45-degree roll. The flight crew worked together to recover from the unexpected bank and climbed the helicopter to 700 feet, giving them an altitude buffer while flying on instruments. But, at that altitude, the winds grew stronger. Each time they began to reverse course, the aircraft rolled violently to the left. Dorian’s weather bands worked like a tractor beam pulling CG-6019 into the eye of the storm.
Pacheco and his crew fought hard to keep the helicopter upright. The cockpit was completely dark except for the green lights of the instrument control panel. “It was raining so hard, the rain was coming through the seams of our cabin door,” recalled AET2 Dickey. “There was zero visibility, which made it extremely hard to know how close you are to the ground or to gauge where you are.”
With increased winds gusting over 115 mph, CG-6019 was rapidly approaching the eye of the storm. “For a moment, each of us felt like it was going to be our last,” recalled Pacheco. “Dorian had a hold of us and wasn’t letting go.” Dorian’s wind gusts struck CG-6019 from every direction and the crews’ inner ears were sending their brains mixed messages whether they were flying straight, in a turn, climbing or descending.
After several attempts to turn around, Pacheco and the crew succeeded in turning away from the storm. With the shift from a tailwind to headwind, the speed over ground plummeted from 213 mph to 35, but the aircraft remained stable in spite of the deafening roar of rain impacting the aircraft and weather radar that showed solid red for intense rain. For the next 15 minutes, the entire crew focused on the instrument panel and called out airspeeds, altitudes, aircraft attitude and headings to help the pilots focus on controlling the helicopter.
Many aircrews would have returned to base and called it a day after surviving this struggle with Dorian, but not the crew of CG-6019. Dickey recounted: “Mr. Pacheco battled the storm for what felt like an eternity, but was probably around 20 minutes, and then we finally were able to break out of it.” The crew made visual contact with the ground and transitioned to a visual scan to maintain level flight. What they saw next was shocking. According to Pacheco, the trees at their assigned area of Marsh Harbour were “snapped off in the middle. Nearly all the buildings were completely destroyed.” Dickey believed, “It truly looked like a bomb went off.”
Despite the weather they had just survived, the excitement was far from over. Soon, the crew began executing the landing checklist, making sure CG-6019 was configured for a landing. The helicopter’s destination was the Marsh Harbour Clinic to pick up injured storm victims. Dickey joined Vicchiariello to visit the clinic where hundreds of people were gathered outside begging the Coast Guardsmen for help and evacuation out of the devastation.
As soon as Vicchiariello and Dickey entered the clinic, they could sense the victims were relieved that help had arrived. “Once we got into the building, men, women and children were packed in every inch of that place. I saw mothers with infants that had been holding their children at shoulder level to keep out of the water; men and women with bandages on their heads with blood seeping through.” The Coast Guardsmen did their best to calm down the victims and prepare them for evacuation.
The crew of the CG-6019 flew many trips to the Marsh Harbour Clinic to evacuate victims to healthcare facilities. During one flight, Vicchiariello returned to the clinic to find a nurse crying hysterically about an active shooter telling him to stay away. Vicchiariello recounted, “I panned the area around me and it was very chaotic and there was no control or order. I was nervous there was a gunman inside and I know I stuck out like a sore thumb with the gear I was wearing.” Vicchiariello reassured the nurse that CG-6019 had just brought in police officers that could assist her and he had the presence of mind to have her prepare more critical patients for evacuation. He then made his way outside and began sprinting to the helicopter when he noticed someone following close behind. Worried it could be the gunman, he turned to face the pursuer. Rather than the shooter, it was a concerned citizen who asked if he could help. Vicchiariello told the man to find shelter until he notified law enforcement about the shooter.
At the helicopter, Vicchiariello informed the law enforcement officers who headed for the clinic. After a quick briefing with the pilots, Vicchiariello and Dickey re-entered the clinic to find critical patients. Because of the shooter, they used the buddy system to keep an eye on each other. Inside, they learned the shooter had taken his own life. Without hesitating, they gathered medical information for the next set of evacuees, and headed to the helicopter to load them.
One of the lives CG-6019 saved was that of a 17-day old infant who was suffering from seizures. The flight to the hospital in Nassau took 45 minutes and Vicchiariello realized the oxygen canister that accompanied the baby was running low. He knew matters could quickly turn for the worse with such a young, fragile patient. Vicchiariello used an extra oxygen bottle on hand to swap out. When they landed in Nassau, Vicchiariello carried the baby to the hospital. According to Vicchiariello, “Just feeling how tiny and fragile the baby was and that we could get the baby higher level of care felt good.” All in a day’s work for the crew of the CG-6019.
Over the next several days, the crew of CG-6019 saved 56 lives. Their MH-60 helicopter was one of 50 Coast Guard aircraft flying 136 air sorties. Together, with 14 cutters and 36 shallow-water response boats, Coast Guard units saved or assisted over 400 Bahamian victims. Overall, the Service surged more than 1,000 Coast Guard men and women to respond to Hurricane Dorian.
Hurricane Dorian tied the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 as the strongest hurricane to make landfall from the Atlantic. Some estimates indicate Hurricane Dorian caused up to $7 billion in damage in the Bahamas alone. The island nation experienced a storm surge of up to 18 feet while rainfall exceeded 36 inches, more than three feet. Although it is impossible to prevent hurricanes from causing damage, it is good to know, whether over sea or land, the Coast Guard is ready, relevant, and responsive.