Hurricane Island

August 2006


Bill Unruh

In August 2006 I signed on as crew for the research vessel Searcher, scheduled to deliver a subcontractor hired by the US Air Force to Johnston Atoll, an uninhabited island 700 miles southwest of Honolulu . The subcontractor's job was to monitor groundwater contaminant levels as part of the island clean-up efforts. There were twelve of us in all, crew and passengers. I was very excited about the trip but did have some apprehension since I am susceptible to sea sickness and was afraid that I would not be able to pull my weight if the seas got too rough. As it turned out, that was the least of my worries.

We departed Honolulu on August 17, 2006 at 11a.m. At midnight that night, while I was on watch and piloting the vessel, I felt a thump and then we lost an engine. It turned out that we hit a large abandoned drift net that fouled one of our two props. We tried to cut away the huge ball of net but due to the marginal seas and dark of night we waited until morning to remove it; thus we were traveling on one engine at about 5.5 knots for the remainder of the night. Early in the morning we successfully removed the net and luckily there was no damage so we then got back up to a speed of about 9 knots.

[In its day, Johnston Atoll was an extensive operation. Johnston was used throughout the 1990's by the United States military to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons. The island, only two miles long and a half mile wide (much of it man-made from dredging), would at times accommodate 1,100 people or more. By late 2000 the destruction of more than 400,000 rockets, projectiles, bombs, mortars and mines was complete. In 2001 the United States Army Chemical Pacific closed, and the clean-up of Johnston began with the demolition of buildings and the removal of personnel, completed by 2004. All buildings were destroyed on the island except old concrete bunkers that lined the runway and one monstrous building called the J.O.C. ( Joint Operations Center ). The J.O.C. is a 4-floor concrete and steel building that has no windows and was built to withstand a category IV hurricane as well as atmospheric nuclear tests that occurred in the 1960's. It was gutted entirely in 2004, due to an asbestos abatement project.]

Four days after we left Honolulu we arrived at Johnston Atoll. The meandering channel entrance gave us time to fish and as luck would have it, we landed a sleek 25lb. Ono, perfect for several dinners. The island was obviously an Atoll, entirely flat, with only ironwood and palm trees and of course the J.O.C., which was visible several miles away from the island. As we got closer to the island, it became clear that the islands had a new purpose as a Wildlife Refuge because of an incredible number of birds (frigates, terns, boobies etc.) that had taken over the island.

Late in the morning I called my wife using the vessel's satellite phone and she immediately informed me that Hurricane Ioke was heading toward Johnston . Before this phone call we had no idea of any weather concerns. We then set an emergency plan in place. Not knowing how bad the storm was going to affect us, we decided that it would be best to vacate the vessel, leaving it tied to the pier. The concrete bunkers were not an option as protection from the weather. Even without the heavy concrete blocks set against the doors, taking refuge where chemical weapons were once stored appealed to no one! We decided to hide from the storm in the J.O.C. To our dismay, all the doors we tried had been welded shut. Finally we found one (the only door on the entire building that was not welded shut) held closed by only three bolts. Luckily, it faced west and therefore would be down-wind of the approaching storm if our luck held.

We moved Searcher in the early afternoon to a more secure concrete commercial-type pier, one that would face the oncoming seas, at least we hoped. The supplies we moved to the J.O.C. included everything we could think of: food, cooking supplies, water, bedding, even a portable toilet. We also brought the Searcher s EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) to the J.O.C. We called the Coast Guard and informed them of our situation and established an emergency plan with them to activate our EPIRB if the vessel was torn from the pier and lost. Setting up our emergency shelter and securing the vessel took over 8 hours, with everyone working together like a team to make it happen. We had plenty of food and water to last us several days. To the south, the sky was dark and ominous, foreshadowing our future. According to weather reports, Hurricane Ioke was to make landfall on Johnston between Noon and 2p.m. the following day so we decided to stay the night on the vessel in hopes of getting a better night's sleep. That night, our chef for the expedition took time from coordinating our emergency supply move to make us a delicious steak dinner and then one by one we turned in.

At 2a.m. the Captain of Searcher , Jonathon Littenberg, made the call to abandon the vessel; the winds and rain bands were starting. It was sad to depart our little Oasis on the sea, she was very comfortable and we did not know if we would ever be able to board her again. The J.O.C. was about a half mile from the pier and with the wind gusting to 40 M.P.H., our walk was wet and turbulent in the dark of night. During our transit, some of the islands' permanent residents (the birds) were hunkered down in the bushes making frantic chattering noises. Did they know what was coming?

Once we entered the J.O.C. everyone spread out and each picked a spot to place cushions or air mattresses on the cold floor, being careful not to get too close to any potential leaks. We decided to stay on the ground floor of the giant building, knowing that if a storm surge were to occur that we would have to immediately move to a higher floor and then there would be a chance of being trapped. Each floor of the empty building consisted of an expansive room that only contained steel pillars and a stairwell to the next floor. The room was so vast that the sound of our voices could only be heard, at most, halfway across the room. Occasionally a flashlight would provide a penetrating beam into the blackness; otherwise it was total darkness. The sound of whistling wind and rain increased into a constant low rumbling noise reminiscent of a freight train off in the distance, ever so slowly approaching us. The storm brought the building alive with noises. Getting quality sleep was out of the question, not only because of our sleeping accommodations but also the noise. Pelting, wind-driven rain leaked into the building from the upper floors causing waterfalls to cascade down to our floor with a very disturbing clamor. In the morning we realized that we could have stopped the disturbance earlier if we had just investigated and moved loose metal out of the path of the waterfall.

By early morning many of us gave up sleeping and moved to our viewing area of the storm, the open door. Our only entry and exit to the building allowed us to marvel at the storm. At times, all twelve of us were huddled there watching the assault unfold. The door served as our giant screen TV. A Brown Naughty bird made it to just outside our door. We were sad to see it sucked into the air by the awesome power of nature but then cheered when the bird made it back safely. Eventually we were able to catch the bird and bring him inside for safe keeping until conditions improved.

On the fourth floor we discovered what had been taunting us all morning with loud banging noises. There were several large pieces of corrugated steel bolted over door openings leading to a balcony. As the winds had increased, the bolts ripped through the metal allowing them to take flight across the island and out to sea! Throughout the day we could hear other items on the roof shaking loose. When the occasional piece of ductwork fell to the ground just outside our door, we became nervous of the idea that other items blowing down and blocking our only exit.

During the storm we had plenty of time to walk around inside and explore our temporary home. We discovered the J.O.C. had served at least one other important purpose in the past. The ground floor had a side building attached which contained three long snaking corridors and 55 showerheads you could walk through. This facility served as a decontamination room. It was odd, yet comforting to know that the J.O.C. may have saved lives in the past.

The winds increased all morning and by noon we were guessing they had reached at least 100 mph. We could barely see Searcher surfing the waves. By early afternoon, and much to our surprise, the winds had steadily increased even more; we were guessing they were around 120 to 130 mph with gusts over 140 mph. Birds were being sucked from their nests and catapulted into the air where their fate was decided for them, and out to sea they went. The winds remained steady the rest of the afternoon. We rarely had glimpses of Searcher ; our hopes were diminishing that she would still be able to take us home. As dusk settled in, the winds started to decrease. Then darkness arrived; we had to remain in the J.O.C. another night. Slowly the winds were quieting, and our freight train was departing.

Early Wednesday morning, nearly two days after first learning of the storm, we emerged from our concrete home. Although there was still rain and wind, we felt it was safe. The sky to our north and west was extremely dark; Hurricane Ioke was departing. The relentless hurricane had pounded us for 27 hours. Much to our relief, Searcher held her own against the storm, we could see she was still tied to the pier and appeared to be floating fine. We anxiously made our way to the pier to see how she had faired. Upon arrival we noticed she was pushed away from the pier quite a distance. Our next challenge was to start the engines and get her back to the pier. Hopefully there would be no leaks in the hull. Our luck held: the engines worked great and there were no leaks.

To our amazement, Searcher sustained minimal damage, with only two broken dock lines, one broken cleat, and one broken freezer that had been on deck. The wind gauge had blown away and the starboard paint and name (the side facing the pier and the oncoming storm) were heavily sand blasted; she had come through the storm like a real trooper. Before the storm we secured her with 16 dock lines and one sea anchor. We also disconnected the anchor, spooled out the anchor cable, and attached it to a humongous steel bollard on the pier. In case the dock lines broke entirely, hopefully the anchor cable would keep Searcher from smashing and sinking on the pristine reef.

After the storm our Satellite phone stopped working, which left us with no way to communicate to our families and the Coast Guard. Late in the morning, a Coast Guard C-130 flew over to check on us and we made radio contact with them via our VHF radio. They in turn relayed back to our families that all was well. It was an enormous relief to communicate to our families that we were fine. The Coast Guard was well prepared to drop us food, water or other supplies and they had a Coast Guard ship on call to assist us, if needed.

The subcontractor then proceeded to get to back to work and collect water samples. It took the crew over a day to get Searcher back in order. We departed Johnston a day after weathering the hurricane. Upon leaving the island, she gave us another present; we caught two 40lb. ahi's (yellow fin tuna's) in the channel at the same time. The seas were incredibly calm on the ride home which us allowed a refreshing blue water swim in water over 15,000 feet deep the day before our arrival home. Searcher arrived into Honolulu early Monday morning, five days after our Hurricane Ioke pounding, mission accomplished.

The damage sustained to Johnston Island included about 15% of the Palm trees and about 25% of the Ironwood tree's were either blown down entirely or severely damaged. Also, a 300 foot section of the seawall and adjacent road were now washed out, allowing the Pacific Ocean to re-claim the island. The greatest impact was to the bird population and motherless baby birds left behind. I was fortunate enough to do some free-diving in the lagoon before we left and saw the beautifully expansive reef was left covered under a layer of silt (bird guano, sand, maybe contaminants from the island and other debris) that had been blown from the island by the hurricane. While I swam, the reef fish followed me close. When I would fin-kick the coral heads, the fish would immediately congregate around the coral head and eat. The fish were very hungry but could not get to the reef's algae due to the silt coverage; hopefully the tide and/or currents have swept it away.

Hurricane Ioke was an incredible experience of nature's awesome power. Using satellite data, the National Weather Service had predicted the storm as a Category II Hurricane when it hit Johnston . After reviewing our eyewitness accounts, photo's, video clips and the damage we documented, the National Weather Service classified the storm as a Category III Hurricane, verifying our estimates of the wind were correct. Hurricane Ioke strengthened after it left Johnston into a Category V Super Typhoon (after it crossed into the Western Hemisphere) making a near-direct hit on Wake Island and causing substantial damage to military structures.

Looking back, we consider ourselves extremely lucky: we had arrived at the island safely, about 18 hours before the storm hit, thus we would not have to fight the storm at sea; Johnston Atoll was pretty much devoid of structures so we did not have to worry about too much flying debris hitting Searcher ; our door to the J.O.C. was on the down-wind side of the storm; there was a large fringing reef to help fight against a storm surge; the winds blew Searcher off the pier rather than onto it and smashing into the pier; because we were on a boat for an extended expedition at sea, we were already prepared with plenty of food, water and for emergencies; and the biggest luck of all… the J.O.C. was left standing for us to use, thank you J.O.C.