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Cannon bands together in blizzard aftermath

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- A recent winter storm, professed to be the most vicious in Cannon’s recorded history, presented members of the 27th Special Operations Wing family with an unexpected opportunity to rally together and embrace the one team, one fight mentality famous within Air Force Special Operations Command.

Leadership at the 27th SOW was made aware of the forecasted storm three days prior to its impact Dec. 26, in a brief that predicted wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour and snow drifts between 3 and 6 feet. Amazingly, even these estimates fell short of the storm’s intensity.

Statistics obtained from the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron’s weather flight logged gusts during the 16-hour blizzard at speeds up to 82 miles per hour. Blowing and drifting snowfall, which persisted for 27 consecutive hours, reached approximately 13 inches with drifts between 10 and 12 feet.

“This storm was absolutely enormous,” said Col. Douglas Gilpin, 27th Special Operations Mission Support Group commander. “Anytime we have a storm like this forecasted we stand up the Joint Planning Group. They bring in all the experts whether they’re snow removal teams from civil engineering [27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron] or those who support the Remotely Piloted Aircraft mission. Once they’ve convened, all relevant agencies plan out what we’re going to do in advance of, during, and after the storm.”

Before the first snowflake hit Cannon soil mission-essential personnel were housed in base lodging facilities to ensure critical operations would continue regardless of how the storm affected roadways and visibility at the wing. Additionally, the 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron’s defenders were out in full force with many on duty for 48 hours straight protecting the base and rescuing several stranded.

“As part of our plan, our force support [27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron] team began blocking off rooms for our mission-essential personnel. We knew there was very high probability roads would become impassable and visibility would be very poor. By positioning our most critical personnel on base, we eliminated that mission limitation and mitigated risk of injury.”

Family members and non-essential personnel hunkered down at home faced unique challenges of their own, and were made aware of pertinent information through messaging pathways such as Facebook, Air Force alerts and command post notifications. At the height of the storm, many base housing residents lost power, leaving them vulnerable to dropping temperatures, an issue that immediately moved to the foreground for base leadership and recovery crews.

“Immediately after the storm we began clearing main roads so that in the event of a medical emergency or fire, first responders could safely navigate the roads,” Gilpin said. “The other issue at the top of our list of priorities was restoring power to residents of Chavez housing. Intense winds and blowing snow prevented our civil engineers from repairing the high voltage electrical lines during the blizzard. However, the minute the storm passed teams were dispatched to troubleshoot power issues.”

Despite round-the-clock efforts to restore reliable power to effected homes, outages continued to take place prompting wing leadership to provide alternative living arrangements for families. The 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron provided transportation for families from their homes to the community center and the 27th SOFSS provided box meals to mission essential personnel and families at the community center.

“We were able to open up the Balfour Beatty Community Center immediately after the storm had passed so that residents could stay in a heated facility,” Gilpin said. “As we continued to troubleshoot electrical issues we came to the realization that we weren’t sure how soon reliable power could be restored. At that point, the decision to open up base lodging was made.”

As expected, rooms at Cannon’s Caprock Inn filled quickly which presented new challenges to be solved. Because roads off base remained buried in snow, Cannon inn was understaffed and many rooms were not ready to support occupants. In a true show of support, Airmen from various agencies across the wing rolled up their sleeves and began turning rooms. Linens were changed, furniture was cleaned, and supplies were restocked so that affected families were able to enjoy basic comforts and privacy for the first time since the night of the blizzard.
“I have been so impressed,” Gilpin said. “From the leadership at this wing all the way down the chain, the support and willingness to help our fellow wingmen has been remarkable. Looking at how Airmen from every tier responded during this ordeal has reminded me how proud I am to be a part of Team Cannon.”

In an instant, the snow storm brought personal responsibility and preparedness into the spotlight once again.
“I think we’ve all been reminded of the importance of preparedness,” Gilpin said. “We need to ask ourselves: Do I need to be driving during this storm? If I do, do I have an emergency pack complete with a shovel, blankets, etc.? Personal responsibility is critical during these situations and you don’t want to find yourself in a bad situation with nothing to ensure you make it through.”

Never an organization to rest on its laurels, 27th SOW agencies are scheduled to convene for an after-action meeting to discuss what improvements might be made in the event of another record-breaking eastern New Mexico blizzard.

“One of the things all leaders are responsible for doing is looking at how we can make things better,” Gilpin said. “This event is no different. We are already capturing lessons learned and discussing what processes can be improved upon. If we find the opportunity to be better, we will be better.”