OVER THE COAST OF SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. — It's noisy aboard the King Air turboprop There's a din from the small plane's engines, and wind is whipping through a hole in the floor where a camera is positioned, taking high-resolution photos from the sky of Superstorm Sandy's work.
With his laptop in front of him, sensor operator Andrew Halbach helps direct the computer-controlled camera that shoots hundreds and hundreds of photos of New Jersey's devastated shoreline.
The flight is a regular tour for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which charts the coastal changes storms like Sandy cause. The pictures help emergency responders know where they need to go, help coastal managers plan for the future and let homeowners who can't get back yet find out what's left of them.
Thursday's mission, led by pilot Lt. Cmdr. Scott Price, was to chart Sandy's path over New Jersey's decimated southern coast.
Price and pilot Lt. Rebecca Waddington checked cockpit displays for their preplanned flight and took off from Wilmington, Del., using GPS navigation that has the pinpoint accuracy far more precise than found in the average car.
From above, bird's-eye views of the devastation appear through two huge bubble-like windows.
Where the island once separated the bay and the ocean, it's clear from the air that it's all water along Route 35. What used to be roads between the houses are covered in sand.
The Star Jet roller coaster sits in pieces, the boardwalk wiped out.
The images captured are detailed enough that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, instead of going door-to-door to assess damage after tornadoes destroyed areas of Alabama in 2011, often rely on what was shot from the air.
The pictures also help insurance adjusters, scientists and homeowners themselves who may not yet be able to get to their damaged homes.
Price, 35, has been flying the coastal missions after hurricanes and wind events for NOAA for about four years after nine years as a Navy pilot. He also flies hurricane hunters that track the path and intensity of growing storms.
"I get to see both sides, and unfortunately collect imagery on the back side," said Price.
Once back on the ground about four hours later, the crew carefully checks the plane, covers the intakes to keep the clean.
A new mission awaits on Friday: The crew will head to New York's Long Island to see what Sandy left there.