Note: Since this hurricane chase account wound up being fairly lengthy, a separate page was made for the Hurricane Irene images.
I needed a break from work late this past summer, so I cleared the period from August 24 to September 2 from work commitments. I would be free for nine days! So, what should I do?
Well, it was not a difficult decision—I’ll head to Edgewater, Florida! A long-time friend of mine lives here (near Daytona) and tolerates my visits. This location is ideally situated for spending endless mindless hours on the beach, viewing occasional nearby thunderstorm activity, and for basing one’s self for hurricane intercepts in Florida and the southeastern United States. And, lo and behold, when I booked my flights on August 16, the window looked to be “open” for a tropical storm or a hurricane somewhere in or near Florida during my this period.
I wanted to be in a hurricane again. My previous three hurricane chases (Isabel /2003, Jeanne/2004 and Wilma/2005) were generally last-minute type affairs, in which I had to coordinate work schedules and cover shifts and quickly book a flight a few days before landfall. This time, it was rest and relaxation first, and any hurricane chase would be a bonus. The long-range weather forecast models were suggesting that a tropical system would be moving westward towards Cuba and Florida at the beginning of my vacation, eight days later. I crossed my fingers.
With time, it was looking more and more like a hurricane, perhaps a major one, would be impacting the United States during my vacation. Irene was born, and was plodding steadily towards the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The predicted storm tracks had it moving very close to Cuba, where it might weaken significantly due to the mountains…or it might go just north of there, remain strong, and track into the eastern Gulf of Mexico…or maybe blast right into the Keys and Miami and northward through the Florida peninsula! A few days prior to takeoff on August 24, I thought I would be heading south from Orlando to greet Irene in southern Florida. A hurricane chase appeared certain, and my friend Kirstie booked a flight from England to join me.
As the 24th approached, Irene’s projected track had shifted eastward and northward, along the east coast of Florida. When I boarded the plane for Orlando, the forecast track was significantly east of the Florida coast and aiming towards the Carolinas. Irene was moderately strong, a Cat 1 to Cat 2 in intensity. Its sustained winds were around 100 mph, plus or minus about 10 mph. Since it was forecast to move northwest towards the Bahamas and then north towards the Carolinas, it would remain over very warm water. Overall shear was forecast to be on the weak side, so forecasters suspected that Irene would increase in strength a little before landfall. It was possible that the hurricane could become a Category 3. That was about as strong as I wanted to deal with!
Kirstie and I landed within 30 minutes of each other on Wednesday afternoon, August 24. A nine-year-old boy from Azerbaijan had lost his parents at the airport and had attached himself to Kirstie, so we gave him to the Avis lady. He was never seen again. We stayed in New Smyrna Beach that night, and headed north on I-95 on Thursday. Irene was raking the Bahamas as a Cat 2, and was forecast to plow towards the area between about Wilmington and Cape Hatteras on Saturday morning. I wanted to get to the North Carolina coast about 24 hours in advance to scout around. Meanwhile, models kept nudging Irene to the east, with the eye barely scraping NC’s outer banks! This chaser didn’t want to see that —- stay to the west a little, please!
We reached the North Carolina coast on Friday afternoon, the day before landfall. Forecasts suggested that Irene’s eye would move near or over Morehead City and Atlantic Beach. The hurricane was not gaining strength as earlier anticipated, as some dry air was being drawn in from the continent to its west. Irene remained near low-end Cat 2 status, and would likely have winds as high as about 100 mph when it came ashore the next morning. Kirstie and I reached the coastal town of Swansboro around 3 p.m. My plan was to find a spot along the Atlantic, perhaps on the “Emerald Isle”, and to hunker down, right in the projected path of Irene’s eye. There were issues, however. This “isle” is a barrier island, or a “giant sandbar”, only 5 to 10 feet above sea level for the most part. Storm surge and flooding were quite possible with Irene. Evacuation orders were in effect for Emerald Isle, so I wasn’t sure if I could even get on it. I spoke with someone in a convenience store in Swansboro—apparently a curfew would be in effect for the area from 8 p.m. Friday until early Sunday! What fun is a hurricane chase if you can’t be out and about?
Well, I pretended that I had not learned of the curfew. Kirstie and I steered the Subaru rental car over the (Hwy 58) bridge to Emerald Isle from Cape Carteret. It was overcast and quite breezy, with occasional showers. A large message sign stated that a hurricane evacuation was in progress. An uneasy feeling seemed to loom over us and the entire area. Would Irene get any stronger and really devastate this area? Would these fine homes along the ocean be here in 24 hours? Would we be able to stay safe, above storm surge and high waves, and out of the way of flying stuff and falling trees? About the only thing that was certain was uncertainty!
As we cruised eastward along 58 towards Indian Beach and the middle of Emerald Isle, the uneasy feeling increased. There was absolutely no one around! We stopped at a beach to take a look around —- this was where a large pier once stood, but it was gone, courtesy of a hurricane or two in the past 15 years. We continued down the empty road, passing vacant house after vacant house. The evacuation appeared to be complete! Perhaps half of the homes were boarded up. We noted the spots which looked like high points, in case we happened to be around here later and needed to find higher ground. This was Kirstie’s first hurricane chase, and her stomach was letting her know what it thought of our current course of action.
My sketchy plan was to find a solid, well-constructed hotel right on the beach, perhaps at the Atlantic Beach resort area. This town is on the east end of Emerald Isle (across the Bogue Sound from Morehead City), and, surprise, surprise, it is adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. It looked to be right in Irene’s sights. Atlantic Beach would be a fine place to witness the battering of a coastal community by a hurricane. A good-sized, modern hotel should have no problem with 100 mph winds, I figured. I also was hoping to find a place with a two-story parking structure. Four-to-eight foot storm surge was forecast for this area, so it was possible that bottom floors could be swamped. I definitely did not want any rental car damage issues.
We came upon a small mom-and-pop motel in Indian Beach, with its vacancy sign lit up. I asked the lady inside if she had a room available. She said that she was not renting out because of Irene. Perhaps it was a good thing for us —- this place looked very vulnerable to storm surge! Another larger motel towards Atlantic Beach was also closed up, but a couple of media crews and their large satellite trucks were in the parking lot. They were bunched up on the west side of the two-story building, thinking that the strong winds would initially be out of the northeast and east. That seemed reasonable.
Kirstie and I rolled up to Atlantic Beach, where most of the businesses were closed. There were, however, quite a few folks milling about the primary beach area and parking lot. These were mostly chasers, TV/media folks, and locals who were drawn to the shore and to the commotion. A light rain fell and the wind was quite stout, perhaps 25 mph. The outer edges of Irene were definitely upon us! Our feeling of unease seemed to lift a little, as there was a sense of “safety in numbers.” But does proximity to crazy people count in this instance?
Numerous media crews and trucks crowded the parking lot at the tall and sturdy Sheraton Hotel in Atlantic Beach. The desk clerk said that The Weather Channel and other media had gobbled up many of the rooms, a floor at a time. And, the hotel was not offering rooms to anyone that was NOT media. For crying out sideways! I wrote an article or two for Stormtrack Magazine, and Jim Cantore knows who I am…that makes me a media person, right?! Apparently the Sheraton was the only hotel or motel on Emerald Isle that was going to remain open during Irene. The clerk let Kirstie know that the island was going to be under water during the storm. And, if she knew what was good for her, she had better get the heck outta here and head on over the bridge to Morehead City, where it was safe! It sounded like the clerk was a meteorologist, an oceanographer, a psychic, and maybe a geographer all rolled into one.
The waves and surf were fairly impressive along Atlantic Beach, and we spent some time shooting some stills and video of the scene. The sea was rough and wind was whipping spray off of the top of the waves at about 35 mph. It was late afternoon now, and we still needed to find a place. We could spend the night in the vehicle — that would not be the end of the world — but a motel room sounded so much more hospitable and would give us a place to dry out. Also, with a curfew in effect, I wasn’t sure if the police would like the idea of folks like me driving around town half the night, and/or camping out in a parking lot.
We headed inland towards the causeway bridge to Morehead City. A restaurant right on Bogue Sound (on the Emerald Isle side) had wind and waves lashing at it from the northeast. There was no way that this place was going to escape flooding, I figured. The causeway bridge would be closed at 8 p.m., according to locals. It had been closed on the morning back in 2003 when I was here chasing Hurricane Isabel. It was kind of weird being in familiar territory on my fourth hurricane intercept. Two out of four have been in eastern North Carolina, in and around Morehead City! Anyway, even though I preferred to be on the barrier island, I resigned myself to being based for Irene in the slightly inland town of Morehead City. The town is practically surrounded by water, and there would be plenty of different, well-exposed areas to check out during the storm. And, by not being on the island, I would probably have fewer problems with any storm surge, flooding, and closed and washed-out bridges.
We became a bit excited upon seeing the Hampton Inn in Morehead City, right on the water facing south! It had a great view of Bogue Sound and Atlantic Beach, less than two miles away. This would be a great place to hang out and to ride out Irene. But, woe to us, media again had booked entire floors of the place and there were no rooms available. A couple of other motels along the main drag in town had a few rooms remaining, and we wound up at the Quality Inn, on the second floor. They made us pay for two days and nights, figuring that we had little to no other choices, and that we would be unable or unwilling to check out, anyway, at the height of the storm the next morning. They made me sign a “hurricane operations” form of sorts which outlined all of the things that would probably go wrong at the motel during Irene. These were things such as no electricity, no hot water, NO HOUSEKEEPING while the motel is in the eye of the hurricane! Wah wah wah — whaddya have to do to get decent service nowadays? We grabbed some fast food at a chicken place that was about to close at 8 p.m. Wind continued to slowly ramp up, and a tornado watch was in place. Irene’s eye would be nearby, if not overhead, in about 12 hours. The sense of unease was creeping back. Here is the statement from the National Hurricane Center at 8 p.m. on Friday:
DISCUSSION AND 48-HOUR OUTLOOK ------------------------------ AT 800 PM EDT...0000 UTC...THE CENTER OF HURRICANE IRENE WAS LOCATED NEAR LATITUDE 32.1 NORTH...LONGITUDE 77.2 WEST. IRENE IS MOVING TOWARD THE NORTH-NORTHEAST NEAR 14 MPH...22 KM/H...AND THIS GENERAL MOTION IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE TONIGHT AND EARLY SATURDAY. ON THE FORECAST TRACK...THE CORE OF THE HURRICANE WILL APPROACH THE COAST OF NORTH CAROLINA TONIGHT AND PASS NEAR OR OVER THE NORTH CAROLINA COAST ON SATURDAY. THE HURRICANE IS FORECAST TO MOVE NEAR OR OVER THE MID-ATLANTIC COAST SATURDAY NIGHT AND MOVE OVER SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND ON SUNDAY. MAXIMUM SUSTAINED WINDS REMAIN NEAR 100 MPH...160 KM/H...WITH HIGHER GUSTS. IRENE IS A CATEGORY TWO HURRICANE ON THE SAFFIR-SIMPSON HURRICANE WIND SCALE. LITTLE CHANGE IN STRENGTH IS FORECAST BEFORE IRENE REACHES THE COAST OF NORTH CAROLINA. SOME WEAKENING IS EXPECTED AFTER THAT...BUT IRENE IS FORECAST TO REMAIN A HURRICANE AS IT MOVES ALONG THE MID-ATLANTIC COAST ON SUNDAY. IRENE IS A LARGE TROPICAL CYCLONE. HURRICANE-FORCE WINDS EXTEND OUTWARD UP TO 90 MILES...150 KM...FROM THE CENTER...AND TROPICAL-STORM-FORCE WINDS EXTEND OUTWARD UP TO 290 MILES...465 KM. DURING THE PAST HOUR...A SUSTAINED WIND OF 52 MPH...84 KM/H...AND A GUST TO 62 MPH...100 KM/H WERE REPORTED AT THE JOHNNY MERCER PIER IN WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH NORTH CAROLINA. THE MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE RECENTLY REPORTED BY AIR FORCE RESERVE AND NOAA HURRICANE HUNTER AIRCRAFT WAS 950 MB...28.05 INCHES.
After completing our hearty meal, I thought that it would be fun to poke around town again. But, first I had to phone the front desk. The room’s door locks were covered with tape to keep rain water out, because hurricanes tend to send rain sideways and right into the open space where the card key goes. Water in the electronic key slot tends to render it inoperable, according to those in the know at Quality Inn. Our lengthy list of terrible motel issues during hurricane conditions said that if we didn’t keep the rain out of the key slot, that management could not guarantee that they would be able to get us back into the room! They recommended leaving one person inside the room at all times in order to minimize consternation. Well, the Irene chase would not be as much fun if Kirstie were relegated to door-opening duties inside the motel room. Though our key-slot tape was falling off, I wasn’t too concerned about water getting in there yet, as the winds weren’t THAT strong (maybe up to 45 mph) and our room was protected from the wind. But, what if the power to the motel was cut and we both were outside? Would we be able to get back into our room?! I phoned the lady at the front desk and told her that I was going to go out for a little drive and wondered if we would be able to get back into the room if the power was lost. “YOU ARE GOING OUT IN THIS WEATHER?” was the instantaneous response. The locks use a battery, she said, so we need not worry about whether the motel electricity stays on or not. Excellent. Irene’s center was about 150 miles to our south.
A tornado warning or two was (were?) issued for some counties and towns that I had never heard of in eastern North Carolina. As long as they didn’t mention “Morehead City”, I figured that we were okay. But, jeez, with Irene’s heavy squalls and rain bands now spiraling overhead and the supposedly tornadic cells moving along at about 55 mph, I wasn’t exactly expecting the NWS to be able to keep me safe from tornadoes! We listened to a local radio station for the latest weather updates. Wind gusts were approaching hurricane-force strength at some NC coastal stations south of Morehead City. Our gusts in town were up to about 50 mph. There wasn’t too much to see yet except for the trees bending and the signs jiggling and the rain blasting.
A somewhat high bridge heads over the Newport River and into the town of Beaufort, to the east of Morehead. I thought it would be fun to see what was going on in Beaufort, and especially fun to take Kirstie onto a long bridge well above the dark storm-driven sea in tropical storm conditions. As it turned out, we were making this little excursion during one particularly nasty squall! Visibility decreased considerably and heavy rain slammed into us from the east. Gusts were likely up around 70 mph while we were on the exposed bridge. We crawled along behind a lone vehicle… If we saw its taillights plunging off of the side and into the murk, we would turn around…
We made it into Beaufort, and the weather had suddenly turned ruly! The squall had passed, and winds were back down to perhaps 30 mph. A cop patrolled U.S. 70 —– does he care if we are out here poking around? He left us alone. There’s nothin’ to see here anyway! We went back over the bridge with the wind at our back as if we were chasing the afternoon sea breeze from Santa Monica to Century City. There’s nothing to this hurricane chasing!
All of my hurricane chases have featured morning landfalls. Isabel’s eye came through this same area during the late morning. Danny Gonzales and I drove all night from Jacksonville, FL, to catch Isabel in time. Jeanne hit near Vero Beach, FL, well before sunrise, and Brian Morganti and I caught the leading edge of the eyewall at first light in the middle of the peninsula. Cheryl Chang and I stayed up all night in a car in Naples, FL, to catch Wilma’s eyewall at dawn. True to form, the wrath of Irene’s leading eyewall would be impacting the area here right around sunrise. We went back to the motel and decided to try to get a few hours of sleep. It would be prudent to be somewhat functional during the long and windy day to follow.
I awoke around 2 a.m. It was getting a bit loud and raucous out there! The power was out, too. I peaked outside —- yep, it is windy! And rainy, too! I would estimate that the wind was sustained at around 45 mph with gusts to around 60 mph. Keep in mind that this is in a built-up area with plenty of stuff around to slow the wind down. The wind speed here is likely quite a bit less than that over nearby open ocean and coastal waters. I didn’t hear any crashing, stuff breaking, metal wrapping around poles, etc. A power flash was observed not too far away, and a minute or two later our power came back on. Radar on the TV showed Irene’s eye some 60 miles away to our south. I wish it had been daylight. The power went out again and we went back to sleep. It would be difficult to get any quality video if there were no lights on in town, anyway.
We were back out in the storm around 6:30 a.m. It wasn’t difficult to drive around, despite our proximity to Irene’s most intense winds. Wind gusts were perhaps as strong as 75 mph at times as we meandered through Morehead City and Beaufort. I shot the requisite video of blowing palm trees and shaking signs. The towns held up quite well to the battering, and not much significant structural damage was observed. The side of a large metal building was ripped open. On the east side of Beaufort a large pine tree was blocking U.S. 70. Another tree was blocking a possible detour route around that. We headed back to Morehead because I didn’t want another tree to trap us in Beaufort.
It wasn’t too long before the winds started to weaken considerably. By 8 a.m. Kirstie and I were next to Bogue Sound and walking around outside. People were out and about and walking their dogs and inspecting their homes and doing what normal Moreheaders do while inside the eye of a hurricane. There was a lot of foliage on the streets and some minor flooding, but Irene’s initial punch was not a knockout around here. Kirstie’s handheld weather instrument indicated a pressure of 953 mb shortly after 8 a.m., and a little later bottomed out at 951 mb. These readings correlated quite well with nearby official weather stations. We were taking hourly pressure readings the evening prior, and in about 12 hours the pressure had decreased from 999 miliibars to 953 miliibars. While in Irene’s eye there was a low overcast and no breaks in the clouds. The wind kind of sputtered and there might have been an occasional sprinkle.
I was not expecting the winds on the back side of Irene to be any stronger than those we had just experienced on its front side. I also knew not to rule out even stronger winds, as I had experienced on the back side of Wilma in Naples! Convection and precipitation were much weaker on Irene’s south half, though, according to radar, so less-intense conditions seemed more likely. After nearly 90 minutes of benign weather, the wind came up quickly again, and was from the west. Kirstie and I were on an exposed dead-end road on Bogue Sound, just west of the causeway bridge to Atlantic Beach. Wind-whipped waves built up suddenly on the sound and headed eastward towards the bridge. Salty spray hit us in the face, and it was soon difficult to stand upright in the wind! I managed a wind reading of 57 mph with Kirstie’s wind meter. Out on the sound, it was looking a lot like a hurricane again!
Even though it was fun to be outside in the strong winds, it was nasty and wet. My new K-Mart rain jacket was keeping my upper half dry, but my bottom half was getting a little too moist. It wasn’t raining much, but the drops that were falling seemed to be extra tiny and extra ouchy when impacting my face. Kirstie and I got back into the Subaru and motored around Morehead City’s dock area for some additional hurricane photo and video ops. We were not disappointed, as the nearby sound was filled with waves and spray. Flood waters were up to maybe 10 inches deep on some of the roads, and stuff was banging around again. I went outside to try to capture some of the mayhem with my camcorder and Canon 5D. The wind seemed to be about as strong, if not a bit stronger, than the pre-eye winds. A nearby weather station recorded a gust of over 100 mph behind the eye, and gusts in our area must have been near 75 mph. The rain was only light, so my cameras and I weren’t getting too wet. There was a pier-side place getting blasted near a large plastic sea god or something. Out on the sound about 100 yards away were a couple of sail boats that were getting tossed around. Mother Nature was teaching them a lesson. Those made for some cool shots as the spray whipped by at hurricane force.
We made our way across the bridge to Beaufort and looked around its sea front/boardwalk area. Here it was, a perfect Saturday morning in late August, and no one was around! The shops along the water were closed up tight. Irene’s fury was starting to wane some, though, and it was becoming more difficult to find compelling subject matter to image. We were wet and tired, so we went back to the powerless motel and napped for a few hours. Around 4 p.m. we were back outside. The wind was still impressive, with gusts from 50-60 mph. We left the cameras in the room and walked to the beach area along the sound. I wore my swim trunks and rain jacket and became thoroughly soaked, especially my tennis shoes. We were out for an hour or so and had a great time observing the small things along the shore —- the ducks, pelicans, flotsam, busted up piers, bent signs, pieces of homes, etc. The stinging small rain drops did not deter us! As sunset neared, we headed back to our dark room where we enjoyed a dinner featuring grapes, potato chips, and Oreos.
It was not difficult to quickly fall asleep early on Saturday evening. I slept for about 12 hours, and awoke to a sunny and calm Morehead City morning. The power was still out, but we didn’t need it anyway. The roads were clear and we headed back south to Florida.
Irene was a fun storm to “chase”, though it ranks weakest on my list of four hurricane intercepts. Isabel’s winds back in 2003 were at least 10-20 mph stronger in Morehead City and Beaufort compared to Irene’s winds. Still, anytime you can emerge from a hurricane completely unscathed and with fun and happy memories, it should be considered a successful chase. I’m ready for #5.