Norbert & Odile: Two trips out West for something new

The east Pacific hurricane season was extremely busy. Several intense hurricanes impacted Mexico, particularly portions of the Baja peninsula. The strongest of these impacts was hurricane Odile in mid-September with significant damage taking place in the Cabo San Lucas area.

Once these Pacific hurricanes turned north and eventually northeast, they spread deep tropical moisture across a region that is normally very dry and very hot: The Desert Southwest. The resulting influx of moisture often leads to a period of heavy rain for areas that are not used to such events on a regular basis. In fact, it had been quite a number of years since the last significant intrusion of tropical cyclone threats to the Southwest United States and this is what drove me to head out there not once, but twice, to document and study the impacts in person.

Part 1: Norbert: September 5-10 Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah

Hurricane Norbert forecast track on Friday, September 5

Hurricane Norbert forecast track on Friday, September 5

Hurricane Norbert threatened to send copious amounts of moisture in to the Southwest United States during the first full week of September. The National Hurricane Center had warned in its advisories that a significant flood threat was shaping up for portions of the Desert Southwest.

Few people truly realize the far-reaching effects of tropical cyclones, even long after they make landfall and dissipate. For the Southwest U.S., there is a history of tropical cyclone impacts in places that we are simply not used to hearing about.

East Pacific hurricane season of 1976

East Pacific hurricane season of 1976

Looking back, we can see that years such as 1976 stand out as big impact years for California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Several hurricanes turned northeast towards Mexico and brought with them substantial amounts of moisture which resulted in major flooding events for parts of the Southwest.

Flash-forward to 2014. Norbert was forecast to make landfall along the northern Baja peninsula as a weakening depression but its moisture was already being advected around a large high pressure area over parts of Texas and the western Gulf of Mexico.

Adding to the mess were the remnants of tropical storm Dolly in the Gulf of Mexico. The left-over moisture plume was also transported northward across Mexico and in to west Texas, New Mexico and parts of Arizona.

The complex pattern meant that there would be several days of flash flood threats across a large part of the Southwest. I thought that this set up would provide an excellent opportunity to observe and report on the impacts from a tropical cyclone’s effects in an unusual geographic location.

I hopped a plane in Wilmington on Friday, September 5 and joined my friend and HurricaneTrack.com supporter, Kerry Mallory, in Houston that afternoon. From there, we drove west-bound across the vast countryside of west Texas with Las Cruces, New Mexico our destination late that night.

Saturday, September 6 - photo showing deep moisture beginning to build as Norbert and remnants of Dolly combine for major flood threat across Desert Southwest

Saturday, September 6 – photo showing deep moisture beginning to build as Norbert and remnants of Dolly combine for major flood threat across Desert Southwest

After a long drive from Houston to Las Cruces and some much needed rest, the plan was to head in to Arizona to be in position for any potential thunderstorm activity that could set off flash flooding. The moisture plume was steady with the flow coming north from Mexico, setting the stage for an active week ahead.

Saturday’s destination was Phoenix, Arizona and it wasn’t long after crossing the border in to Arizona from New Mexico that things got interesting.

With the the heating of the day and the surge of tropical moisture on the increase, isolated to scattered thunderstorms were popping up. Kerry and I could clearly see the towering thunderheads in the distance, matching nicely what we observed on radar.

One phenomenon that I really wanted to observe and study up close was a flash flood. Obviously you have to be in the right place at the right time, usually along a wash or dry riverbed that suddenly fills with rain water. Putting my geography and weather skills together helped me to better understand the conditions and locations that I would need to seek out in order to catch a flash flood as it happened.

The Desert Southwest is literally lined with dry washes or Arroyos, as they are also termed, that sit dormant for months at a time. When the rains come, these alley-ways for the run off to cascade through become instant raging rivers, filled with all kinds of debris and mud. When a road way crosses a wash or dry riverbed, and a flash flood occurs, the consequences can be deadly for those who are unaware.

Strong thunderstorm just north of I-10 in Arizona during the afternoon of September 6

Strong thunderstorm just north of I-10 in Arizona during the afternoon of September 6

The key for us was to be in the vicinity of a strong thunderstorm that dumped a lot of rain in a short amount of time. Safety was also an obvious element that we placed at the top of the list. We thought we had a shot, the first of many, near Bowie, Arizona, just north of I-10. A group of thunderstorm cells had developed over the mountains and we could clearly see a thick ,well developed rain shaft underneath. I have to admit, it is breathtaking to see something so beautiful take place in the desert. The juxtaposition of dry, desert landscape with a tropical downpour is a sight to behold. The rain literally makes the air come to life around the storm, with outflow wind blowing cool air like the best air conditioning you could ever imagine. We had our first storm of the mission and it was spectacular.

Kerry and I pulled off the Interstate and traveled north along Highway 191 for just a few miles until we had the perfect alignment with the approaching storm. I set up a GoPro on our tripod for a time lapse session. The slow moving storm came right at us but weakened as the heating of the day waned. However, the time lapse that I was able to process was wonderful. It clearly demonstrated the dynamic structure of the storm, the rain falling underneath and the outflow pushed ahead of it by the rain-cooled air. All of this in the desert, mind you, not over Florida or the Great Plains where such events are common place. It was a small but significant victory for us and once we had wrapped things up at that location, it was time to press on towards Phoenix.

As the afternoon wore on, more thunderstorms developed near Phoenix and produced a substantial Haboob or dust storm that was all the rage on Twitter. Kerry and I missed it by about three hours but arrived as the cluster of storms that created the dust storm was still ongoing.

I cannot begin to describe how strange it was to see Saguaro cactus back-lit by brilliant flashes of lightning – which is exactly what we saw as we approached Phoenix along I-10. We arrived an hour or so after dark and settled in for the night, ready for a busy and more active weather day on Sunday.

Sunday, September 7

Norbert was weakening as it turned northeast towards the Baja but the abundant moisture feed was already being pulled north in to the Southwest. The strong high over the western Gulf of Mexico continued to pump moisture from Dolly and the Gulf itself, setting the region up for a wild few days to come.

The plan for Kerry and me for Sunday was simple: literally go storm chasing! We wanted to try and get to a developing cluster of thunderstorms near peak heating in order to witness the elusive but dangerous effects of a flash flood. Keep in mind, most of southeast California, southern Nevada, western Arizona and almost all of New Mexico had been placed under a flash flood watch due to incredible PWAT or precipitable water values being very high considering the geographic location. Some areas were looking at 200% to 300% above the long term average for potential rain fall. This meant an increased risk of flash flooding where thunderstorms developed. Unlike a true hurricane or tropical storm making landfall with organized rain bands, this situation was different. The remnant moisture from dying hurricane Norbert was the culprit, not the tropical cyclone itself. We had to rely on radar via the iPad and of course, luck, to find what we were looking for.

We spent the morning surveying an area not far from Maricopa that had flash flooding during the night Saturday. Once again, I was stunned at the contrast between seeing dust devils dancing playfully across the open desert and standing water where torrential rain had fallen the previous night. It was a weather geek’s dream come true – seeing so many interesting elements all in the same place.

Thunderstorms over the mountains near Prescott, AZ during the afternoon of September 7

Thunderstorms over the mountains near Prescott, AZ during the afternoon of September 7

By early afternoon, the convection began to build over the mountains to the north of Phoenix, near Prescott. The distances from which you can see towering thunderheads out west is staggering. We were south and west of Phoenix watching clouds billow up nearly 100 miles away. We had to get moving if we wanted to get to the storms in time.

After a couple of hours driving towards Prescott, sure enough, the storms had dumped enough rain to warrant a flash flood warning for the area.

One interesting aspect of flash flooding in the Southwest is what are called “burn scars” or areas along mountains that suffered effects from wildfires in recent months or years. The left over barren landscape invites disaster as the ground is like concrete, not allowing rain water to soak in. Instead, you get these mud and ash flows, filled with burned out trees and other debris. In a severe flood situation, burn scars can help to lead to catastrophic flash flooding over quite a distance, even far from where the rains fell.

Kerry and I had studied up on nearby burn scars and there was one fairly close to where we were headed. After passing through Wickenburg, we turned northeast along Highway 89 and in to the mountains.

RadarScope screen shot showing the cluster of thunderstorms to the northwest of Prescott, AZ

RadarScope screen shot showing the cluster of thunderstorms to the northwest of Prescott, AZ

The thunderstorm complex was nearly stationary and seemed to keep building over the area. Creeks were already filling up and the National Weather Service was busy dealing with flash flooding as a result. Our task was to try to get to where this was happening but do so with extreme caution.

We managed to get in to the region where the storm was but it had moved on just enough to lessen the impact of flooding in the Prescott area. We found an impressive dry wash out in the desert and I took the opportunity to fly the quad copter around it to get a better look at the structure and general look of these interesting geographic features. The one we had found was as dry as could be but the evidence of past flood events was frozen in time, preserved as if it had happened just days ago, yet it could have been months or even years. Seeing this just made me work harder to try and get to a location where one of these dry washes filled up with water. It is literally like trying to find a needle in a haystack, very tough to do unless you’re in the right place.

We pressed on and left Prescott behind us as more concentrated rain and thunderstorms had developed along I-40 between Flagstaff and points west, including Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact, an especially large cluster of storms was pounding the area around Kingman, just east of the Nevada border in Arizona.

Very heavy was falling over a burn scar area in the mountains near Kingman, AZ during the evening of September 7

Very heavy was falling over a burn scar area in the mountains near Kingman, AZ during the evening of September 7

Night was approaching quickly when we arrived in the Kingman area where very heavy rain had prompted flash flood warnings. A burn scar in the region was noted in the National Weather Service advisory which suggested debris flows could be moving down the mountain towards an RV park not far off the Interstate. Kerry and I did all we could to find it but the event was probably not too severe, great news for the people in the RV park for sure!

After taking a close look at the pattern setting up for Monday, it was clear to me that southwest Utah and southern Nevada should be the place to be for Monday when the tropical moisture from Norbert would get tapped and energized by an approaching upper level trough coming in from the Pacific.

Vast regions of the Southwest were now under flash flood watches. We are talking New Mexico, Arizona, southern California and Nevada, southern to central Utah and now extending in to parts of Colorado. The effects from Norbert’s moisture were going to impact a huge portion of the Southwest, putting lives at risk and disrupting travel at key locations throughout the region. Monday, it seemed, was the biggest day yet. We were going to be ready.

Our destination for Sunday night and through Monday was St. George, Utah. I would have never thought that anytime during my 20 year career tracking and studying hurricanes that I would be in Utah because of one. The situation was rather serious and local National Weather Service offices were doing an excellent job of posting information on their websites about the possible flood threat unfolding.

Kerry and I passed through Las Vegas and headed north via I-15. The night air was muggy – something you don’t experience very often out that way. Low clouds obscured a late-rising moon, foreboding as it tried to illuminate the barren desert landscape.

qMap of St. George, Utah and Snow Canyon State Park

Map of St. George, Utah and Snow Canyon State Park

We arrived in St. George around midnight local time and immediately began scoping out a location along the Virgin River to place an unmanned camera unit – the same one that I had set up during hurricane Arthur along the Outer Banks earlier in the summer. This time, it would keep watch over the river which was likely to rise dramatically due to recent rain and the incoming flow of deep tropical moisture.

It did not take long and we settled on a spot right along the river not far from our hotel, just down from the bike and running trail that snakes around parts of St. George. Kerry had several flood gauges upstream bookmarked for monitoring and we knew that it was only a matter of time, and some added heavy rain Monday, and the Virgin River would spring to life.

I spent another hour or so researching local canyons for possible flash flood potential on Monday. The advisories from the National Weather Service mentioned slot canyons and area washes and dry river beds as being prime targets for fast moving, deadly flash floods. Obviously, there was no way to pinpoint which of the many canyons and dry washes would be impacted. We would have to get lucky but this time, the heavy rain was poised to cover a much wider area and with greater intensity.

I suggested to Kerry that we check out Snow Canyon during the early part of Monday. There was a substantial dry wash that ran through the canyon area which is itself a state park. Of particular interest to me was a point where the road and the wash intersected. I had a feeling that this would be the best spot for us to capture a flash flood, even if it were not especially dangerous or damaging, I just wanted to document the event without having to put Kerry or myself in harm’s way.

Monday, September 8

After rounding up some hardware needed to set out the unmanned camera along the banks of the Virgin River during the mid-morning hours, it was time to get to work.

Our unmanned camera location along the left bank of the Virgin River in St. George, Utah

Our unmanned camera location along the left bank of the Virgin River in St. George, Utah

We set up the camera system in less than 15 minutes and it was streaming live video not far from the river bed itself. The view was great and it allowed us to continuously monitor the river throughout the day. Nothing much was happening just yet but the unit was functioning as designed, now we just had to wait.

I set up the GoPro along the bike bath just up from where we had the live cam feed along the river. Deep moisture was gathering from the south and it wouldn’t take much to set off large clusters of very heavy showers and thunderstorms.

By mid to late afternoon, the storms initiated in Nevada and began to track north. They were slow moving, probably less than 10 miles per hour. It did not take long for the first flash flood warnings to go up. One of them was near Moapa, along I-15 just southwest of Mesquite and the Arizona border. We could see the tops of the thunderstorms, resembling a large cluster that you might see over the Everglades in Florida on a steamy August day.

Within the same hour that the storms fired off in Nevada, more took shape in southwest Utah, including around the St. George area. The intensity of the rain was just like what I would expect in a tropical storm. Storm water run off was a big problem from the get go and people had to slow down or face perilous driving conditions for the rest of the day.

We learned via Twitter that Moapa Valley and vicinity were facing a flash flood emergency. A wall of water was apparently cascading down I-15, sweeping away vehicles and people. This news was chilling, knowing that we drove that exact stretch of Interstate just the night before. There was no way to get to the location safely and it was, in fact, very dangerous in and around the Moapa area. Kerry and I kept a close watch on Twitter for any reports coming from the highway patrol or local news media. The deluge had begun and the first significant impact to people and commerce was unfolding less than an hour from our location.

As the day wore on towards dusk, the rain kept falling. We drove out to Snow Canyon to see if flash flooding had taken place yet along that intersection that I was suspect of. Nothing yet. There were, however, spectacular waterfalls pouring out of the sides of the canyon walls. So far, there was nothing noteworthy happening in and around the St. George area.

By evening time, we learned that I-15 was literally torn up and washed out in places near Moapa. People were stuck and some had to be rescued during the flash flood. Fortunately, despite the ferocity of the flood waters, no one was killed. However, the major north-south Interstate that connects Las Vegas with Arizona and Utah was, for the time being, closed.

Hundreds of people were stranded along I-15 between Mesquite and Las Vegas. This casino was the only facility that had power, a literal beacon of light for those trapped by the flooded out highway

Hundreds of people were stranded along I-15 between Mesquite and Las Vegas. This casino was the only facility that had power, a literal beacon of light for those trapped by the flooded out highway

Kerry and I made our way south to Mesquite by going around via secondary roads and through the mountains. Most of the town was without power and in fact, several hundred people were stranded in the dark, many along the Interstate. It was quite an eerie scene. I wonder how many people really knew what the cause was and that it had everything to do with a Pacific hurricane? Even Las Vegas had to deal with some flash flooding, filling up my Twitter feed with incredible, dramatic photos of water rushing through casino garages.

After a long day, it was time to head back to St. George and keep an eye on the river gauges along the Virgin River. There was a noticeable rise but nothing dramatic just yet. The skies had all but cleared but the moisture remained in place, ushering in yet another very humid night in southwest Utah.

We returned to St. George and I used the last hour or so of my waking moments to check the forecast for Tuesday. Our time was running out as I had a plane to catch back in Houston, some 1,800 miles away, in less than 36 hours.

It seemed that one more piece of upper level energy was forecast to move through California, across Nevada and in to Utah overnight. This would likely set off one more round of thunderstorms over the same areas that were pounded during the day Monday. I turned in for the night and figured we would just wait and see how things were Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, September 9

The sun had barely risen when Kerry woke me up, urging me to check the live camera that we had set up along the banks of the Virgin River. He had stayed up all night monitoring river gauges upstream from St. George.

As forecast, more heavy rain was falling across the region and once again, flash flood warnings were plentiful.

The rain from Monday had finally done its work, forcing a substantial and dramatic rise in the Virgin River. The flow had increased significantly as well with the live camera feed showing all sorts of debris moving swiftly along in the muddy water.

As more thunderstorms lined up like box cars on a long track to the northwest of our location, practically over Snow Canyon, I made the call to head out there immediately. We jumped in to Kerry’s truck and took off for Snow Canyon.

The park ranger we met at the gate alerted us that flash flooding was taking place along the wash and for us to be careful. I told her that hew news was music to my ears and that I was there to document just such an event. To my surprise, she was very understanding and encouraged us to go for it, wishing us to be careful of course.

Within a mile or so in to the park, we found it. Water was streaming across the two land road like a small stream. The flow was not very substantial at the moment but the rain all around us was coming down heavy with more lined up back behind us.

I contacted The Weather Channel and set up a live video feed right from our location. All of a sudden, the flow increased and within seconds, the small stream became a full-own flash flood. I grabbed the GoPro and began recording from as many angles as I could. It was the moment I had been hoping for and the good news was that the flood was not affecting anyone directly since it was contained within the state park of Snow Canyon.

Kerry positioned his truck so as to alert anyone else venturing in to turn around or just park and take in the awesome spectacle. Several people stopped and witnessed it along with us, thunder rolling against the canyon walls.

I was utterly fascinated and intrigued by the rapid changes in flow as the minutes ticked by. I could hear more water coming down the wash as the roar would increase. Seconds later, the intersection of the road and wash would swell, rocks banging in to each other underneath the swift current. I was like a kid on Christmas Day because to me, this was what it was all about. Seeing the effects of a hurricane in an environment that was alien to me made it all worth the effort. The fact that no one was harmed by the flooding was even better. I could just observe and record via GoPro what was happening. The Weather Channel took the stream live during their evening broadcast, amazing considering the fact that I was in a canyon out in the middle of desert countryside in Utah. Technology sure has come a long way!

Meanwhile, our Virgin River cam was doing its thing, recording and streaming live as the river sent tons of upstream debris towards the south and east. The Weather Channel also took this feed live, showing the audience a unique perspective of the effects from Norbert. I was very proud of our success even though the bulk of it came on the last day that we were out there.

Photo of rain-swollen Virgin River as seen from our quad copter

Photo of rain-swollen Virgin River as seen from our quad copter

The rain let up as the afternoon progressed and it was time to pull up the live cam from the river and begin the long trip back to Texas. I captured my moment and had satisfied my urge to witness the impacts from a Pacific hurricane on an area that rarely has to deal with such events.

Norbert faded in to a remnant low pressure area over the cool waters of the east Pacific, not too far off the Baja peninsula. Its reach was far and wide, affecting millions of people from southern California to west Texas. Even as Kerry and I made our way back to Texas for me to fly home, the left over, nearly depleted moisture continued to produce scattered thunderstorms along our route. If I hadn’t documented the incredible journey, I might not have believed it happened. While the Norbert field mission was not in the same category as something like Ivan or Katrina, it was very much worth the time, expense and effort it took to hang in there for five days as the event took place.

I am a geographer at heart and with that comes a deep passion for weather. Hurricanes are such an important part of shaping the landscape, both natural and man-made. Norbert was an opportunity for me to learn about something that I had always wanted to experience. I was glad to have made the trip and felt that I had contributed to the story, even if only a little bit. After all, every little bit helps, right? Turns out, I would be back sooner rather than later. Another powerful east Pacific hurricane was brewing and already it looked like a track very similar to Norbert’s was possible. It was 1976 all over again for the Southwest United States.

Next up in my recap blog series: a very challenging hurricane Odile threatened to surpass Norbert’s flood threat, putting Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas in the cross hairs.

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Hurricane Arthur: 4th of July surprise

Hurricane Arthur moving along the Carolina coast in early July

Hurricane Arthur moving along the Carolina coast in early July

Arthur was the first of two Atlantic hurricanes that I intercepted this past season where by I caught the eye dead on. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the chance to do so considering the scant nature to this past season.

This field mission was very special for a number of reasons. First of all, it had been some time since I had an opportunity to actually get out in a hurricane. The 2013 season was as boring as they come, I was anxious to get to work and do what I do best.

Another significant aspect of the Arthur mission was the deployment of new technology. I had been working on a new generation of our unmanned camera systems and wanted to test at least one of them in the field. Arthur was the perfect chance. I also had a new project, called the Drifting Surge Cam or DSC, that was ready for field work as well. All of this was on top of the usual setting up of at least one weather station and the constant updating to our app and social media channels. Having nothing to do in 2013 made me as ready as ever when Arthur became a threat to the North Carolina Outer Banks during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Obviously, this was not good news to the local economy of the region nor the emergency managers that had to deal with a possible hurricane during one of the worst possible stretches of days of the year. All of this made it especially important to plan ahead as much as possible and to be ready for the rare early-July hurricane that was developing off the Southeast coast.

Top cap it all off, I had the fantastic privilege of working exclusively with The Weather Channel for the first time in my nearly 20 year career. Yes, some times good things take time and the right people saw potential for what I could bring to their network and offered me the chance of a lifetime. In fact, I would get to work with Jim Cantore, who has always been supportive of the work that my team and I do. The arrangement made it more challenging because I would have to integrate interviews and the feeding of video to producers back in Atlanta, even at some very odd hours of the night! It’s all part of the job and thanks to amazing efforts from my long-time friend and colleague, Jesse Bass, things went as smooth as could be expected. Arthur was going to be the strongest hurricane to hit North Carolina since Isabel in 2003 – we were ready.

Once it had become clear that Arthur would in fact make landfall along the Outer Banks, I departed Wilmington with Rodanthe as my destination.

I met up with Jesse at the home of a very dear friend and supporter of our work. The house is ideal for attaching a weather station and cameras to, while affording us a place to set up shop right in the heart of the action.

Screen capture of the live weather data that was being streamed from the roof top of a friend's house in Rodanthe, along the NC Outer Banks

Screen capture of the live weather data that was being streamed from the roof top of a friend’s house in Rodanthe, along the NC Outer Banks

Within an hour of arrival, we had the weather station up and running with live wind and pressure data being sent to our app, Hurricane Impact, every 60 seconds. In addition, a live camera image was uploaded to the app just as frequently. Everything was going perfect.

As Arthur gathered strength over the very warm Atlantic, we had most of the day of July 3 to prepare and scout out locations for the placement of the unmanned camera as well as the DSC.

By night fall, we had chosen Hatteras Village to position our new and much smaller camera system. For the first time, it would have a native 16:9 image with high quality video being streamed over the local cellular network. We would also have audio with the stream for the first time ever, adding a unique dimension to the project, even in total darkness.

Jesse had to get back on the north side of the Bonner Bridge (Oregon Inlet) to avoid being stuck and really to document the effects along the northern Outer Banks. He was able to send me video clips from his location in Nags Head which I then posted to the app in no time flat.

Along the way, I posted video clips for The Weather Channel to use and conducted numerous phone interviews with updates from all over the region. Being mobile helps and I was able to relay info from Hatteras Village all the way to Nags Head via reports from Jesse.

What made it different is the fact that we had science to contribute, not just the usual “who, what, when, where and why” that is typical of television interviews. Bryan Norcross had at his disposal live weather data coming from our weather station. Taking the app “to air” via iPad output was just what I had dreamed of. Knowing that The Weather Channel was showcasing our efforts was a proud moment for the entire team. More importantly, it meant that their audience saw something different, unique and factual. Wind data changed right before their eyes as the hurricane closed in. The pressure dropped quickly and even though it was dark, the live cam was running precisely as designed. It was the perfect intercept as far as I was concerned and it was just getting started.

I was not sure whether I would get to deploy the DSC during Arthur. It is most effective during daylight for obvious reasons. However, the on-board data collection was just as important as the video that was transmitted and I made the decision after midnight on July 4 to go ahead and place it out and see what happened.

The storm surge was forecast by the National Hurricane Center to rise around four feet above ground level where I was. I thought it would be great to have Jim Cantore help me to set it out for its first ever deployment in the field. He and his crew from The Weather Channel were set up at REAL Watersports just a few miles south of Rodanthe, on the sound side of Highway 12. The bright lights from the production crew gave us the opportunity to set the case out on live television right at the edge of the Pamlico sound, within the confines of the basin that had numerous watercraft docked and secured.

I turned on all of the equipment inside the DSC, which included a state-of-the-art satellite tracking system, and was ready to go. Jim grabbed one end of the case while I took the other. We walked it over to the edge of the bulkhead and set it down, all while it was streaming live, with audio, back to The Weather Channel. Inside the case was a GoPro cam which acts as a secondary recording system for video in case the live video failed, which it did within an hour or so for reasons I still don’t know.

It is important to point out that the Pamlico sound was pushed away from the land where we were located. This so-called “reverse storm surge” is a common sight during hurricanes where the wind blows a shallow body of water away from a portion of the land. We knew, at least I did, that once Arthur passed by and the wind switched direction, that the surge would come in quickly, rising to over four feet above the ground, maybe higher in some locations.

Even though the live video from the DSC had quit, we were able to track it using the satellite tracker inside. So far, it had not moved, which was expected since the surge had not begun to rise just yet.

RadarScope screen shot of the eye of Arthur and my location around 1:30 AM ET on July 4

RadarScope screen shot of the eye of Arthur and my location around 1:30 AM ET on July 4

Between 2:30 and 3:00 AM it was apparent that the eye of Arthur was going to miss Jim’s location and mine. I was back at the home in Rodanthe having some much needed food and down time, all the while watching Arthur closely on my iPad via RadarScope.

I knew that conditions along Highway 12 north of Rodanthe can get dangerous, even in non-major hurricanes. Out there, a hurricane is a hurricane and a direct hit meant sand blowing and over wash – all at night too!

I decided at the last minute that I wanted to intercept the eye and thus get some great eyewall wind readings from the Tahoe’s roof mounted anemometer. So I packed up my phone, iPad and a large water bottle. It was now or never, the wind was kicking up to near hurricane force amid blinding sheets of rain. I went down to the Tahoe and made my way out to Highway 12.

It took only a few minutes to get to an area known as the “S-Curves” in beautiful Mirlo Beach. Keep in mind that I was streaming live video the entire time from our fairly new “everywhere cam”, a small, WiFi based camera that can literally go anywhere we do, complete with incredible audio. I told the audience that was watching all of this unfold, some 400 people or so at the time (it was nearing 3:00 AM EDT mind you), that I would let fate decide how far I could get. If the road was cut off by sand or over wash, then the attempt to get in to the eye was over. It was that simple. No use taking chances and tempting fate.

Once I got to Mirlo Beach, I came upon a telephone line that had loosened in the buffeting winds. It was just low enough to decapitate my anemometer had I not seen it time (believe me, I know, it has happened before in previous hurricanes). I managed to stop in time and navigate around it to the left, continuing my journey in to the dark and increasingly sand, wind and rain plagued environment ahead.

After battling periods of extreme blowing sand, I made my way to the temporary bridge along the Pea Island National Seashore. The bridge spans a cut that hurricane Irene had made back in 2011. I slowly crossed over, being careful in case the bridge was unstable due to shifting sand below.

Photo of the anemometer read out in the Tahoe showing instant wind reading of 54 mph with peak gust of 81 mph inside the eyewall of hurricane Arthur

Photo of the anemometer read out in the Tahoe showing instant wind reading of 54 mph with peak gust of 81 mph inside the eyewall of hurricane Arthur

Once on the other side, only a few miles south of Oregon Inlet now, I made my way to the Pea Island visitor center. It was there, in the open safety of the parking lot, that I recorded my peak wind gusts on the Tahoe’s anemometer. The eye wall, not very intense, passed directly over me and I had several instances of 80 mph wind but nothing over 85. The rain was ferocious but I have seen far worse. Looking at the radar signature, Arthur was strong, a verified category two according to recon, but it was not especially intense from a convection stand point. This meant that the 100 mph winds that recon had measured would have a hard time making it to the surface. Never the less, hurricane conditions were pounding the area and I was there in the middle of it, not another person to be seen. Only the audience watching my live stream online kept me company but it was enough to keep me wide awake, relaying live wind and pressure data, as it happened.

I talked several times with The Weather Channel and could sense the excitement from Bryan Norcross back in Atlanta. Even though it was only a small area of the Outer Banks and an even smaller area of the East Coast as a whole that was being impacted, The Weather Channel was on top of it as they always have been in hurricane landfall events. I was honored to be a contributing member of their team, a true childhood fantasy realized.

Thanks to amazing technology, even in the middle of a hurricane on the Outer Banks, I was able to access high-speed Internet the entire time and keep up with Arthur’s progress. Using RadarScope to pinpoint my location relative to the eye, I knew I had to go north a few more miles in order to make it in to the center, the edge of the eye was not good enough for me.

RadarScope screen shot showing my location inside the eye of hurricane Arthur early in the morning hours of July 4, 2014

RadarScope screen shot showing my location inside the eye of hurricane Arthur early in the morning hours of July 4, 2014

As the outer portion of the eye began to move over my location and the elements relented some, I made my way out on to the Bonner Bridge and over the infamous Oregon Inlet. I drove over the top of the bridge as the winds calmed down and parked in the middle of the highway as the eye moved over me. I shut the engine off and just took it all in. The wind went to below 10 mph with a pressure reading of 973 millibars. I scored. I was in the eye of the strongest hurricane so early in the season to strike North Carolina.

After speaking with Bryan at The Weather Channel a time or two more, it was time to head back south again to be off the bridge once the back side of Arthur bore down.

I waited along the side of the road, maybe just enough calmness to doze off for a moment or two. Not long after and the wind and rain picked up again from the opposite direction. This is when things became quite interesting.

It was close to 5:00 AM EDT and Arthur was passing back out in to the Atlantic after making a track across the Pamlico sound. Winds were back up in to the 70s where I was with heavy rain and blowing sand still a big problem. I needed the light of the new day to help me see better, something that would have to wait another 30 minutes or so. Why, on one of the shortest nights of the year, did Arthur strike during the absolute middle of the night? It was uncanny but it was what it was and I had to sit tight to avoid driving in to storm surge along the highway.

Back in Rodanthe and points south, the surge was coming up fast. A Tweet from Jim Cantore indicated that it took his crew and him by surprise. They had to break down and move away from REAL Watersports in a hurry to avoid being flooded out. The Pamlico sound was rising fast along areas with an onshore flow as Arthur pulled away.

I drove south to the Pea Island visitor center again and could just barely see the deep blue, eerie gray that heralds the arrival of first light. Only shapes stood out against the blasting rain from the hurricane but every minute that passed gave me more light to work with.

Another fifteen minutes and I had enough to see the road better. I drove with extreme caution south along Highway 12, ever aware that the surge could be pouring in from the sound. Within a few minutes, I had found it.

I stopped in my tracks as the highway was clearly being flooded by the sound-side flooding coming in.

The rapid rise in water was incredible. I had to document it without risking myself or my Tahoe. I quickly jumped out and placed my iPhone down along the sand to capture the water literally coming up the road like an enormous snake slithering towards me. It was all in real time but it looked sped-up. The surge was taking hold of Pea Island and in a hurry.

I posted the video to our app and The Weather Channel took it to air soon there after. A whole new aspect of the hurricane was now impacting the region but to what degree? I had to wait it out before knowing the full extent.

After marveling at the rising surge from the open area of Pea Island, I went back up to the base of the Bonner Bridge, easily out of reach of the rising flood. I waited here for about an hour before trying to head south again and ultimately back to Rodanthe where all of my stuff was, along with the DSC. Yes, it had begun doing exactly what it was designed to do- drift!

I had several people keeping track of its progress via satellite tracking and they told me it had in fact crossed Highway 12 now. This means the water had risen enough at Real Water Sports to float the 90 pound sealed plastic case and send it across the highway. For all intents and purposes, the project was working, we could see it in near real time! Sadly, the live video stream had quit long before but I had hopes that the GoPro inside would record everything for at least 12 hours.

Once the surge had come and gone and the wind died down enough to consider it safe to move around, I made my south back to the temporary bridge. The ride there was no big deal at all. Sand covered the road but it was compact and not deep.

Damage to Highway 12 at the temporary bridge along Pea Island National Seashore

Damage to Highway 12 at the temporary bridge along Pea Island National Seashore

As I approached the bridge, I was not sure what I was looking at. It seemed as if someone had repositioned the line of concrete barriers along the right-hand side of the highway to where they cut across diagonally to the left side, effectively blocking access to and across the bridge.

I pulled up as close as I could and stopped. The live stream was still running and as several hundred people, including producers at The Weather Channel watched. I was the only person for miles around. I got out of the Tahoe to get a closer look at the situation. It was then that I realized what had happened. The force of the surge coming in from the sound had pushed those concrete barriers to where they were. The road was also buckled and pipe was strewn about, making it all but impossible to cross and head back to Rodanthe. I was stuck on the wrong side of the bridge, depending on how you want to look at it.

I took a photo and posted it to Twitter. I also sent it to Jim and told him he was not going anywhere anytime soon. The Twitter photo was picked up by The Weather Channel and spread very quickly. It seemed that I was in the right place at the right time to break a story about the compromised bridge. I shot some video and posted it to the app before facing the inevitable fact that I was not getting back to Rodanthe that day.

Drifting Surge Cam (DSC) track from the satellite based SPOT locator

Drifting Surge Cam (DSC) track from the satellite based SPOT locator (click to enlarge)

The DSC had come to rest quite a distance away from where it was deployed. The GPS signal was constant from the same spot, meaning it had not traveled any further once the surge subsided. I really wanted to go and retrieve it in order to get the data and video from inside. Knowing that I could not get back south was annoying but it’s part of the working situation that I am given. I text messaged Cantore and asked him to look out for it when he could. After that, I simply made my way back to Wilmington after a couple of more interviews with The Weather Channel.

Early the next day, July 5th, I received a phone call from Jim. He had located the case with a producer and had it secure with him. I had put out a $500 reward for anyone who found it. I gave Jim the $500 and he donated it to a medical research charity, quite a nice way to end that part of the story.

I kept track of road repair progress along the Outer Banks as the weekend wore on and was able to head back out by Sunday the 6th.

The Drifting Surge Cam (DSC) after being picked up by Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel and delivered to colleague Jesse Bass

The Drifting Surge Cam (DSC) after being picked up by Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel and delivered to colleague Jesse Bass

Jesse Bass met up with Jim and his crew not far from Norfolk, Virginia. Jesse took possession of the DSC and met me in Nags Head later that afternoon. Upon first look, everything had done its job. The satellite tracker was still running and the GoPro had filled up its chip with video. I was able to see a little bit before things went dark as the worst of Arthur rolled in that night but the rest was just darkness and sounds. Clearly we need a daylight landfall for this project to fully succeed and provide a never-before-seen point of view of storm surge as it is happening. The fact that the case was purposefully left out at point-blank range to the impending storm surge and could be recovered with little effort was a sign that the project had enormous potential.

Jim flew back to Atlanta while I made my way back to Rodanthe for some post-hurricane survey work using my quad copter and a GoPro cam attached for aerial video. Since it is not legal to sell such video, I made it available free of charge on my YouTube channel for anyone to view. It was very interesting to be able to see the damage that the sound-side surge caused a mere 48 hours after the event took place.

Photograph of high water line along side Highway 12 just north of Mirlo Beach and Rodanthe along the NC Outer Banks

Photograph of high water line along side Highway 12 just north of Mirlo Beach and Rodanthe along the NC Outer Banks (click to enlarge)

I spent the next two nights in Rodanthe at the house that I was using as base-camp for the mission. It was like having my own hurricane lab, front and center to the impact of Arthur. I made terrific use of my time flying the quad copter to gather more video of the surge damage while taking photos on the ground of the high-water marks left behind.

As it turned out, my decision to quickly leave the house during the height of the hurricane in order to make the eye over Oregon Inlet saved my Tahoe. Even though I was perfectly safe some 25 feet above ground inside the house, the Pamlico sound flooded Rodanthe with at least four feet of water! The high water mark on the piling underneath the house was evidence of this and had I remained in place, the flood water would have destroyed the Tahoe with salt water. Amazing how things work out isn’t it?

Wind speed graph from hurricane Arthur

Wind speed graph from hurricane Arthur (click to enlarge)

So how did the weather data from the roof top turn out? Perfect! The computer that logs the data ran from around 6 AM on July 3rd until late in the afternoon on July 4th once the batteries ran out. The resulting wind data is some of the best we’ve ever collected in terms of the amount of data points throughout the event. It is very important to have digital data and not just spot readings like what we gather using the Tahoe’s anemometer. Those readings are nice when we are able to be out in the elements to collect wind data at a certain location during a short-duration of time. However, for the best meteorological record of a hurricane’s wind field, it is best to have a fixed location for the weather station and as close to 10 meters above ground level as possible. The set up in Rodanthe atop the roof of the house we were using was ideal and we plan to utilize that location during future hurricane events.

To sum it all up, the Arthur mission was a success on so many levels. I am very proud of the work that Jesse and I accomplished. The data that we have has been sent to the National Hurricane Center for use in their post-analysis work on Arthur. The test of new technology, including the DSC and the use of the quad copter for storm surge research was exciting and broke new ground for us.

The Outer Banks and its people are special to my team and me. We have a great deal of respect for the fragile economy that takes a severe hit when hurricanes threaten – especially right as summer is just getting started. The friendships we have made over the years with people who live and work there have helped us to accomplish some great things. Arthur was a set back after what has been a relentless string of impacts from hurricanes such as Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. The way I look at it, if there are going to be hurricanes, might as well learn as much about them when they happen. Fortunately, in the grand scheme of things, they are rare events. For the Outer Banks, history tells us that they are not as rare as elsewhere and as such, Jesse and I know that sooner or later, we’ll be back.

Next up in the series of blogs recapping our field missions for the year: Two trips to the Desert Southwest for Pacific hurricane impacts. Check back next Thursday for that post.

M. Sudduth 9:00 AM ET Dec 4

 

 

 

 

 

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2014 hurricane season over but it kept me busy with four field missions

The 2014 Atlantic hurricane season is now officially over. We can enjoy a full six months of not having to worry about hurricanes – at least that’s the way it should be. You never know, but by and large, from December through the end of May, the Atlantic Basin behaves itself.

We ended up with eight named storms and six hurricanes. That’s not too shabby for a season that was supposed to be very quiet. Out of the six hurricanes that formed, two became major with Gonzalo leading the way, peaking out at 125 knots before weakening as it approached Bermuda. All in all, the season was tame for the United States – with a few exceptions. For Bermuda and Nova Scotia, it was a different story. The same can be said for parts of the Southwest United States and of course Mexico but those impacts were from east Pacific hurricanes which were plentiful and fierce.

Over the next four weeks, I will post a series of reports on how the 2014 season was from a field-mission stand point. Actually, the season afforded me several opportunities to study the effects of hurricanes, some in very unique geographic locations. I never take that privilege for granted and am humbled to be able to do what I love while contributing to the science and understanding of these amazing forces of Nature. Hurricanes are not evil, they are necessary and it’s just a matter of leaning to live with them. Each time I encounter the effects, no matter how severe (or weak) I learn something new and utilize that knowledge when speaking to groups, conferences and in my future field work. Since few people ever truly experience the full-on wrath of a hurricane, I have a duty, in my opinion, to translate my experiences and data in to something that can help people prepare. I still believe that the single largest issue we face is the public’s lack of understanding of tropical cyclone hazards. Too much attention is placed on wind or category and not enough on the whole picture.

I was lucky to have been in the eye of two hurricanes this past season: Arthur in early July and Gonzalo in mid-October. Each presented me with opportunities to capture valuable wind and pressure data while also documenting the events with video and social media work.

In addition, I spent almost 10 days out in the Southwest United States where two dying Pacific hurricanes unleashed tremendous amounts of rain over areas that normally remain arid yet depend on these rare events for moisture. The results were incredible and set records in some cases. Sadly, lives were lost and property was damaged or destroyed while significant disruptions to travel and commerce wreaked havoc. These stories don’t grab the headlines in the normal way that we are used to when dealing with hurricane impacts. Rest assured, as I will show you, the only difference is location and where the hurricanes originated. I observed it first-hand and will discuss my findings within the blog posts over the coming weeks.

Tomorrow, I will begin with hurricane Arthur which made landfall along the North Carolina Outer Banks during a time that is critical to the local economy. There were several firsts that took place, all of which I will go over in detail in tomorrow’s post.

M. Sudduth 9:30 AM ET December 1

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How’s that El Niño coming along?

Remember back in the spring when it looked like we might have a super-jacked-up El Niño? Well, that didn’t work out as some had thought, or hoped, but it does finally look as though El Niño is upon us.

Warm tropical Pacific, as seen by the orange and red plume spreading west from South America, indicates El Nino is all but here.

Warm tropical Pacific, as seen by the orange and red plume spreading west from South America, indicates El Nino is all but here.

First of all, what exactly is an El Niño? In short, it is an abnormal warming of the tropical Pacific, roughly near the Equator. As trade winds weaken, or sometimes even reverse, warmer water is able to establish itself in a band stretching from South America westward for more than two thousand miles in to the tropical Pacific. The result is often a tumultuous set of weather patterns that are thrown in to disarray due to the warmer than normal area of water.

For the Atlantic Basin hurricane season, El Niño usually equates to fewer and less intense hurricanes. It looks as though the growing warm event did not have much impact on the 2014 season directly although some of the atmospheric conditions that were present can be linked to El Niño-like patterns. An example would be the abnormally high upper level wind shear across the Caribbean and most of the tropical Atlantic this season. That is typical of El Niño despite the fact that we were not technically experiencing El Niño conditions for most of the season. In any case, it looks as though the real deal is coming on now and will be with us for the next several months at least.

Current ENSO forecast from CPC/IRI - 11/20/14

Current ENSO forecast from CPC/IRI – 11/20/14

According to the latest updates coming out of various meteorological agencies around the world, we are very close to officially having an El Niño event take place. Typically sea surface temperatures across a certain region of the Pacific need to exceed .50 degrees Celsius above the norm for an El Niño to be declared. This also needs to span a specific amount of time, not just a few days or weeks. The latest calculation from the Climate Prediction Center indicates a sea surface temperature anomaly of .80 degrees Celsius, .30 above the minimal threshold. It won’t be long now and the 2014/15 El Niño will be official.

Aside from the usual fun and games that come with El Niño for winter and spring in the Northern Hemisphere, I like to look and see what the outlook is for the coming hurricane season. It is not typical for an El Niño to last for more than a year, it usually peaks in the early spring once the onset is official and slowly fades out during the summer and fall.

So far, it looks like we will see El Niño conditions prevail through at least the next three to six months. Computer model forecasts for El Niño are notoriously bad for long lead times. After all, many were calling for anomalies exceeding 2.0 degrees Celsius by now which would be an exceptionally strong event. Obviously we are nowhere near that mark and the models that were predicting such drastic increases in ocean temperatures were flat out wrong.

One aspect of this El Niño event that I am watching closely is how well it performs at seeding the tropics with more moisture. I believe that the cooler than average Pacific over the past several years, until this year really, has helped to dry out the tropics somewhat. This might explain to some degree why the Atlantic Basin has been fairly inactive hurricane-wise after the busy 2012 season. Now that El Niño is coming on, more moisture will be fed in to the tropical atmosphere over thousands of miles which should, in turn, spread around the globe, increasing moisture and thus vertical instability in the tropics. We saw this already with the very busy east Pacific hurricane season. It is my theory that El Niño may help to jump-start tropical cyclone activity world-wide starting in 2015. This may be especially true if in fact the warm event fades as it should do starting in the spring and early summer. We will be left with added moisture in the deep tropics combined with gradually cooling tropical Pacific waters. The result, in my opinion, should be an increase in Atlantic hurricanes beginning in 2015, probably spanning a few years after. We shall see. Even if 2015’s hurricane season is more busy than the past two, it won’t necessarily mean that I was correct. I just think that the simple fact that cool water does not lead to as much evaporation and thus moisture in the atmosphere helps to explain, even if only a little, why the global numbers of tropical cyclones have been down in recent years.

For now, El Niño seems almost a certainty. How strong the event is and how long it lasts will certainly shape not only the winter and spring weather patterns but also next year’s Atlantic hurricane season. It is just one piece of the puzzle and it’s a fairly large one at that.

For more in-depth information on the latest thinking from the International Research Institute, check out this link: IRI Technical ENSO Update Published: November 20, 2014

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A look back at the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season

2014 Atlantic hurricane season map

2014 Atlantic hurricane season map

Now that Arctic air has made its way in to a good deal of the Lower 48, the Atlantic hurricane season is effectively over – at least from the threat of landfall along the U.S. coastline. Technically we have two weeks left in the season but at this point, it won’t matter, the United States has escaped another season without even the threat of a major hurricane hitting.

The season was forecast to be below the long-term average and that is exactly what happened, for the most part.

We will likely end up with a total of eight named storms, six of which became hurricanes. Two out of the six hurricanes made it to category three or higher with one of those, Gonzalo, making it to category four.

While we fell short of the average number of named storms (usually we see 10 in a year) the numbers of hurricanes and major hurricanes is pretty much on par with what is expected in a typical season. All in all, the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season was fairly close to average in terms of hurricanes but the best measurement, in my opinion, the ACE index, fell short once again.

ACE or Accumulated Cyclone Energy is a better way to quantify a hurricane season. Sure, we could have 15 named storms with 8 hurricanes forming. Many people would say that was a busy season. If we look deeper, how strong were those named storms? How long did they last? Were the hurricanes short-lived too? All of this matters in what we call the ACE index which measures the energy that is output from tropical cyclones. An average season typically sees an ACE score of around 100 or so. This year, it was roughly 65 which is considerably below the average. So, looking at the season from the ACE perspective, it was quite a bit below normal and this is what was forecast by most reliable agencies who produce seasonal hurricane forecasts.

As far as impact goes, which is what really matters when all is said and done, there was very little overall for the United States.

Early in the season, hurricane Arthur made landfall in extreme eastern North Carolina, mainly affecting the Outer Banks. Arthur attained category two intensity and passed over the Pamlico Sound before heading out in to the Atlantic. Storm surge related damage south of Oregon Inlet was moderate in some places, especially around Rodanthe where at least 4 feet of water accumulated on the back side of Arthur. The loss of holiday income over the traditionally busy 4th of July period was certainly a problem but the area rebounded quickly, allowing vacationers back in within a couple of days.

Arthur went on to bring flash flooding and widespread power outages to parts of New England before making landfall again in Nova Scotia as an extra-tropical storm. It is interesting to note that Arthur was regarded by many to be the worst storm since Juan in 2003. More than 300,000 people were without power and for some, it took more than 10 days to restore the grid. This just goes to show that it only takes one event, one storm, to make a season memorable.

No other Atlantic hurricanes threatened the United States this season. However, there were indirect effects such as high surf, rip currents, etc. from Bertha and Cristobal which passed between Cape Hatteras and Bermuda. Other than that, no other hurricanes passed anywhere near the coast of the United States and none were observed in the Gulf of Mexico. Overall, the impact to the U.S. was extremely low in 2014 bringing the extended period between major hurricane landfalls to well over nine years. It is also worth noting that Florida alone has not had a hurricane of any intensity strike the state since October of 2005. This is simply an incredible statistic and one that may well have its own issues down the road when the time comes that hurricanes once again impact the Sunshine State.

Bermuda was the unlikely recipient of two direct hits from tropical cyclones this season. Fay and Gonzalo both passed right over the island causing power outages and some damage to buildings. The disruption to the economy due to loss of tourism dollars will take some time to tally up but for the most part, Bermuda fared very well considering the impact from two systems less than a week apart.

I had two Atlantic hurricane field missions this season: Arthur and Gonzalo. Both resulted in excellent ground data and the deployment of special camera systems that were placed out in each hurricane to record the effects. I will have a separate blog post about Arthur and Gonzalo on November 30 and will have plenty of data, pictures and video to share then.

The east Pacific hurricane season was exceptionally busy and produced a few hurricanes that impacted the Baja peninsula and Mexico with either direct hits or left over moisture. Two of these events, Norbert and Odile, provided an opportunity for me to travel to the Southwest where flooding was a big concern due to the remnants of these two hurricanes making their way north in to the region. I have always wanted to study the impacts of tropical cyclones on the Desert Southwest and this year, I had that chance. I will go over what I learned on my November 30 blog post. Needless to say, it was quite interesting to see the interaction between tropical moisture from a dying hurricane on the landscape of the Southwest.

Unless something develops over the next two weeks, the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season is done. While it was not a busy season, it was markedly more busy than 2013. In fact, the ACE index was almost twice as high as that of 2013. These two years of low overall activity have been great for coastal dwellers but we know that it cannot last. While I have no idea what 2015 will bring, I do think that there are signs that it will be busier than these past two seasons were. I will leave it to the seasonal forecast experts to make the call when the time comes but do not be surprised if this time next year, I am writing about a memorable 2015 season.

I will have another blog post on November 30 that will review the field missions that I undertook this past season. I will also have an exciting announcement regarding a special project that I am working on. Until then, travel safe if you’re headed somewhere special for Thanksgiving. I’ll have more here on November 30.

M. Sudduth 9:20 AM ET Nov 14

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