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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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