The objective seemed simple enough: place three self-contained video streaming/recording units, each equipped with a weather station for gathering data, in to the path of the approaching category five hurricane, then get the hell out of the way. What could possibly go wrong? The procedure had been rehearsed over and over again and was even field tested twice before this infamous date had arrived.
The case, called a Storm Case, is the brand name for the water-tight unit that the military, photographers, movie makers, etc. use for protecting sensitive gear during shipping and moving around from location to location. We were using it to protect a laptop, a 75 pound battery, a VCR, a weather computer and various other small gadgets that were needed to stream and record live video and weather data during a hurricane.
All we had to do was set it up, turn everything on and then retreat to a safe location – our hotel some five miles up Highway 49 in Gulfport, Mississippi. If everything worked, live video would stream over Sprint’s network from point-blank range of the worst storm surge America has ever seen. The best part: we would not be anywhere near by. We would be relatively safe in our hotel, far from the raging surge and the battering wall of debris that would scrape the first couple of blocks of Gulfport clean.
The plan was to set up two of our three remote cams, with their weather stations attached, in Waveland, about 20 miles west of Gulfport. The third unit would be set up in Gulfport, along the Urie Pier area. We had met the day before, on August 28, with local officials who showed us around Waveland and helped us to scope out locations to place the cams. People took us seriously. We had something that no one had ever done before and it was going to make history. We gathered the intel that we needed, knew where we would set up the cases and even had a place to stay during the height of the hurricane- the Waveland fire department. It was all falling in to place. Mike and I were going to capture the most incredible hurricane event of the modern era using technology. And we would do so without having to actually be in harm’s way.
The remote cams would run for about 20 hours if we were lucky. The idea was to set up a special, waterproof camera that fed in to the Storm Case via the 60 foot cable that it was attached to. This meant we could set the case down somewhere and run the cable to something vertical, aim the camera and let it just run until the battery died. Inside the Storm Case we had a VCR to record up to 9 hours on S-VHS tape. We figured tape could be salvaged if it got wet. We also had a laptop with a Sprint aircard attached to stream the video live. A few news outlets, a small handful of officials and one other website, HurricaneCity.com, plus our own subscribers would be able to watch the live feed in real-time. The ability to stream live video from a box was still quite new in 2005. We were doing something that had never been attempted much less pulled off. The audience was not very large, not compared to what would happen today considering the reach of Ustream and other social media. The goal was not to have a large audience, not yet, we just wanted to prove that this worked. We had support from (then) NHC director Max Mayfield who had warned us against placing ourselves in harm’s way over the years. This remote cam was the ideal solution to that problem. It had to work.
The time was probably close to 11:30 pm local time in Mississippi. No one was out and about in Gulfport except for police, fire officials and occasional media. The first solid bands of rain and wind from Katrina were lashing the coast. Mike and I were busy deploying the first cam unit with its weather station at Urie Pier, right along side the yacht basin. The sound of steel wire from the mast of a large sailboat clanked behind us. Rain pelted our faces. In the distance, white caps were rolling in from the Mississippi Sound as the surge began to rise.
You have to understand that we had never done this before, not to this extent. These cases were pretty large and bulky. We had all three in the back of the Chevy Tahoe and had to take them out in order to set everything up. This was a critical flaw in that early part of the evolution of this project. The rain and increasing wind made it almost impossible to work. The lid kept getting blasted shut on my fingers. Lucky for us, no one was around to hear the swear words that echoed across the harbor. It was frustrating to say the least. We were tired, stressed and had a 175 mph hurricane closing the distance between itself and us.
I managed to get the laptop and weather station online but for some reason, the video was not streaming. It was recording on to the VCR inside so we had that at least. With data going to the site, we were satisfied and locked everything up. We then strapped the case to the creosote light pole that the camera and weather station were attached to. My thought was that the case would simply be submerged as the surge came in and the case would protect the equipment inside since it was watertight. We were using the same ratchet straps that truckers use to secure their loads. That case was not going to budge, at least we hoped not.
After we set up the first unit, we took a little bit to gather our thoughts and check on Katrina’s progress. It took about an hour to get things running at Urie Pier – a lot longer than it should have. During this time the water rose significantly and was almost up to Highway 90. It was well after midnight now on August 29. The stress began to take its toll. The rising water gave us great pause as we considered heading on over to Waveland to deploy the other two cases. We thought that 90 would be flooded already between Gulfport and Waveland. We might not get there and we certainly wouldn’t be able to get back after the hurricane. In short, we got spooked. Something told us not to go to Waveland.
Instead, we went back our hotel- a Best Western up near the I-10 interchange. We took the two remaining cases out of the Tahoe and had a brilliant idea: get them operational in the hotel lobby where it is dry! Seems obvious but sometimes stress can make the obvious quite blurry.
For the next hour or so, Mike and I worked on getting the other two cases fully functional. We loaded them back in to the Tahoe and set out to deploy them somewhere in Gulfport.
The first location for case number two was the First Baptist Church right on Highway 90. We put the case at the back entrance and then ran the camera down the railing that led to a sidewalk. The view was across 90 towards the park and the harbor. It would be an extraordinary shot once the sun rose in a few hours. The video was streaming and the VCR was recording. We did not worry about putting the weather station up on this unit. Just too much else going on I suppose.
The third case was set up on Highway 49 on a huge steel light pole on the west side of the street. The camera and weather station were attached to the pole and the cam faced south towards the Post Office and the intersection of Highway 90 and 49. If the surge was going to come this far, the cam would have an amazing view. Everything was working as it should. For now.
Out on Urie Pier the weather data kept streaming in to the site. The wind speed increased as the pressure dropped. We had no streaming video but knew that the VCR was capturing it for us.
Meanwhile, the unit at the church went offline. We drove back out to check on it. For some reason the laptop turned off. Apparently there was a short in the power supply and I had to monkey with it just right to get it to remain on. I did what I could to fix it and got the stream back on. All was right in the world once again. Katrina was just hours from landfall and Mike and I went back to the hotel to get a few minutes of much needed sleep.
By sunrise, all hell was breaking loose. Mike was able to sleep but I could not. I went out to the Tahoe and sat in the open parking lot of the hotel to watch as Katrina roared ashore.
Only one of the three cams were still working. We knew the Urie Pier location was recording only. For some reason, the church location went out and stayed out. I gave up on trying to get it back online hours ago, knowing that it was at least recording to the VCR. The third cam, on Highway 49, was running perfect.
Seeing the live video from downtown Gulfport was incredible. The surge was coming up the street, wind whipping the water in to a white froth. I spent a great deal of time on the phone with my friends Lew Fincher and Jim Williams. Lew runs a company called Hurricane Consulting, Inc and has major contacts throughout FEMA and the NHC. Jim operates HurricaneCity.com and was streaming live to his online audience, a kind of play-by-play analysis of Katrina coverage. We were all stunned at what we were seeing. I was quite safe at the hotel, far enough away from the surge that flooding was not going to be an issue. The minutes ticked by and Katrina made landfall in Louisiana followed by a second landfall hours later in Mississippi. Somewhere in between, the power went out and we lost all communication with the outside world. Our one streaming cam went dark. I parked the Tahoe out in the open and took refuge in the hotel with Mike. Somehow, we both managed a short nap despite the ruckus going on outside as Katrina’s winds dismantled the roof of the hotel and neighboring buildings.
By late morning, the worst was seemingly over. Mike and I peeked out in to the parking lot and saw the Tahoe completely intact. No damage at all. Other vehicles nearby had crushed windshields or worse. There was also no flooding.
We waited just a little while longer and decided it was time to head downtown to see if we could retrieve the cases.
The slow drive down Highway 49 was surreal. The roadway has been elevated over the years, enough so that it was above the surge that had worked its way inland from the Gulf and nearby streams, lakes and creeks. Everything was underwater. White caps streaked by as the onshore winds howled past. I had never seen anything like this, not this far inland.
We managed to get to the downtown area without anything bad happening to the Tahoe. With all the debris out there, we were lucky not to have lost a tire.
We parked just on the other side of the railroad tracks, near the Hancock Bank building. Our plan was to walk down to the cam location on 49 and then make our way to the First Baptist Church.
We were met by a wall of debris about six to eight feet high stretching across 49. The smell of old lumber, leather, carpet, what ever, permeated through the misty air. Sheets of glass were still falling from the aged buildings around us. It was not safe to be here.
We stumbled through the debris and reached the steel pole where the cam should have been. The cam was still there but the case was gone. It had been torn away by the surge and the debris. We looked inside the gutted buildings but nothing turned up. The sound of a woman cut through the stiff wind as Mike and I turned around in astonishment to see a frail older woman standing in a doorway just up from where we had placed the cam. She was in obvious shock. Apparently she lived in an apartment above the street and saw the surge as it came in. She did not see the case. We made sure she was ok, she said she was prepared with food inside. We told her to stay indoors until help arrives. That was the last we ever saw of her.
After looking around the block for about 30 minutes, it was time to head over to the church to look for the case we had set up on the back steps. This is when it set in just how bad Katrina was.
After rounding the corner where the church is, we could see it was almost completely gone. The bottom 2/3 of the building’s bricks were totally stripped away. Only the steel frame and steeple were left. A pile of rubble lay below. The ground was littered with blocks of concrete and red bricks. Then, I noticed an entire sycamore tree, roots and all, was laying on its side. More and more did the savage nature of Katrina’s surge come in to focus. Highway 90 was covered in large pilings, blocks of concrete and huge paper rolls the size of SUVs. Yet there was no water. The surge was long gone. What remained was a landscape completely transformed. We both stood there in silence.
Looking west down 90 we could make out what appeared to be a casino on the road. Large shipping containers were piled up almost three stories high against a building in the distance. High up in the trees were pieces of clothing, building materials and other debris. I felt like we had to be standing on the set of Steven Spielberg’s next end of the world movie – not Gulfport, Mississippi. There was no way this was real.
Sadly, it was real. People began appearing amongst the rubble, stumbling around, trying to make sense of what had happened. Hardly anyone spoke. What was there to say? Words were not meant for moments like this when all you can do is stand there in awe. It’s difficult for the brain to process what the eyes are feeding it. This was not supposed to happen. Hurricanes like Camille were legends but were also before my time. Katrina was now the new benchmark and Mike and I were there in the middle of it as it happened. We had to find those cases. They recorded all of this and would yield clues as to how it happened, how long it took, how high the water actually rose. These were important pieces of the storm surge puzzle that could help future generations prepare and know what to expect. But where in all of this pummeled coastline could those cases possibly be? Needle in a haystack was an understatement. The prospects of finding them grew dim very quickly.
After a couple of hours of searching the area, we had to give up. Chaos was unfolding in the area as more and more people were coming out of hiding. Some had bad intentions and you could sense a growing tension in the air. There was no power, no way to get around safely and no communications to speak of. We had to get out there and regroup.
We knew the Urie Pier location would be inaccessible for days, possibly weeks. However, the church location and the Highway 49 location held promise. I had to take Mike back to Florida so he could return to his day job at Office Depot’s HQ. I am sure he was suffering from post traumatic stress after witnessing the carnage of a wiped out coastline. He had to bury all of that and return to work as an analyst and modeler for an office supplies company. That had to be tough.
I felt compelled to go back and find those cases. It was just too important to walk away from. The video evidence of that historic surge would be some of the best ever captured. That it was done so using remote technology made it even more important.
After I dropped Mike off at his car in Lake City, Florida, I went back west on I-10 towards Mississippi. The news coming out of New Orleans was difficult to reconcile. It was like a completely different disaster was unfolding there and to some extent, it was. I had to block that out of my mind and focus on keeping safe and trying to recover the cases in Mississippi. I was not even sure if I could get back in.
Late on the night of August 30, barely a day after Katrina’s landfall, I arrived back in Gulfport. Much to my surprise, the authorities let me in and I was able to get my room back at the Best Western. Once I got settled in, the quiet of post-Katrina over took me. There was no one to talk to. Communications were down, there was no Internet access to speak of. I managed to text a couple of people back home to let them know I was ok. The hotel was filled with a mix of people – from those who had lost everything to those who would help to restore life as people knew it. I was bound to get in and get out so as to not take up a much needed room. Sleep finally caught up with me although I have no idea what I dreamed about. Sometimes that is probably for the best.
The next day, I ventured out and began my search for the missing cases. I started on Highway 49 in and around the area where Mike and I deployed the unit back on August 28. Crews had already come in and cleared the roads of the largest debris piles, merely pushing it all aside in to even larger mounds of rubble. This probably hurt my chances of finding the case that was set up on 49 as I am sure to this day that it was among the debris on the roadway. Mike and I had no way of plowing through the remains of buildings the day of. This is likely a good thing as I am not so sure I would have been able to handle finding more than we were looking for.
The heat was crushing. Katrina did not usher in a cold front. Instead, the air was filled with moisture and the smell of ruin. I had plenty of water but it was tough to remain hydrated in that late August heat.
After about an hour of searching Highway 49 and vicinity, I moved on over to the church on Highway 90. As I said, the entire lower portion of the structure was ripped away. The back steps area was all but gone – the case with it.
I figured I would have no chance of ever finding that case so I went over to the Urie Pier and walked about to where Mike and I had set up the first case Sunday night. Nothing was left. The camera was aimed at a restaurant called White Cap. Only a slab remained. The creosote pole that had the case strapped to its bottom was only a splintered stump. I kind of laughed as the futility of the search became more apparent to me. Those cases were gone, forever lost in the ruins of what was once a quaint, Midwest-style Gulfport waterfront.
I made my way back to the church to look one more time. I walked past the pile of bricks and concrete and up through some of the side streets. There was so much debris that it became a blur. The smell of the broken human landscape is something I will never forget. In the distance, generators and heavy equipment could be heard as recovery efforts began in earnest.
All of a sudden, between 14th and 15th streets, near the Methodist Church, right next to a dumpster but easy to spot, I found one. The case was upright, intact and unopened. I could not believe it. I immediately sent a text to folks back home to let them know I had found one. My heart was racing. A needle in a haystack had been found.
A man walked by who seemed trustworthy enough for me to ask him to film me opening the case. I told him briefly why this was important and he thought it was kind of exciting so he helped. Holding my video camera, he filmed as I opened the Storm Case. Inside was the laptop, the VCR and the other equipment, completely dry and without damage. I was in utter shock. This was like finding the Black Box of a monster airline disaster. The secrets that were on that videotape would be incredible to unlock.
I loaded the case in to the Tahoe which was a block or so away, thanked the man for helping and went back to Highway 49. I thought that perhaps, just maybe that luck would remain with me and that I would find the other case.
The hours ticked by and nothing else turned up. I talked to a few people who lived in the area and then decided that one out of three wasn’t bad. I wanted to see what the camera had recorded and knew I had to get back to Florida in order to do so. So many people were pouring in to Mississippi that hotels were impossible to come by.
After many more hours on the road, I made it to the Hampton Inn in Marianna, Florida. It was probably 1am or later when I checked in. I was beyond tired but the adrenaline of knowing that I was about to watch history unfold was more than enough to keep me awake.
I unloaded some equipment in to my room and hooked up a VCR to the TV. Once I was sure I had all the RCA connections correct, I put the tape in and pressed play. All I saw was blue screen. I thought maybe I had the connections wrong. I double-checked and tried again. Nothing but blue screen. Perhaps the tape needed to be rewound. I tried but it was already at the beginning. I was perplexed. Why is this not working? I put in another tape that I had some test footage on to make sure the connection was correct. It played fine. Something was wrong. For some reason, there was 9 hours of blue screen on the tape from the case that I found. Turns out, this was the case that was left on the back steps of the First Baptist Church. I had to see what the surge looked like coming in. Why wasn’t it working? I knew the cam did not stream as the laptop failed at some point but the signal goes in to the VCR first, passes through and then goes in to the digitizer that enables the signal to be streamed. What the heck happened? I began to panic. I thought that it had to be some cruel joke that fate was playing on me. I found the one case that had probably the most incredible view of the surge and yet the signal is just blue. What had gone wrong?
In the weeks after Katrina, I worked hard to find the other two missing Storm Cases. From news articles, to offering a $2000 reward for anyone who found a case, I did all I could. Mike and I were joined by colleague Jesse Bass in October as we went back to document life after Katrina. We met up with our contacts in Waveland…remember Waveland? Needless to say, it was a wise choice for us to have not gone there on the night of August 28. We would have most certainly lost the Tahoe in the surge that overwhelmed the fire station. The city was devastated. We probably would have lost the cases there too. Nothing was left standing for blocks inland from the Gulf. Our hearts were heavy with sympathy for these incredible people and all that they were enduring.
We put some effort in to looking for the Storm Cases while we were there but to no avail. Even in the years since Katrina, we have had chances to search empty buildings in hopes that one is lodged in a corner somewhere.
So what happened with the one that I did find? Why didn’t it record anything? Because I “effed” up. It was my fault. Remember when I said Mike and I took the two cases in to the hotel lobby to set them up after the difficulties setting up the first one in the rain? This was supposed to make things easier. Somehow, I managed to bypass the VCR with the video signal and instead had it plugged directly in to the digitizer for the laptop. When the laptop failed, that was it. The cable plugged in to the VCR had nothing coming in to it. The result is that yes, the VCR ran perfect for 9 hours. It recorded just as it should have. The only problem is that the other end of the RCA cable was not plugged in to the camera. The result was 9 hours of blue screen. Royal, epic, tragic fail.
All I can guess is that stress and sleep deprivation contributed to the mishap. There is so much going on that mistakes can be made. It haunts me to this day to know that I screwed up and missed recording the most epic of storm surge events in modern hurricane history. One little mistake and the result is nothing compared to everything.
On the plus side, Jim Williams from HurricaneCity.com just happened to record the stream coming in from the Highway 49 cam. While he did not record every moment, he had enough for us to see the surge coming up the street and the wind whipping around that morning. Back in the day, the bit-rate for the stream was a depressing 20Kbps at 180 by 120 screen resolution. That’s the best we could do in order to get live video. It worked and you could make out what was going on though it was not very clear. The point is, it worked and kept Mike and me safe during Katrina. While it would have been awesome to film that surge by hand like Mike Theiss did at the Holiday Inn on Highway 90, I felt that technology would allow us to get even closer and never flee. People have to flee at some point. The remote cam has no family, no concerned friends and no Max Mayfield saying “I told you so” if something goes wrong. I can afford to lose cameras and Katrina was a hard lesson in that reality.
Since that fateful event, Mike, Jesse and I have deployed the remote cams in hurricanes from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast. Even as the incredible 2005 season wore on, we had other chances to use the remote cams (we quickly replaced what we lost) during Ophelia, Rita and Wilma. The results were impressive and proved that the technology would work.
In 2008, Mike and I set up three cams during hurricane Ike in and around Galveston, Texas. The video we captured was the best yet. We now have hours and hours of raw storm surge video that we have shown to countless people in meetings, presentations and media appearances.
We have developed a new generation of the remote cams which we now refer to as Surge Cams. They are 70% smaller and 50% more efficient than the old versions. We can deploy them with greater ease than ever before.
The streaming technology has also vastly improved. What began as a tiny screen and low bit-rate is now broadcast quality. Our reach is bigger than ever before as well with a partnership with CNN and our use of Ustream to share the Surge Cams with a global audience.
What about losing them again? That could happen but it won’t matter. Gone are the days of using a VCR to archive the video. Now the video is saved off-site on multiple servers around the world. If the stream works, every frame will be saved instantly no matter what happens later. I know that people suggest GPS locators but they are not perfect solutions. If we lose a case, so be it, they are cheaper than ever before to replace.
There will be a time when we face another Katrina and its nightmare storm surge scenario. We will use our experience, loss, defeat and subsequent knowledge to succeed where we failed before. We are prepared to place the cams in unique locations to capture and stream live video of storm surge as it happens. We’ll even have markers in the shot to show how high the water is rising.
People will remember Katrina for a number of reasons. For me personally, it was a turning point in how I capture the fury of a hurricane. I lost in that battle but will be ready the next time it happens. We can hope that it will be a long, long time before that day comes but rest assured, when it does, we will have our cams watching as the curtain is pulled back to reveal one of Nature’s most incredible forces. It may be painful to watch but the only way to learn about something as powerful as a hurricane is to get in to the middle of it. Since I am not fool enough to do it in person, I’ll put my money on technology and let it take my place. So far, that has done well at keeping me, and my team, on the top side of the grass.
You may watch the entire Katrina saga on video via our YouTube channel: