Top three things we hope to accomplish in preparation for the 2013 hurricane season

The New Year is here and we start fresh with a set of ideas and projects that we plan to tackle during the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. Many of these projects will be in development over the coming weeks and months and some will have to wait until there is a chance for a landfall somewhere along the U.S. coastline.

I have outlined the top three major projects for 2013, beginning with #3 today. I will post #2 on Sunday and #1 on Monday. As always, our main objective will be to inform the public to the best of our ability about the hazards from tropical cyclones. As a team, we have a vast amount of experience – especially when it comes to impact and what to expect. So without any more lead up, let’s get on with the list!

#3: Develop new remote cams for easier deployment during landfalls

Storm Case Cam

Storm Case Cam with laptop, large AGM battery and other components used to stream and record live video during a hurricane.

In 2005, we developed our innovative remotely operated camera systems that would stream and record live video during even the worst of hurricane conditions. The “Storm Case Cams” as we called them, were meant to be placed where we had no business being. A simple bullet cam, connected to the Storm Case by a 60 foot cable, would be mounted via an inexpensive L-bracket to anything vertical but, most importantly, strong. After a tough first deployment during Katrina in Mississippi where we lost or otherwise had issues with the units, we quickly triumphed over any hurdles and by the time we got to Wilma in October of that year, we had a successful deployment in Collier county, Florida. We proved that using self-contained camera, laptop and battery systems to stream live video and record it locally would be a 100% safe and effective way to get closer to a hurricane’s effects than we could as mere mortals.

Hurricane Ike Cam

Mike Watkins setting up Storm Case Cam during hurricane Ike

By 2008 when Ike hit Galveston, Texas, we had refined the system to the best of our abilities at the time and again streamed live and captured incredible video of Ike’s storm surge without us having to be there – keeping Mike Watkins and me safe.

In 2012, I set up one Storm Case Cam in Long Branch, NJ for Sandy. It streamed live video from an incredible point of view for about eight hours. Then the storm surge and large breaking waves moved in to the location where I had set up the unit along the boardwalk and swiftly ripped the case out of the steel bike rack that I had attached it to. The resulting battering that the laptop and other components took rendered the unit useless for future deployments. It was that event that led me to begin working on a smaller, easier system that did not rely on the 75 pound AGM battery that we were using up until then.

While I cannot go in to details of what we will be using for 2013, I will say that we have solved the problem. What once took a Storm Case the size of a small foot locker can now be fit inside one the size of a briefcase. Thanks to a private investment from a HurricaneTrack supporter, we now have a new version of the Storm Case Cam which we will be testing often during the next few months. Once we head out on a field mission, I will post pics of the new units. Much of the technology is off-the-shelf stuff but the assembly of everything for this purpose – the purpose of getting in to the teeth of a hurricane virtually – is what makes it unique and innovative. We will now be able to set out the cams and mount them almost anywhere, high up off the ground, keeping them safe from surge while allowing them to stream stunning live video from a point of view that would likely be lethal to a human being.

Below is a sample video from our Ike deployment of the Storm Case Cam in Bermuda Beach, TX in 2008:

Tomorrow: Top project #2 for 2013: Continued development of our iPhone app and the introduction of HurricaneTrack for Android.

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The importance of finding ‘Yeager’

Sometimes failure is an option. Actually, failure is often not an option but rather a necessary evolutionary step within a project. Learning from failure is how one eventually succeeds.

Allow me to explain….

You may be aware of our HURRB project. The goal of this project is to send a payload, via weather balloon, to the edge of space from inside the eye of a hurricane. The resulting video and GPS data that we could gather will probably be nothing short of extraordinary.

Kerry Mallory, from Houston, assists with the test launch of HURRB back in May

Kerry Mallory, from Houston, assists with the test launch of HURRB back in May

We tested the project in late May near Buffalo, Texas with near perfect results. The payload, made of a $2.36 cooler, had four GoPro HD cameras attached to its outside. On the inside was a collection of tracking equipment, including the first Android phone – the HTC G1. It would send its GPS position over the cellular network as long as it was below a few thousand feet. We also had a SPOT satellite based GPS beacon that would work from the ground to around 59,000 feet. We launched our balloon and it went to at least 94,000 feet and probably higher than that. We do not know for sure since we did not have a GPS tracker that worked above the consumer standard 59,000 feet mark. I estimate 94,000 feet based on the ascent rate and the amount of time the video shows before the balloon burst. In any case, everything went about as well as could be expected considering it was our first attempt at this project.

A look inside of the CNN "Yeager" payload. The orange device is the SPOT locator, the yellow device is the APRS unit and the black device is the G1 cell phone.

A look inside of the CNN "Yeager" payload. The orange device is the SPOT locator, the yellow device is the APRS unit and the black device is the G1 cell phone.

Then, in mid-June, Chris Erickson, a producer from CNN International Newsource, got in touch with me asking for some advice on a similar project he was putting together. He was not wanting to launch a balloon in to a hurricane, but rather was working on a story about how pretty much anyone with a little ingenuity could pull off this growing hobby of launching high-altitude balloons to capture stunning HD video from the edge of space.

I agreed to help out and actually asked if we could test some additional equipment on the CNN payload. We wanted to test out an APRS beacon, used by amateur radio operators to send out data and other messages via the amateur radio band. The GPS chip in the unit that we had purchased would work well above the 59,000 feet altitude mark and this meant we could track it to 100,000 feet or higher – which was Chris’s goal. I also contributed our SPOT satellite tracker and our G1 phone to help make sure we could find the payload once it fell back to Earth.

A look at the balloon as it is filled at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, GA

A look at the balloon as it is filled at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, GA

On June 23, exactly a month after we first tested HURRB in Texas, I met up with CNN, actually several producers and reporters from their International Newsource group, in Peachtree City, Georgia. I was joined by HurricaneTrack.com supporter and HAM radio operator, Kerry Mallory. It was his funding that provided the APRS unit that we would test during the CNN launch. Since every cool science project needs a nick-name, this was one was called “Yeager” after Chuck Yeager who first broke the sound barrier back in 1947.

With the help of the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City, about 25 of us gathered to set Yeager loose in to the warm Georgia sky near 8am ET, Saturday, June 23. The balloon and payload, which had three GoPro cams attached, took off almost straight up and stayed nearly above our heads for at least 20 minutes. We tracked it using the APRS website on our iPhones and were all very excited about getting Yeager in to the air. Now it was time for a quick bite to eat before we would set out to retrieve the payload after the balloon burst upon reaching its maximum altitude – hopefully 100,000 feet or higher.

As it turned out, something went wrong. The payload only made it to 66,000 feet before falling back to the ground. There was considerable disappointment and I wondered immediately what had happened.

The SPOT locator told us where to look as it sent out a signal every 10 minutes to a special page on our account with their website. There was no data from the G1 phone and the last APRS reading showed Yeager was at 5100 feet. It is important to note that we had the APRS set to beacon its location every two minutes. So it was entirely possible that the payload was on the ground between updates. And, since this system operates via the amateur radio network, it would be difficult to get a signal out to the Internet via repeaters unless one was very close by to Yeager’s location on the ground. In other words, the higher up the APRS unit is, the more repeaters “hear” its message. When it’s on the ground, it would have to be very close to either a hand held radio receiver or a ground based repeater.

iPhone photo of my laptop and the location of the SPOT locator which is where the burst balloon remnants, the parachute and the wooden dowels were found - the SPOT device was still attached to the dowel

iPhone photo of my laptop and the location of the SPOT locator which is where the burst balloon remnants, the parachute and the wooden dowels were found - the SPOT device was still attached to the dowel

We drove to the location of the SPOT tracker and found something shocking. Only the balloon, which had not completely shattered when it burst, the parachute and the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload via thin rope were left. Attached to one of the dowels was the SPOT locator device – but there was no cooler, no payload. We were dumbfounded. Had someone stolen the payload? Anyone who knew where to look on the APRS website could track Yeager but only we knew the coordinates that the SPOT beacon was sending out. What happened? Where was the payload and the GoPro cams?

We looked all over the surrounding wooded area where the remnants of the balloon and parachute were found. No clues, none at all. We went up to the fire station which is along the Flint River and Hwy 16 between Senoia and Griffin. There we talked to local law enforcement and asked if they had heard anything. Who knows? Maybe someone saw what happened. The two deputies were very helpful and curious about the project. They made some calls and rallied up a couple of more deputies to put the word out about the missing payload. We searched a wooded area along the last known trajectory from the SPOT locator and the APRS unit but to no avail. The CNN crew needed to get back to Atlanta, sadly, without a conclusion to their story. At least not the conclusion they were hoping for. Kerry and I remained to keep looking, as did a tree climbing expert who had come along in case Yeager was high up in a tree top.

Then, something beyond all of our imaginations happened.

This is the backyard of the Garrett family in Brooks, GA where the G1 phone landed after falling from at least 66,000 feet

This is the backyard of the Garrett family in Brooks, GA where the G1 phone landed after falling from at least 66,000 feet

One of our support team members in Nevada, Paul Bowman (it was Paul’s G1 that we were using, and he too is an active HAM operator) called and said that the G1 had “phoned home”. This meant that the G1 had been turned on and it sent a message to Paul telling him where it was. We could not believe it. This meant, perhaps, that the payload was there too. Paul said, “It’s in someone’s house over on Lakeview Drive!”. I showed the deputies the coordinates and they said that it was just around the corner from where we were. So away we went to check it out.

Within a few minutes we were all parked in the drive way of Justin Garrett. The two deputies asked him about the phone and whether or not he had seen the payload. I approached and told him it was a black cellphone. He said, “Yes! I found a cell phone in my back yard a little while ago”. I nearly passed out. “Really?!??!” I responded. “Where is it?”

He showed it to me, it was on his work table in his garage, right where Paul said the GPS coordinates indicated it would be. He told me he was mowing the back yard when he looked down and spotted the phone. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, wondering who had been in his yard with an old camera phone. After he completed his chore, he went in to the garage and turned on the phone. This triggered it to send the message to Paul and within 5 minutes, a group of people he had never met before shows up in his drive way. It was incredible.

We told him what we were doing and asked if we could look around his yard. “No problem,” he said. After about 15 minutes of looking all over his large back yard, we we still empty handed. No payload. Only this phone that had somehow landed in his yard. This meant that it had fallen out of the payload and landed there. This also meant that the payload was probably broken in to pieces. We were closer to finding it, I thought, but this was a challenge. Where was the rest of the payload and specifically, the APRS unit. It had to be near by.

As the hot Georgia sun beat down on us, we became increasingly frustrated. Where could this darn thing be? Surely it had to have fallen near the G1 phone. Then it dawned on me. Ask Kerry to turn on his hand held radio to see if the APRS was close by. It just might be still transmitting its location and if so, Kerry’s radio may pick it up. It was worth a shot. My hunch turned out to be correct. Within a few minutes, we picked up the beacon from the APRS unit. It had to be within a mile or less of where we were. Since no other APRS sites could “hear it”, we knew we were close and it was on the ground or in a tree near by.

The Garrett family leading Kerry and me through the woods as we looked for the missing payload

The Garrett family leading Kerry and me through the woods as we looked for the missing payload

This boosted our spirits and we searched in the thick woods to the east of the Garrett’s house. He and his family even gave us a guided tour in to some trails to get deeper in to the woods, eventually reaching the Flint River. Ticks were attacking us like zombies hungry for flesh. It was hot and we were all quite miserable. Still no luck.

Kerry and I looked at his radio and scrolled through the data received from the APRS unit. Sure enough, it gave us the biggest clue yet. We had the GPS coordinates. They read: 33 14.15 by 84 26.03. I ran to the Tahoe where my laptop was connected to the Internet to convert the lat/long pairs in to something that I put in to Google Earth. I did not realize, probably because of the heat and the excitement of the day, that no conversion was needed. Still, I used some website’s conversion tool to convert what I had to decimal degrees. I did not realize that I had already had that info. The resulting output erroneously put the APRS unit, and presumably Yeager, really close to the Flint River but on its east side.

The missing CNN weather balloon payload was somewhere in those woods

The missing CNN weather balloon payload was somewhere in those woods

Kerry and I drove around to the edge of an enormous field. It was bordered to the west by a foreboding line of trees which surrounded the Flint River and its many smaller streams and tributaries. I told Kerry that the APRS location was only 1800 feet in. It was the toughest 1800 feet ever. We had very little with us to cut through the thick brush, briars and bramble that stood between us and the APRS and Yeager. Snakes, ticks and spiders were in ample supply. On we went, pushing deeper in to the woods. We arrived at the coordinates and found nothing. The trees were so thick that it seemed like dusk was falling, yet it was only 4:30 in the afternoon. The heat, even in the shade of the woods, was crushing. Despair set in and we had to give up. Let’s go back to the hotel and regroup was my thought.

We went by the Garrett’s to tell them of the defeat and called it a day. Maybe we can try again some time when we have more time and energy. We really wanted to find the payload if only to see what clues the video would yield. We had found the SPOT locator with some remnant pieces and of course the mysterious location of the G1 phone in the Garrett’s back yard. Yeager was somewhere in between, it had to be.

The lost payload was supposed to be within 30 to 50 feet of the blue dot, which was my position in the woods, along the Flint River

The lost payload was supposed to be within 30 to 50 feet of the blue dot, which was my position in the woods, along the Flint River

A week later we tried again with our search. This time, we had better lat/long info from the APRS unit to work with. Since I discovered from Paul that conversion was not necessary, we realized that we were looking in the wrong place the weekend before. We’re only talking about 300 feet or so, but in those thick woods, 300 feet made all the difference. Paul was sure that the 33 14.15 by 84 26.03 was in fact where the APRS unit was. If we found it, we would probably find the rest of the payload.

So once again, Kerry and I hiked in to the rugged Georgia woods. This time we came armed with tools to cut through the walls of brush that hindered us last time. However, the heat wave that had grown to historic levels was a real problem. We had plenty of water but the heat was overwhelming. We began fairly early in the day with our search. After only about an hour or so, we reached the exact lat/long pair and looked for the wayward APRS unit and payload. Nothing. Not one shred of evidence as to where it could be. We sat down along the banks of the Flint River to get a drink of our water and I remarked that it “should be right here!”. We were standing right where the coordinates said it should be. Anyone who knows Geocaching knows how hard it can be to find a hidden cache whose only clue is usually a lat/long pairing.

We searched for about 3 hours and had to give up yet again due to the dangerous heat that was smothering us. The forest was just too thick. If the payload had in fact landed in a tree, we would never see it. I told Kerry that maybe after the winter sets in and a good freeze comes, that we can come back a third and final time to see if the canopy opens up enough to let us look in the tree tops. We agreed on that plan for sometime in December and left the woods in utter defeat.

Time marched on. The hurricane season heated up and we had a small chance to launch HURRB during Isaac but decided against it due to the eye of Isaac being rather clouded over and parked over the swamps of Louisiana. If the Georgia woods was difficult to recover a payload, I was certainly not taking my chances with large reptiles and other creatures that nightmares are made of.

October ended with the historic landfall of Sandy and I kept busy with that event well in to November. Kerry and then began to plan our last attempt to search for Yeager. We settled on the weekend of December 15th. It could not get here soon enough.

After many hours of pouring over data, maps and talking about a strategy to find the payload, the day finally arrived to put it all to the test. I drove to Newnan, Georgia, not far from where we needed to look, last Saturday. Kerry drove up from Houston. We had a nice dinner and planned out our attack for Sunday.

I had contacted the Garretts to let them know we wanted to look one more time. We thought about coming in from the west along the last known “flight path” to see if we stumbled across the payload between their house and the Flint River. They had no problem with us using their house as a starting point. We hardly slept Saturday night knowing that we had a good chance of finding the lost payload the next day.

Sunday morning was chilly but not too cold. The sky was overcast and I thought that this was of benefit to us. I figured the bright orange tape that covered the bottom of the payload would stand out better if the sun were not bright, washing everything out.

We arrived at the Garrett’s house around 9:30 in the morning. We could immediately see a difference in the woods. The trees were all bare of their leaves. You could literally see through the forest now and up in to the tree tops. This was a good sign.

The yellow line represents the possible landing location of Yeager, not very large but difficult in the deep woods

The yellow line represents the possible landing location of Yeager, not very large but difficult in the deep woods

Kerry and I hiked in from the west and made our way to where we thought the payload may have landed, not far at all from the coordinates that the APRS had given back in June. Unfortunately, its batteries had run out long ago so we had only the recorded data to work with. We searched along a peninsula, part of a feature in the river called an “ox bow” with relative ease. No luck. There was no sign of the payload and we were sure of it. I suggested we go to the east side, right back to the coordinates again, and start fresh from there.

We hiked out within 30 minutes with a very light rain beginning to fall. This time there were no ticks, no snakes and few spiders to battle. It was so much better even though we were still empty handed.

We stopped in to talk with Justin about our plans of searching the east side again and on we went.

After a quick drive over to a dirt road that ran along the woods, we were ready. The rain picked up now to become a little aggravating but nothing we could not handle. It was better than ground temps of 110 back in June!

The third attempt to locate the missing payload was much easier due to the trees being much less covered in foliage

The third attempt to locate the missing payload was much easier due to the trees being much less covered in foliage

The hike up a logging road was incredible. The tall trees lined the road like walls. There was not anyone else out there. We saw no animals, not even many birds. It was still and quiet. Only the chilled rain drops broke the air with their pitter-patter on the decaying leaves that carpeted the logging road.

Then, we reached the point where we had to turn in to the dense woods and head west to the river. Kerry cut through using his machete’ and on we went. Even though the leaves had in fact fallen, the forest was still so dense that it became noticeably darker the further in we trekked. Still, not another soul was heard from or seen, save for the random shot-gun fire we could hear far in the distance.

I used my iPhone for GPS navigation and was trying to get us to the exact coordinates of the APRS unit. We stood there back in June but to no avail. For some reason, maybe the cloud cover, maybe the thick forest, but my phone was not working like it should. My position, a blue dot on the Google Maps, would drift even when I was stopped. This caused us to get somewhat lost. We were about 200 feet from where we needed to be, maybe more than that. The day was getting shorter with each passing second and we needed to get over to the river and plan our search strategy from there.

Both of us stopped and looked at our compasses and GPS devices. Mine finally settled down enough to point me west – towards the river. Kerry made it clear that we had to know precisely where we were before we moved. I paused and checked one more time. “West!” I said. “We need to head west and we’ll hit the river”.

I spotted the orange underside of the cooler about 200 to 300 feet ahead of me - it stood out against the rest of the dormant trees

I spotted the orange underside of the cooler about 200 to 300 feet ahead of me - it stood out against the rest of the dormant trees

I looked ahead and then it happened. As if to almost call out my name, I saw it. Through the woods, probably 200 feet away, I spotted the bright orange against an otherwise dull brown and gray backdrop of dormant trees and thicket. I told Kerry that I think I have found it. I pointed my walking stick like the barrel of a sniper’s rifle towards the object, barely visible but there none the less. He saw it too. We both pushed ahead, Kerry cutting a path through briars, saplings and other brush to make a bee-line to the orange object. I checked the GPS on my iPhone and sure enough we were headed for the exact coordinates of where the APRS reported its position back in June.

“This has to be it!” I yelled out. “What else would be out here that is bright orange and in that location?”

After six almost six months, we finally found the payload almost competely intact

After six almost six months, we finally found the payload almost competely intact

After another ten minutes of hacking our way through the woods, we reached the edge of the Flint River and an active tributary that veered off towards the northeast. At that moment, two grown men acted like little kids on Christmas Day upon realizing that the present of their dreams had been delivered by Santa. We found it. Yeager was about 20 feet up in some nasty, thick trees and vines almost completely intact. We were thrilled beyond belief and relieved at the same time. The APRS unit was almost dead on. Yeager was right where it should have been. In fact, we looked at that very spot in late June but could not see it due to the choking green vines, leaves and other growth that covered it entirely. My logic of waiting until December paid off.

Kerry hopped across the tributary, climbed up the bank on the other side and proceeded to cut Yeager down out of the tree canopy. It took about 30 minutes of some serious hacking away at the grip of the forest but it finally relented and gave Yeager up. He collected all of the parts, some of which came falling down in pieces like a pinata as he poked and prodded the cooler from below. Everything was there. All three GoPro cams, the APRS unit with its steel wire antenna still attached. We had succeeded after nearly six months of waiting.

The walk out of those woods was exhilarating. As if to protest our triumph, Nature threw one last curve-ball our way as the rain picked up to quite steady. We knew the Flint River would rise some after this rain and that had we not found Yeager just then, we may never have been able to reach it. The area has been in near drought conditions for several years and the fairly low river was about to swell, even if only a few feet, with abundant rain then and more to come later.

We reached Kerry’s truck and headed back to the Garrett’s house to tell them of the news. It was an exciting moment for us all. They were fascinated by the whole experience and were visibly happy for our success. I gave their 11 year old son one of the GoPro cams to use as his own. All three were perfectly preserved despite being exposed to the elements for almost 180 days. It was the least I could do for them considering the fact that we would not have known where to begin looking had Justin not found the G1 found and turned it on. Everything happened because of that one piece of insanely good luck.

A look at what the GoPro cam "saw" with the CNN mic and mic flag displayed in front of the payload

A look at what the GoPro cam "saw" with the CNN mic and mic flag displayed in front of the payload

Kerry and I went back to the hotel in Newnan and plugged in my laptop via HDMI cable to the widescreen TV in the room. Each 32 GB chip recorded almost 5 hours of video in stunning high definition. We watched each camera to finally see what happened and why things went so wrong back on launch day at the end of June.

To the best of our knowledge and from what we can gather from the video, the payload began to rock back and forth once it reached 50,000 feet and higher. Perhaps stronger than anticipated upper level winds were pushing on it, causing it to swing like a pendulum. With each successive push from the wind, the payload swung higher, eventually achieving a brief period of being weightless, like a child in a swing that is pushed to its limit. Then, the payload which weighed in excess of six pounds, would fall with gravity’s pull. At the same time, the giant helium-filled balloon is pulling in the opposite direction, trying to ascend. This went on for several minutes until there was so much give in the payload that it may have actually swung end over end at least once. Below is a video clip, slowed down to 12% of normal speed, that shows the rocking and subsequent break up of the payload.

After one swing too many, the payload jerked against the balloon just hard enough to rip loose the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload. This is clearly seen on the video. The balloon then takes off, continuing to climb to burst altitude of around 100,000 feet. With the SPOT locator still attached, the balloon, the parachute, the wooden dowels and the SPOT sail away in to the dark sky above.

A frame grab from the GoPro video captured via "Yeager" - it clearly shows the break up of the payload due to the opposing forces of the payload swinging in strong upper level winds

A frame grab from the GoPro video captured via "Yeager" - it clearly shows the break up of the payload due to the opposing forces of the payload swinging in strong upper level winds

After a moment of turmoil, the cooler, mostly intact, begins its free fall from 66,000 feet. This is when something amazing took place. The G1 phone, which was zip-tied to one of the dowels inside the cooler, breaks free now that the dowels are torn away. It escapes the cooler and skips across the thin atmosphere like a stone skimming the surface of a lake. From there, it falls nearly 12 miles where it lands in the Garrett’s back yard….fully functional. The screen was not even cracked. The jolt did manage to turn the phone off and this is why when Justin powered it back on in his garage that it sent a signal to Paul in Nevada. It is hard to believe but the HTC G1 fell from 12 miles with only minor damage but still completely operational. The slide out keyboard was a little twisted but otherwise, the phone was not damaged.

Frame grab from the GoPro video showing the balloon after it tore away from the payload. You can also clearly see the G1 cellphone as it sails out of the cooler

Frame grab from the GoPro video showing the balloon after it tore away from the payload. You can also clearly see the G1 cellphone as it sails out of the cooler

As for the rest of the equipment? The three GoPro cams all survived their plummet as did the APRS unit. This brings me to my conclusion as to why our finding of the payload was so important.

Part of a frame grab from the GoPro cam showing the forest that "Yeager" eventually landed in along with tthe Garrett house

Part of a frame grab from the GoPro cam showing the forest that "Yeager" eventually landed in along with tthe Garrett house

One day, we will launch the HURRB payload in to the eye of a hurricane. It will be equipped with some of the best state-of-the-art video and GPS recording equipment on the planet. We will succeed in getting the payload up in to the eye of a hurricane, even if it takes years for the right one to come along.

Knowing that the equipment can not only handle the disaster that took place but that it can also be reliable in telling us where it landed is of paramount importance to our project. This was more than just about two guys who did not want to give up and needed an excuse to go in to the woods on a chilly, rainy December day. This was about proving that the science and technology work. That when the day comes that HURRB makes it out of the top of the eye of hurricane-X, that we know that when it lands again hours later, we will have a solid chance of finding it. Then we will get to witness something that no human has even seen before, not from these angles. Flying up the inside of the most powerful storm on Earth is a powerful motivator for us to make darn sure we can find the payload when the time comes. The fact that we finally found the CNN Yeager payload gives me hope that our HURRB project will one day make history.

This is why I say that, even in the face of failure, there is opportunity for success. We will learn from what went wrong and will utilize that knowledge as we move forward with the HURRB project. Then perhaps next hurricane season we will set HURRB free to embark on one of the coolest science projects ever attempted. I can’t wait to see how it turns out….

Have a blessed Christmas with your family and friends. Stay safe when traveling and I’ll have more here in the New Year.

Here is a time compressed video showing the launch up until just about when the payload began to break up. Questions about anything you read here? Send me an email: ms@hurricanetrack.com

 

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The United States hurricane problem: perhaps it is just too big?

In the wake of hurricane Sandy there has been a constant stream of news regarding how ill prepared the affected areas were to deal with the event. Why am I not surprised? Sandy was an enormous storm. It affected people from Florida to Canada to Michigan. I think Sandy, like Katrina before it and Ike after that, sheds light on an area that we need to perhaps come to grips with. We have a serious hurricane problem and it may now be too big to wrangle.

While there certainly could have been more done to ease the situation, there always is, I am not sure what could have been done to make things markedly better after Sandy hit. Aside from putting almost all of our efforts in to hurricane mitigation and education, what else can we do? We know hurricanes are a threat. They offer the most lead time of any major weather disaster and yet we repeat the same mistakes over and over. Maybe they are not mistakes but rather a symptom; a symptom that our problem is now beyond our grasp.

During the 70s and 80s a tremendous amount of coastal building took place. People flocked to the water’s edge and lived their dream life without many hurricanes at all. Then, in 1995, just when the latest economic bubble that burst began inflating, hurricanes became a real problem again. Yet, luck was mostly on our side as most of the nasty hurricanes remained well out to sea, year after year. The luck ran out temporarily in 2004 and big time in 2005. Since then, we have not had a single category three hurricane to strike the U.S. coast. Yet, Sandy, which was not technically a hurricane at landfall, will likely have the largest cost of any storm event in our history. Further more, Sandy did not bring worst case conditions to places like New York City. What we had was a massive event, affecting people across almost a third of the U.S. and look what happened. It overwhelmed the response system. It won’t be the last time either.

Let’s look at Florida. Not a single hurricane of any strength has made landfall in Florida since October of 2005. You talk about a problem waiting to rear its ugly head. Can you imagine the millions of people who have moved to Florida since 2005 who have ZERO hurricane experience? Even though Florida is expected to be hit year after year, no hurricanes have made landfall there in seven years.

Let’s hypothesize for a minute that a large, classic Cape Verde hurricane comes rolling through around West Palm Beach next August. Winds around the eye are blowing at 125 mph – a category three. Do you think for one minute that the response to that disaster will be swift and made to look easy? I can assure you it will overwhelm (there’s that word again) the Sunshine State and tax the surrounding states who send assistance and aid. Why? Because millions of people will be affected across a densely populated area. There is no way that anyone can adequately prepare for something so large and devastating.

Then, after the landfall shock wears off, people will start pointing fingers at each other for lack of response, lack of preparedness and lack of aid.

Let’s look at a completely different scenario that actually happened.

In 1999, hurricane Bret made landfall in Kenedy county, Texas as a category three hurricane. It was a beast, a powerful, well developed Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Total damage was around $30 million. There were no deaths reported. Why is this? Because hardly anyone lives where Bret made landfall. This same type of hurricane striking West Palm Beach would have a completely different outcome. An even larger, more powerful hurricane would amplify matters to the extreme.

As I read blog after blog about Sandy and how warnings of just such an event went unheeded, I can begin to see the real problem. Sandy was more than anyone could handle. We do not live in a world where $30 billion is spent before hand to beef up our infrastructure. Instead, we live in a world that responds with what funding there is when the infrastructure is taken out. I’ve seen it first hand time and time again and the result is always the same: there is never a good outcome to a hurricane disaster.

Yes, progress has been made in areas that were hit by hurricanes such as Katrina and Ike but for the most part, life goes on as if there are no such things as hurricanes. We try to build back bigger and better but Nature always finds a way to knock progress down again, one way or another.

Trying to blame Sandy’s devastation on one or two people is absurd. While it would have been nice to see politicians come out and say all the right things at the right times, the outcome would not have changed much at all. Sandy impacted one of the most populated areas of coastline in America. What did everyone think was going to happen?

The U.S. hurricane problem is now bigger than ever. The good news is that severe hurricanes are extremely rare. However, when they do happen to cross our shores, significant damage is likely. Unless we are willing to implement drastic changes in to our coastal land use, events like Sandy will continue to happen and we will scratch our heads and wonder why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

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Some thoughts on this last day of the hurricane season

We began the season expecting “near normal” overall activity and ended it with almost record-setting activity. Even though a good deal of the development that took place did so out of the deep tropics, we still managed to have 10 hurricanes form in the Atlantic Basin this year. That is well above the 100 year average and I feel like we are quite lucky, despite the damage from Isaac and Sandy, that nothing worse happened.

A couple of interesting points. Jacksonville, Florida had an almost impossible hit from the east back in May with TS Beryl which was only five miles per hour shy of becoming a hurricane. I guess we could have seen that as a sign that the season would be unusual. Look at Sandy. It too came back at the coast instead of turning out to sea and hit New Jersey from the east – not coming in from the south paralleling the coast like Irene did last season.

In between were plenty of named storms and only one major hurricane: Michael. We had no category four hurricanes or higher this season. This surprised me since we did not get a full El Nino event, I thought for sure we would see more major hurricanes form than we did. Lucky for land areas, we did not.

HurricaneTrack.com was on site for three landfalls this season: Beryl, Isaac and Sandy. This brings my personal total number of hurricanes intercepted to at least 23 in 15 years. I was honored to work with Greg Nordstrom from Mississippi State University on a number of projects, including the extremely rare landfall of Beryl in Jacksonville and vicinity.

I also continued my work with colleague Mike Watkins during Isaac and of course, long time friend and colleague, Jesse Bass, during Sandy. We have a good team and I am proud of our collective efforts.

We tested, with near perfect results, our HURRB project in Texas and are now ready to deploy the payload in to the eye of a hurricane. We thought we might have a shot at it with Isaac but the southeast Louisiana area is not really where we want to launch or recover from. So we will wait to see what the 2013 season offers up as an opportunity to study the inside of the eye of a hurricane via weather balloon and 4 GoPro cameras. We’ll also have several GPS tracking and recording devices on board for understanding wind flow patterns and more. Needless to say, this is a project we are very excited about and look forward to talking about it more next year.

Hurricane Isaac was the first of two reminders that category is not the only thing to pay attention to when a hurricane is approaching. I thought we had learned this with Ike but I guess four years is too long and people forgot. However, the NHC had this in their public advisory headline over and over and over before Isaac made landfall:

“…ISAAC MOVING WEST-NORTHWESTWARD OVER THE EASTERN GULF OF MEXICO…POSES SIGNIFICANT STORM SURGE THREAT TO THE NORTHERN GULF COAST…”

So I am not sure where the surprise part is. It’s not like this was buried down deep within pages of some long, detailed advisory package. People need to understand that hurricanes are A) not dots on a map and B) have multiple weapons of mass destruction to use against you. The flooding from Isaac in southeast Louisiana and even along portions of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was well forecast days ahead of the event. No one should have been caught off guard. I am not sure what else can be done other than pouring millions of dollars in to hurricane education and preparedness. Hey, that’s probably not a bad idea. Sadly, once out of sight, hurricanes are out of mind and we’ll repeat this cycle again the next time.

Leslie sure gave Bermuda a scare and I almost hopped on a plane to fly out and intercept the large hurricane myself. But alas, it was not meant to be and Leslie veered east just enough to keep the worst effects away from the region.

We almost escaped the season with no additional problems until Sandy came along and spoiled things. The late-October hurricane was a beast in the Caribbean. It may very well be upgraded to the season’s second major hurricane in the post-season analysis by the NHC – we’ll see how that goes. Sandy impacted Jamaica, Haiti and eastern Cuba before lashing the Bahamas with hurricane conditions in some locations.

The beach erosion along the Florida east coast was substantial. Sandy’s large wind field churned up a substantial portion of the southwest Atlantic and it will take a while for the beaches to recover, if they ever do.

The North Carolina Outer Banks seem to be the forgotten stepchild this year. The surge effects from Sandy decimated highway 12 and eroded enormous dune fields down to nothing. Sure, this is a natural process and perhaps no one should be living out there in the first place. But they do, it’s a near pristine area despite the development and people should have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the region. It seems that this area never escapes a hurricane season without effects from either a passing hurricane like Sandy or a direct hit like Irene.

Now let’s discuss the big issue with Sandy concerning the “no hurricane warning” debate. There are two aspects I will address.

One – the public’s understanding of tropical storms and hurricanes. Again, I have to think that most people who live along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastlines are aware of the threat from hurricanes. It’s not like Sandy was any surprise. The media was talking about it, there was the nick-name “Frankenstorm” as it looked like Sandy could morph in to some never-before-seen superstorm, which it in fact did. I said a week away on this site that it could be a “storm for the ages”. Others blogged about that fact too. Folks, the word was out there that a large and dangerous storm, no matter what it was structurally, was headed for the Northeast.The public knew that a dangerous storm event was headed their way, I do not know what good calling it a hurricane would have done in the end. That designation would not have stopped the massive storm surge or kept the Moon from being full that night. After all, Katrina was a nightmare, massive, powerful, lethal category five headed straight for Mississippi and Louisiana, complete with hurricane warnings and every measure of effort put in to telling people to get the bleep out. More than 1000 people still died. The entire Mississippi coast, parts of Alabama and a good deal of New Orleans still flooded from the surge/levee failures. I think it has to do with the public’s experience and what they perceive to be a threat based on that experience. Whether or not Sandy remained a tropical cyclone (hurricane) at landfall made no difference in what the outcome was in my opinion.

On the other hand, I have to point out that, according to the glossary of terms from the NHC’s website, a hurricane warning says nothing about the notion that a hurricane must be present in order for the warning to be posted. Read for yourself:

Hurricane Warning:

“An announcement that hurricane conditions (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) are expected somewhere within the specified area. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds. ”

It says, “hurricane conditions” and “expected”. It says nothing about the meteorological structure of a hurricane as having to be a prerequisite for the warning to be issued. Just going on this alone, I would have to agree that posting a hurricane warning made sense, because hurricane conditions absolutely took place “somewhere within the specified area” even though Sandy was not technically a hurricane any longer just hours before landfall.

This may have made a bigger impact on the evacuations but again, I cite Katrina. What more could the NHC, the local, state and federal agencies and the media could have done in the days prior to its landfall? Short of escorting Americans out of the danger zone at gunpoint, what else can we do?

I’ll tell you what else. Education. We tend to shy away from talking about hurricanes as being a part of our coastal history because the mere mention of their existence apparently causes people to not spend their tourism dollars and go to the beach. What kind of thinking is this? Let’s instead hide the truth about hurricanes, keep them mysterious and scary and only talk about them when one is headed our way. Yeah, that’s the better plan. Then we can watch the news and see lines of people waiting for gas, ice and food. We can watch scores of people trapped on overpasses in sweltering heat while the nation works hard to ready a response. That’s the problem. We REACT to hurricanes and do not adequately prepare for hurricanes.

Sandy will end up costing many tens of billions of dollars. Much of that money will go in to repairing the damage and, hopefully, building back better and stronger. How much will be set aside for education and preparedness? How much will be allocated to hurricane research to better understand changes in intensity and forecast track? I am going to guess almost nothing. Zero. Why? Because Sandy is gone. Hurricane season is over. Most people do not care about the next one because no one knows when or where it will be. Why spend money on it, it might not happen. Until we stop this cycle of hoping hurricanes away and then getting upset at the government when one happens, we’re doomed to keep picking up the pieces and never learning from past mistakes.

Hurricanes are not a freak of nature. We have more warning for their arrival than for any other major disaster event. We name them for Pete’s sake! What more do you want? I know what I want. Education. Let’s put forth an effort to teach people about hurricanes. Teach local governments about what to expect based on experience. Waiting until a hurricane is headed for your front door is madness.

But then again, what do I know anyway? I’m just a guy with a website who tracks hurricanes for a living. What could I possibly know about what to expect when a hurricane is coming.

Stay safe this off-season. Tune in from time to time next year. We’ve always got something innovative and unique cooking.

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Time is running out as Sandy is about to make the turn

I am in Vineland, NJ where I will get some sleep, charge the large batteries used for the equipment and then head out tomorrow morning to set things up. I was going to try for the Long Beach/North Beach area but local officials are VERY concerned about my safety and have denied access. This is a good way to show how dangerous a situation this is. They gave me the green light initially but had to change that when word came down about how bad the surge flooding could be. I take this seriously and know that it is for the best.

So, I will be looking to set up the remote cams and the weather station farther north where there are no barrier islands. It will be a race against the clock but I have experience in doing things like this under stressful conditions. The benefit of capturing high-res wind data, pressure data and video data is worth the effort and long hours that I am going to have to put in.I have colleagues who are working the hurricane too – Tim Millar, Mark Robinson and George Kourounis will be working together to gather ground data on Sandy’s effects. In fact, there are university efforts going on as well which will help to better understand this extremely rare and unprecedented event.

I will do my best to set up a live stream for the general public, even if it is video only. I have some 400+ private clients, our subscribers, who financially support our work and allow me to make a living doing this. They are expecting results for their investment in to this operation. However, the public can also be served and I will be working on a solution tonight that can at least give our non-subscribers a look at what conditions are as I work the mission tomorrow and tomorrow night.

We also have our iPhone app. The Android edition will come out when we have the app as complete as we want it and this event could seriously help that along. The weather data and the web cam image from the wind tower will feed in to the app directly. It worked very well during Isaac and for about 20 hours yesterday along the NC Outer Banks- then I pulled it to bring it north to NJ. If you want to monitor the actual wind, pressure and a live web cam image, then our app is what you need. Check it out here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hurricanetrack/id539587329?ls=1&mt=8

For the people who will be affected by Sandy in the coming 36 hours, this will test you like no other event. Not everyone will be impacted the same but millions of people are likely to lose power, suffer some extent of damage and have a long road to recovery ahead. The hardest hit areas will likely be the beaches where an incredible amount of energy from the wind is being transferred in to the Atlantic Ocean. Be mindful of the power of surge and if you were asked to evacuate, do it. I know it’s an aggravation but you do not want to go through what people in Mississippi did during Katrina with that surge. While we’re not expecting 28 feet, there could be enough to level homes and businesses. Heed the advice of your local officials and hang in there….it will be a rough time coming but we will all get through it even if it’s a painful process.

I’ll post updates to our Twitter account, @hurricanetrack quite often. It’s the easiest method by far, so please consider following @hurricanetrack on Twitter if you’re not already. I can post pics, video clips and screen grabs within seconds to minutes in most cases. I’ll see you all from somewhere along the NJ shore tomorrow.

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