There will be a lot of stories about Katrina in the coming days. Most will reflect on the horror that the hurricane brought to so many people. Some will shed light on the heroes that helped to make things better, even if it took longer than people had hoped. All of the stories matter and everyone is lumped in together when it’s all said and done. Our story, however, is a little different. It is about technology, trial by fire, success and failure, all wrapped in to one seven day journey that would lead us in to the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.
It begins today, minus ten years. Today marks the first time that Katrina had a name. The National Hurricane Center upgraded TD12 to Katrina on their 11am ET advisory package. The forecast brought Katrina across south Florida and then in to the southeast Gulf of Mexico. It was what we call a “two for one” mission. Those are rare but when they happen, they present a great deal of hurdles that must be overcome. Before we get started, let’s take a look back at 2005 from a technology perspective.
Up until the 2004 hurricane season, the team and I literally put ourselves out in harm’s way to collect wind data, pressure data and video/pictures of hurricane effects. After a harrowing experience with hurricane Charley we decided it was time to use modern technology to get close to hurricanes while keeping our rear-ends safer.
We used Hi-8 video cameras shoved in to Scuba diving housings to record hurricanes Frances and Ivan at point blank range. We did so using a retired Isuzu Rodeo as the “crash test dummy” with Hurricane Ivan being the final ride.
The 2005 season gave us an opportunity to try something new: live video, with audio, everywhere we took the Tahoe during a mission. This was made possible due to the growing speed of Sprint’s 3G network. We used Windows Media Encoder, a JVC video camera connected via Firewire to my Sony Vaio and had an instant new way for people to follow our work.
We tested the project during tropical storm Arlene in June and then again during hurricane Dennis in July. It seemed that 90% of the places we would need to be in a hurricane were covered by Sprint and thus, we began a new era in our capabilities for HurricaneTrack.com.
Putting our collective heads together, we came up with the idea of developing a sort-of “black box” for hurricane effects. If we could stream live from the Tahoe, why not do it from small self-contained units that we could leave out in the hurricane, allowing us to bring live video to anyone watching while keeping us safe? All we needed was a way to power the equipment and a box to keep it all dry and we would be set.
After launching what is now known as a “crowdfunding” campaign in early August 2005, I had the capital to invest in the project. My promise to those who “subscribed” to the service was innovative live video from up to three camera systems (plus the Tahoe dash-cam) that we would stream exclusively for their viewing. I purchased three of everything that I needed and began to piece it all together, waiting for the next chance to come along to test it. I never would have thought that it would be a hurricane the likes of Katrina, but that’s exactly what happened.
Now, back to August 24, 2005. I had many conversations with colleague Jesse Bass about coming with me to Florida and eventually the Gulf Coast. His full time job simply did not allow him to be gone that long which was understood and part of the way we had to deal with things. Not many people get to do what I do as their career and being able to just up and leave for a hurricane intercept is tough. Jesse was out but our new colleague, Mike Watkins from south Florida, was in. He would be able to take time off from his work at Office Depot HQ to accompany me on this historic mission, at least in south Florida. I packed the Tahoe with gear, which included three brand new “Surge Cams” ready to go. My sights were set on south Florida, probably the Deerfield Beach area. I knew a gentleman from the old Project Impact days from FEMA who could help me gain access to the pier where I wanted to place one of our Surge Cams.
I also spoke with Jim Reed, an accomplished storm chaser and photographer from Kansas (and sometimes South Carolina) about working with me to document Katrina along the Gulf Coast. He was very interested in our project with the remote cams and had to figure out his game plan as well. There were a lot of things going on in each of our lives that ultimately shaped our destinies in the final story of Katrina. We would remain in touch as the days went by, formulating a plan to meet up, most likely in Gulfport, Mississippi.
I departed Wilmington, North Carolina in the late afternoon with a live feed running from my dashboard camera. There were about 30 people watching that day. It was remarkable to be able to talk to them “over the air” as I drove down I-95 towards Florida. Some would email me with questions or words of encouragement. There was no Twitter, no iPhone, no Facebook (not like now anyway). But there was just enough mobile broadband via Sprint for me to eek out a live video/audio stream that broke new ground. I had no idea of just how much of an impact it would have and the challenges that would lie ahead.
Evening set in and the night grew long as I finally arrived in Titusville, FL around 2am ET on the 25th. Katrina was edging closer to the coast while intensifying over the warm Atlantic waters. I checked in to the hotel and got some much needed sleep. In roughly eight hours, I would have to be up and on the road to meet up with Mike in Ft. Lauderdale for day two.
To be continued tomorrow….