When most people hear the word “hurricane” they more than likely think of one thing: wind. Next, they probably ask, “what category is it?” While these aspects of a hurricane are certainly important, I believe a larger issue is being overlooked and put on the back burner until it is too late: the threat from water.
We can see the wind or, more accurately, the effects of wind, as soon as it starts blowing. The harder it blows, the more dramatic the effects are on the things around us such as trees and flags. This registers instantly in our brains and we can understand it because we can see it. Therefore, if the hurricane has 100 mph wind, while you might not necessarily grasp the concept of just how much energy that means, you do generally understand that it could damage your property.
Water, on the other hand, is seemingly tougher to conceptualize. The forecast as a hurricane approaches calls for 10-15 inches of rain. What does that mean? We can all visualize a ruler which is 12 inches but what exactly is 12 inches of rain going to do at your home or business? A lot of that depends on how fast the rain rates add up and what the drainage is like in and around your property.
The real danger comes when too much rain falls too fast and streams and creeks become swollen, flowing over the roadways and inviting disaster. There is no way to predict when and where this will occur with any degree of accuracy. As we saw again with Matthew last October in North Carolina, despite repeat events (Floyd in 1999 and the historic rains in NC/SC in 2015) people continue to drive across flowing water as if they are immune to the laws of physics. Too often, they are dead wrong. I’ll come back to this topic later.
Storm surge is about as dangerous and destructive as it gets yet few people truly understand what it actually is. Historically, storm surge has taken more lives than any other effect and it is the sole reason that evacuations are ordered for coastal areas. That’s right, we do not evacuate for wind – it’s the water. While it is true that you do not want to remain in an unsafe structure during the high winds of a hurricane, modern building codes should protect a vast majority of the people in harm’s way but water is a different story.
Moving water has an enormous amount of force behind it. Waves crashing ashore bring with them enough energy to bulldoze structures along the immediate beachfront. Those crumbled structures now become solid pieces of the surge and waves and act to batter and break up even more man-made structures. The end result is massive damage along the coast and the potential for loss of life.
Instead of yammering on and on about how bad it can get, I want to focus on a solution. There is something that can be done to completely eliminate the loss of life that we are seeing because of hurricanes (tropical storms too) and the effects of water.
The first step is understanding the risk where you live. As I said, evacuations are planned based on potential storm surge flooding and this is done well in advance of any hurricane. You need to take the personal responsibility of asking questions about where you live or work. Do not rely on someone to do it for you. Use social media and the Internet as a whole to your benefit. Go online and ask, “Do I live in an evacuation zone?” Do not stop asking until you find the answer.
Once you know your risk to storm surge, you can then make an appropriate plan. Make the decision now that if your evacuation zone is called to evacuate, you do it, no questions asked. No waiting to see what the hurricane does tomorrow or what Bob and Margaret next door decide to do. This is your one chance to get it right and not regret it later. Do not put first responders at risk during the storm by calling them begging to be saved. That is irresponsible and selfish and should never be an issue if people followed the plan and left when told to do so.
While it is true that most people who evacuate come home to little or no damage, it is best to err on the side of caution and leave when told to do so. I realize more than you know how stressful it is and that it is not something to be taken lightly. That is why I make the case for planning now and making the choice now that you will in fact go when told to go. It takes planning and that needs to be done before hurricane season ever begins.
Truck driving on flooded road after hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina
Fresh water flooding is a killing agent that seems to never get better. Time and again people are seen and captured on video trying to cross flooded roads – often times failing and losing their lives. This is absolutely unacceptable and needs to stop. Again, it puts rescuers at great risk and drains resources that could be used elsewhere.
I am going to make it real simple. Hurricanes and tropical storms mean rain and a lot of it. When it rains, roads flood. I don’t care what kind of vehicle you own or how many times you have been down “that road”, it doesn’t matter if the water is too high or too swift; you will get swept away. Don’t do it. Stay home and avoid driving until things get better.
As the hurricane season nears, I challenge you to do more to learn about the impact of water from tropical storms and hurricanes. Wind is the big headline but often times at the cost of losing sight of how water can be both deadly and destructive. We need it to survive but it can turn against us in nightmarish ways.
Technology can only get us so far. We can see the hurricanes before they even form thanks to incredible advances in computer models. Now it is time to put our common sense to use and realize once and for all that sometimes we have to relent and do the right thing. That means evacuating when told to do so and not driving across flooded roads. It’s 2017 people, let’s act like we’ve been here before and actually learned something from the past. If not, well, you know what happens if not….
Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida – Oct 7, 2016
A major hurricane is defined as one that has winds of 115 miles per hour or higher, also known as a category three or higher. The last hurricane to meet that critical standard while making it ashore along the U.S. coastline did so eleven years ago today. We all know the story by now – it was the 21st named storm of the historic 2005 season and its name was Wilma. Nothing matching the wind speed of Wilma has made landfall since. Why is so much made of this seemingly important record?
First of all, historically speaking, major hurricanes cause about 80% of the damage from all hurricanes striking the United States. It stands to reason that the stronger the hurricane, the more damage it will cause. We rank hurricanes based on their wind speed and nothing else. The Saffir-Simpson scale was developed in the early 1970s for the purpose of understanding what a hurricane’s winds were capable of.. Since then, it has undergone unofficial changes that led the public, and the media, to believe that storm surge and air pressure were part of the original intent of the scale. This was wrong and still is today. The categories of hurricanes that we know as being 1-5 have nothing to do with storm surge, pressure or rain fall. As such, the term “major hurricane” refers to a category three or higher hurricane based on wind speed and wind speed alone.
Major hurricane landfalls in the U.S. are rare. We have seen periods of several years go by without any major hurricane landfalls. It takes the right set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions to get a major hurricane to form in the first place let alone allow it to maintain itself all the way to landfall. However, when it does happen, the damage is usually immense in scale.
Some years, like 2004 and 2005, a rash of major hurricanes make landfall. In fact, beginning with Charley on August 13, 2004 and ending with Wilma on October 24, 2005, a total of seven major hurricanes hit the U.S. This is almost (if not more) incredible than the current record of ZERO major hurricanes hitting the U.S. How could the variability be so extreme? Seven in what amounts to really a little over a year’s time to nothing in over eleven years? Most say it’s just dumb luck. In the grand scheme of geologic time, 11 years is nothing. It’s like playing roulette. You can bet red over and over and over and never hit it. Then, for reasons unknown, red comes up seven times in a row. Pure chance. Now, the weather does not work quite like that but luck has in fact been on our side….or has it?
I am not alone in making the argument that the lack of so-called major hurricanes has spared us from disaster. Let’s take a look at the hurricanes that have managed to reach the U.S. since that fateful day eleven years ago:
2008 – Gustav and Ike – both responsible for tens of billions in damage and numerous deaths
2011 – Irene – another costly hurricane that affected areas from North Carolina to New York and even parts of New England
2012 Isaac and Sandy – combined, the two “category one” hurricanes made 2012 one of the costliest and deadliest hurricane seasons in years
2016 – Hermine and Matthew – again, two low-end hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Florida and the Carolinas with Matthew being one of the deadliest hurricanes in over four years while coming dangerously close to being an absolute catastrophe for parts of the east-central coast of Florida
What do all of these hurricanes have in common? Water. A majority of the damage and most of the deaths were the result of water – mostly storm surge. In the case of Matthew, it was excessive rain that once again led to historic flooding and loss of life due to people driving vehicles in to flooded areas.
The dollar amount for all of these hurricanes is simply staggering. We’re talking over $100 billion in combined damage, probably more when considering the long-term economic toll on the regions that were impacted. None were “major hurricanes”. Something has to change because what on earth are we going to do when a “real” major hurricane shows up again?
I wrote in a blog post several months back about the lack of hurricane activity being analogous to having a lowered immune system. We know that hurricanes have not become extinct. Matthew was a grim reminder of that fact. So many people say they had no idea of what was coming in terms of the flooding. How can this be? I’ll tell you how. Here’s another stat for you: 17 years. That’s how long it had been since the last “we had no idea the flooding would be this bad” for North Carolina. Floyd in 1999 was the last such event. Floyd was a powerful category 4 at one point with 155 mph winds that forced millions of people to evacuate across the Southeast coast. The hurricane weakened dramatically leading up to landfall and was a category two by the time it reached the NC coast. What was the primary damage and killing agent? Water. Storm surge at the coast and an overland surge of rain water for inland areas. No one would ever forget Floyd – well, not for 17 years at least. I guess 17 years is long enough to forget because, well, you know, people said Matthew took them by surprise. Ugh. Just ugh….
We need to do better. The focus on major hurricanes is out of touch with the reality that too many people now live in harm’s way; and not just along the coast, so that ALL hurricanes, and tropical storms for that matter, should be considered dangerous.
To be fair, I think the media does a great job at conveying the risks. The Weather Channel led the way on a national front when Dr. Steve Lyons first introduced the graphical impact scale showing which hazards posed the most risk for a particular event. Since then, other efforts have been made to alert the public as to what is coming and how to avoid it.
The National Hurricane Center has put in to their public advisories the “Hazards Affecting Land” section. This is the equivalent of spelling it out for everyone in harm’s way – I use it to plan my attack with the equipment that I set up. Why don’t more people know about this?
At the end of the day, people focus on the scale – the scale that was invented by two brilliant people for one purpose and one purpose alone: wind damage potential. With the exception of Andrew in 1992, wind has been the least of our problems. Building codes have helped in the decades since Andrew but nothing is being done on a grand scale to combat the issue water. We can and must do better with our education and awareness programs.
It is time to focus on the entire package. Hurricanes bring with them four main weapons, not just wind. More attention needs to be placed on storm surge and rain fall. Perhaps a new, modern rating system for tropical storms and hurricanes would help. Might I suggest that we take the hazard with the highest potential for damage and loss of life and use it to rank the hurricane. Example would be Ike. We knew it had a lethal, 20 feet plus storm surge coming with it. That’s a category five in my book. Don’t think so? Look at the damage on Bolivar peninsula and elsewhere. Homes swept clean. Cat-5 which means EVERYBODY LEAVES. As it was, Ike teetered around being a category one and two right up until landfall. So many people I talk to say, “When it reaches a three, I pay attention and plan to leave”. This is not good on so many levels.
As for rain? Same thing. The tools are there to know ahead of time that a tropical cyclone will bring enough rain to a region to cause life-threatening flooding. We already see those very words mentioned in official NWS/NHC products. To this I say give it a rank. If it is life-threatening, it is at least a category three, maybe higher. Assign the ranking based on the single biggest risk factor. In the case of future Katrina and Andrew situations, they are a five no mater what and remain a five until after landfall.
These are just ideas based on my 21 years of seeing it all go down in the field. I have been there and have seen the results in person. So many people tell me that they had no idea it would be so bad and in almost every situation they were talking about a category one or two hurricane.
Wilma was the last major hurricane to hit the USA. Perhaps it can be the last time we refer to a hurricane as being major based on wind speed alone. I applaud the weather community, the media and the NWS/NHC for doing all they can to convey risk. More needs to be done to re-wire the collective thought process so that ALL hurricanes are thought of as potential killers, no matter their ranking.
Something to ponder as we move beyond the eleven year mark since Wilma. Will 2017 give us another chance to get it right? Or at least do way better? I guess we will find out soon enough.
We are getting close to mid-October and the tropics are still very much a major topic of conversation. The aftermath of Matthew from Haiti and Cuba through the Bahamas and in to the Southeast U.S. is the top story outside of the political craziness that has dominated the news cycles for most of the year.
Right now, the clean up process has begun and unfortunately, so have the plans for saying goodbye to those killed in the hurricane. Last I heard from news sources, at least 23 people have died in the United States with hundreds more lives lost in Haiti. This saddens me but it also underscores the need for better hurricane preparedness across the Western Hemisphere. We have so much technology, so much information, yet we still lose people in ways that should not ever happen. I will re-visit this grim topic at a later date and offer some suggestions for doing better in the future.
Hydrograph for Kinstron, NC along the Neuse River showing the slow rise of the river to near record flood stage by Friday.
In eastern North Carolina, the river flood situation continues. Parts of I-40 and I-95 remain closed as flood waters are slow to recede. In places such as Kinston, along highway 70, the flood has only just begun and will not peak until Friday. Other locations are also experiencing record to near-record flooding even as skies are clear and temps are finally fall-like.
I am going to head to Kinston on Thursday to place one or two unmanned cams to monitor the rising water in real time. I will share the link here and on social media so that residents who need to evacuate can still see what is going on in their town. I’ll have more on this tomorrow.
Meanwhile, tropical storm Nicole is slowly gathering strength south of Bermuda and is expected to become a hurricane again before passing very close to the island on Thursday. A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning has been posted for Bermuda in anticipation of this event. It looks as though Nicole could be nearing category two intensity and as such, residents in Bermuda need to be ready for yet another hurricane over the coming days.
GFS model at day-5 showing the first signs of weak vorticity or spin in the lower levels of the atmosphere over the western Caribbean Sea.
Once Nicole clears the pattern later this week, we will need to begin watching the western Caribbean for one last development cycle. All of the major global models are suggesting a large, sprawling area of low pressure will develop between days five and ten. Different models have different solutions for what happens after that so it’s best to just wait and see. For now, know that the western Caribbean is favored this time of year and, perhaps more importantly, the water temps in the region are as warm is it gets right now. Upper ocean heat content is nearly off the chart warm – so any disturbance that gets going in the region will more than enough fuel to become a powerful hurricane. This is an area we will need to monitor very closely as we get in to the weekend and early next week.
I will have my daily video discussion posted later this afternoon covering the latest river flooding info for eastern NC, Nicole and the western Caribbean potential for next week.
Flooding along the Neuse River in Smithfield as seen from one of our unmanned camera units placed there yesterday afternoon. Watch the LIVE cam here: Smithfield, NC along Neuse River
Matthew is gone, part of hurricane history now but its impacts will linger for days, weeks and even years across many locations of the Southeast. As bad as it was, I cannot emphasize enough how close the United States came to seeing catastrophic damage and likely significant loss of life. Matthew managed to keep the core of the strongest winds just offshore of the Florida and Georgia coastlines and was weakening as it did so. Just a 20-30 mile westerly change in its course would have resulted in massive wind damage, a storm surge like we have not seen since Sandy and maybe even Katrina and power outages that would have boggled the mind. To say we were lucky is putting it mildly but what did happen is bad enough and we are dealing with the effects even as skies have cleared and cooler temperatures have moved in.
The most serious threat from Matthew’s relentless rain will be continued river flooding across parts of eastern North Carolina and northeast South Carolina. Several river gauge sites are in major flood stage with more expected to reach that point in the days ahead. Visit the link below to view gauge data and learn more about the expected impacts from the various river systems that are expected to flood as the week progresses:
Latest track map for Nicole indicating a threat to Bermuda late week.
The next area of concern will be Bermuda as tropical storm Nicole gathers strength in the wake of hurricane Matthew. Upper level winds are forecast to become favorable and this will allow Nicole to become a hurricane again, probably a category two, as it approaches Bermuda late in the week. It’s still too soon to predict just how close Nicole will track to Bermuda but the models are in fairly good agreement on quite a close call, if not a direct hit, by Friday. I will be keeping a close eye on this and may be planning a trip to Bermuda to cover the impacts if in fact Nicole gets close enough to the island.
Beyond Nicole there are no other areas to worry about for the time being but a robust MJO pulse is forecast by the major global models to set up in the Atlantic Basin over the next two weeks or so. This would favor widespread upward motion and period of favorable upper level winds – mainly across the western Caribbean where climatology tells us to look this time of year. As a result, the GFS and ECMWF models both suggest development between seven and ten days out. Something to watch for but nothing appears imminent.
I am back in the office now in Wilmington, NC after quite a saga tracking down Matthew from the east-central coast of Florida and then up through the Carolinas. I covered a lot of ground and captured some useful wind and pressure data along with compelling live video from our unmanned cams. I will post some of the data soon along with video highlights of the field mission.
I’ll have a video discussion posted early this afternoon followed by a blog update this evening concerning Nicole and what the latest trends are regarding impacts for Bermuda.
Once again, the United States escapes hurricane season without a significant hurricane, or any hurricane, making landfall. This should come as no surprise since the season was forecast to be rather tranquil and, for the most part, it has been. Of course, two exceptions stick out: Dominica and parts of the Bahamas. Those two areas had anything but a “quiet” hurricane season. Otherwise, as far as the U.S. is concerned, the season came and went without too much to worry about.
We used this past season to continue to test new technology, especially our live remote camera system. Despite the quiet season for the U.S., I have been very busy. Doing what? Getting ready for when there are hurricanes once again knocking on the door.
Mike Watkins assisting Mark Sudduth to deploy the “old” camera system as hurricane Isaac approached Louisiana in 2012. This is along the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans.
It was ten years ago that we developed our unmanned cameras for deployment in even the most intense hurricane conditions. Back then and up until this year, the technology was bulky, heavy and had several points of potential failure. It worked more times than not and we captured some extraordinary video using the old tech, all while keeping us away from the worst of the conditions and perhaps just as important, allowing us to be in several places at once.
Fast-forward ten years…
The available technology has come so far that our new cameras are tiny, the entire set up weighs less than 6 pounds and I can even airline three of them to anywhere I need to at very little cost. The video quality is superb and we now have audio, something that we had wanted since day-1 but always struggled with how to do it. Problem solved.
Our new generation of unmanned cameras weighs only 6 pounds, will run for 36 hours, has superb video and audio quality and costs 1/3 less than what we had been using. Here is one being set up on Long Island during a powerful winter storm last January
We also solved the problem of how long the cameras would run. The first generation relied on a huge AGM battery that had to power a laptop, a VCR and the camera. We would get 18 hours if we were lucky and ALWAYS had to go retrieve the cases in order to save anything for archival purposes. Today, everything is saved automatically in 3-hour increments on “the cloud” so even if the cameras are lost, stolen or otherwise destroyed, we have everything saved no matter what.
Utilizing the very latest in USB power technology, the cameras operate for 36 hours now. This will come in extremely handy during a major hurricane and storm surge event that requires us to set up well ahead of the wind and rain. Not only does the new technology keep us even safer, but the run time will allow us to capture, and stream live, the entire event, not just a section of it.
I first tested the new cams this past winter in New York and Massachusetts during a pair of blizzards that struck the region in late January and mid-February. I took three with me each time and set them out across a fairly wide swath. The best results came during the Valentines Day blizzard in February along Cape Cod. See for yourself in the time lapse video that I produced from the live stream archive:
After two successful field tests last winter, it was obvious that the new technology was going to work and would be the basis for our future field missions. In fact, the ridiculous amounts of snow in the Boston area, accompanied many times by photos on social media of people using yard sticks to measure the depth, gave me another idea.
It is one thing to have live video of storm surge sweeping in across the coast. How about showing how high the water is rising? Many cities have flood gauges at low water crossings to indicate how high the water has risen during flash flood events. Why not do this for storm surge? Since we will have live cameras out there, might as well have a method of showing how high the water is in fact rising.
Photo of the “measuring tape” that we developed to show how high the water is rising on our live camera feeds
I turned to my friends at the local Fast Signs store and once again, problem solved. Using high-quality outdoor banner material, I created what is best described as an over sized tape measure. It is 8 inches wide by 10 to 25 feet high. The idea is to set one up in the view of the camera and as the water rises, we can all see just how high it is above the local ground level.
I took the new cameras along with the giant tape measure to the National Hurricane Center in July for a presentation. Considering all of the innovative storm surge products that are coming out, I thought that this new generation of camera, coupled with the ability to show the storm surge height in real-time, would be extremely beneficial to the forecasters and scientists. They were already familiar with results from previous storm surge events from our old camera system; the response to what I have now was overwhelming. So much potential exists for utilizing this new way of showing a hurricane’s most lethal weapon as it’s happening.
Obviously, the 2015 season did not look to be very threatening to U.S. interests. Erika and Joaquin were, at one point, possible landfall issues but we know how that turned out.
However, Joaquin’s indirect influence on the Southeast with its moisture plume feeding in to an upper level low brought historic flooding and excessive rain to parts of South Carolina. It wasn’t storm surge but it was an opportunity to test the new cameras in the field once again and in much warmer (and wetter) conditions.
My colleague from Houston joined me in Wilmington where we prepared three units for deployment along the coast in North and South Carolina. We put two along the Outer Banks where unusually high tides were wreaking havoc on the dune line. The third camera was placed in Charleston where it streamed live for 36 hours as the rain fell, leading to extensive flooding. Check out the time lapse from that camera below. Notice all of the people using various means of “transportation” to maneuver through the flooded streets. It wasn’t enough of a flood to warrant us putting out our new water height marker but the test once again proved beyond any doubt that this new technology going to work.
The use of time lapse is very important in understanding how fast conditions change. Because the live video stream is archived off-site in three hour chunks, I can go back and pull down any or all of the video and then process it for various time lapse purposes.
However, it is the live, as it’s happening, video that is most compelling. Being able to deploy one of these cameras in just a matter of minutes to practically anything that we need to has huge implications. We can totally immerse our viewers in to the weather event like never before. With the addition of audio, it makes it even more like you’re right there, in the heart of the action.
Even though Joaquin went out to sea, scraping Bermuda on its way, it provided us with the chance to continue testing in real weather conditions. I cannot emphasize how important this is. I can set up a camera system in my back yard until the cows come home but doing it in the field is better. We need to know how well everything works (or doesn’t) with rain, snow, wind, people around, etc. So far, we were perfect for the year – having tested the cams during two massive winter storms in the Northeast and a high-impact flood and tide event in the Southeast. I have to say that at this point, the success exceeded my expectations. This was new ground for us, being able to deploy cams spread out over hundreds of miles and having confidence that they would perform as designed. Still, no hurricanes yet. The 2015 season appeared to be winding down for U.S. concerns.
As October entered its third week, hurricane Patricia dominated the headlines. At one point, winds topped 200 mph in a small area surrounding the tiny eye of the east Pacific beast. It was forecast to strike Mexico west of Manzanillo and then quickly weaken over rugged terrain.
However, as was mentioned by the NHC in their discussions regarding Patricia, it seemed that the remnant energy would survive the passage over Mexico and re-energize to some extent over the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.
The flood threat for parts of Texas began to increase. Many areas from Austin and the surrounding Hill Country down to Houston had seen more than enough rain this past spring. Although it had been fairly dry all summer, the prospects for excessive rain due to the remnants of Patricia raised concerns for the region.
Oh the irony! The large yellow case used to house a big battery, laptop and other bulky equipment needed to stream live video. Here, I have packed three of the new cams in to that same case for transport via airline to Houston
At literally the last minute possible, I decided this was a chance to test the new cameras under stressful conditions, similar to a hurricane event. Time was running out, tremendous amounts of rain were forecast to move in to Texas from the southwest and I had to get to Houston quickly. There was no time to drive the cameras there in the Tahoe. Instead, I packed three cams in to one of the large cases that we used to use for just one camera unit back in the day. Talk about irony! All three fit perfectly inside what was once the case for just one bulky camera system. The cost for me to “airline” the cams was only $65! I could not believe it. In less than four hours on Saturday, October 24, I was in Houston and ready to roll.
I met up with Kerry, my colleague in Houston, and we worked quickly to deploy one of the cameras along Brays Bayou – part of the Harris County Flood Control District. This time, we would use one of the high water markers. After about 15 minutes of effort, we had the camera secured to a massive concrete column and the marker set up on the adjacent column. Kerry warned me that the water would rise tens of feet and easily submerge the camera. I had trouble believing this since I was not familiar with the flood control system in Houston and could not imagine that much water rising so fast. He knew it and said it was almost a certainty. He pointed out that on Memorial Day when excessive rains fell across the region, the water level was some 35 feet higher than where we were standing, almost topping the banks of the bayou.
One of three cams set up for the October 24 flood event in Houston, here along Brays Bayou near 288
The camera was secured using strong zip ties and a steel chain to keep it on the column should the zip ties fail. Everything was running and we were streaming live from an unmanned camera deep inside Brays Bayou. What happened next was an instant classic.
We spent the next several hours deploying the two remaining cameras out on Bolivar peninsula to capture the potential tidal flooding that was predicted due to the onshore flow. Patricia was no more but the remnants spawned a new low pressure area over the very warm Gulf with tropical storm conditions being felt across the region.
As the day wore on, the rain fell hard across Houston and vicinity. Slowly but surely the bayous began to rise. We watched our live cam in Brays as the water steadily came up and swallowed the sidewalk, normally used by bikers and joggers on sunny days.
By 4:30 pm the water had risen over 6 feet and was about to reach the camera itself. The high water marker we had set up came loose in the wind and folded over on itself. However, the mid-point, 5 feet above the concrete below, was still clearly visible since that is where we ran a zip tie. At least we knew where the 5 foot line was. The water kept on coming. Within 15 minutes, the camera was submerged and eventually the data signal could not reach the cell site and we lost the feed. We were not surprised about this but I was shocked at how fast the water came up.
As night fell, more and more rain did as well. Houston was flooding once again as were parts of the Hill Country. Patricia left its mark on Mexico and, indirectly, on parts of Texas, Louisiana and beyond.
The next day, by late in the afternoon, we went back to Brays Bayou to retrieve the camera. To my astonishment, the water had risen all the up the side of the banks, some 25 feet higher than normal. As for our camera? It was doing just fine, resting on the flowing water, held on by the thick chain that secured it to the column. We donned some hip-waders and made our way down to the flooded bayou to grab the cam. Success once again! Despite being under water until the pressure was enough to pop the cam out from the zip ties, the case, a Pelican Storm Case, was almost completely dry inside. Only about a teaspoon of seepage was noticed. Not bad considering where it was for 30+ hours. No equipment was harmed and the cam was ready for the next event.
Check out the time lapse and then the last few minutes of real-time video from that camera:
The other two cameras out along Bolivar also worked perfect. We had now streamed more live video from more cameras than ever before – all during a season with no hurricane landfalls. Needless to say, we were quite impressed at how well things were working and it was about to get even more interesting.
During that event, Kerry had shared the links to the camera feeds with the local emergency management officials in Houston and Harris county. Kerry works with Amateur Radio for severe weather and other emergency situations and has numerous contacts within what is called TranStar. He also shared the archival video with Jeff Lindner of Harris County Flood Control District. All of a sudden, there was great interest in our project. We received tremendous praise for the efforts and set up a meeting in early November to discuss working together during future flood events. The idea was simple: we need to test the equipment regularly and HCFCD needs real-time video from as many bayou sites as possible. TranStar can only do so much and is really more for traffic issues, not weather events. We agreed to collaborate on working future flood threats and even worked to select three sites for when the next event takes place. It only took two weeks.
Kerry kept three cams with him in Houston and during a low-end flood threat on November 14, he set out all three along Houston area bayous: Brays, South Mayde Creek and Brickhouse Gully. This time, Jeff and his team were watching in real time as the rain fell. He too shared the live feed links with local officials and the media. KPRC, the NBC station in Houston, tapped in to the feeds for on-air use. The flooding was minor but the test was, once again, perfect. In fact, the cameras outlasted the event! Kerry went out the night after the rain and collected all three cases and had to turn them off as they were still running long after the front passed through.
The results were impressive. Jeff and his team had live video from actual USGS flood gauge sites (South Mayde Creek and Brickhouse) and an incredible view of Brays Bayou literally looking down from Hwy 288.
The time lapse was just as impressive. The best example was from South Mayde Creek. Watch as the rain comes in about 1/3 of the way through the video. Then, the creek rises in dramatic fashion, filling the inside floodplain in just a matter of hours, if that.
Indeed, we knew we were on to something very special with this new generation of unmanned camera system. By now, we had seven cameras ready for deployment. After the mid-November event, we ordered parts for five more – bringing our total to 12. This is some serious fire power for the next hurricane or major winter storm or Houston area flood. What would we do with it? How can it best serve the public? Here is the plan:
All of the testing was done using our public Ustream account. This means that anyone with an Internet connected device, from PC to Mac to Smartphones and almost all tablets, could access the feeds at zero cost to them. The streams are monetized with commercials that play throughout the duration, usually every 15 minutes. This is how Ustream pays for the bandwidth and we collect a tiny portion of the revenue as well.
The idea is to continue to make the feeds available to the public at no cost. We do have a subscription site that, ten years ago, was set up to provide exclusive access to our live video. However, times are changing and we now have far more cameras than ever before. We feel it is best to provide the feeds to anyone who wishes to watch at no cost what so ever. We will still offer our subscription service but it will focus much more on forecast analysis and private live video discussions with our clients. There are other unique features as well but the days of keeping our live video during field missions behind a paywall are over.
As such, anyone, including the media, may use our live feeds as much as they want. The feeds can be shared, embedded on your site, put on social media, what ever you want, it’s all good. This will get the public more involved than ever before. From the moment we leave the driveway for a field mission to the moment it’s all over, our audience can be immersed in the event like no other time before. You will go along with us as we set up each camera. If it is a substantial hurricane storm surge threat, you will be able to watch as the water rises on our markers. Imagine being able to see, in real time, just how high the water is. You won’t have to imagine – it will happen right on your screen.
In addition, you will, for the first time, hear a hurricane like never before. We can place these cams practically anywhere, giving you a front row seat to one of the most dangerous weather events on the planet. You will feel as if you’re there yet you’ll be safe in your home. Better yet, if you evacuated the region where we deployed these cams, you can see precisely why you made the right choice. All you have to do is tune in. We will provide a totally immersive experience that will show you the power of a hurricane (and other severe weather events) like you’ve never seen or heard before. And it won’t cost anything.
The benefit to emergency management and law enforcement officials is huge. Social media can be a great tool to make sure local officials have access to the live cams with ease. Jeff Lindner knows the potential of this as do other public officials that we have worked with or come to know over the last decade. Now it will be easier than ever before to gain access and know precisely what is going on via our live feeds. It’s a win-win for all, no doubt about it.
As for the science? So much information is captured via video, especially from a fixed camera location. Time lapse will continue to be an extremely valuable tool as we deploy in future events. For the scientists and forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and local WFOs, real time video as well as archival clips will go a long way in public awareness campaigns. All using technology and not putting anyone in harm’s way to capture the video.
It’s taken a decade to get here but here we are – on the brink of something so innovative and useful for those who like to watch the weather when it turns against us. We have our own network of unmanned cameras, coupled with weather data gathering capabilities that will enable us to bring you what will ultimately be the best hurricane coverage you have ever seen. All because we don’t sit around twiddling our thumbs when there are no hurricanes impacting the USA. You, our audience, will be the beneficiaries of those efforts. I guarantee that you have never seen anything like what we will unleash the next time a hurricane, especially a major hurricane, crosses the coast of the United States. It’s only a matter of time.
In the off-season, we will have winter storm coverage and blog posts. As for next hurricane season and what I think might happen? Well, if history is a guide, then the fall of the current El Nino in to possible La Nina conditions by next summer could mean we have a very busy season. Either way, like we do when there are NO hurricanes, it is always best to prepare for when there ARE hurricanes.