When there are no hurricanes, plan for when there are

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

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 wieghs 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

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

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

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

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.

We are ready. Make sure you are too.

M. Sudduth 10:45 AM Dec 1

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Blanca forecast to make landfall along Baja, moisture to spread in to U.S. Southwest

Forecaast map for hurricane Blanca in the east Pacific

Forecaast map for hurricane Blanca in the east Pacific

Hurricane Blanca is on track to make landfall along the Baja peninsula late this weekend or by early Monday. Fortunately, the wind will not be as much of an issue as the rain will be since Blanca will be moving over cooler water before landfall.

Right now, top winds are 100 mph which is substantially weaker than we saw a couple of days ago when the hurricane peaked at category five intensity. The irony of that incredible strength is that it ultimately doomed the hurricane. Why? Upwelling. Because the steering currents were very weak, Blanca, with its intense winds, sat over almost the same geographic area of the ocean for at least a day. This churned the Pacific significantly underneath the hurricane causing cold water from below to be mixed in to the surface. The result – a much weakened hurricane.

While Blanca has diminished from its record-setting power, it is still a formidable hurricane which will bring wind, rain and rough seas to portions of the Baja this weekend and in to early next week. People in the region need to be ready and not regard a weaker hurricane as less of a threat to life and property. Torrential rain alone can be a big problem.

Speaking of rain, moisture from now dead hurricane Andres and eventually from Blanca will stream northward in to the Desert Southwest of the U.S. This will increase the chance of heavy rain for some areas but not likely as widespread as we saw with Norrbert and Odile last season. In any case, interests in the Southwest U.S. should keep tabs on their local forecast over the next several days as the situation unfolds. High mountain snowmelt combined with any potential heavy rain events will easily cause streams, creeks and dry washes to reach flood stage quickly.

In other news, I am en-route to Houston for the hurricane workshop tomorrow at the George R. Brown Center. I am looking forward to interacting with literally hundreds of people as they stop by to see the HurricaneTrack Tahoe and some of our newest equipment used to study hurricanes at landfall.

After the workshop, it is time to head northwest to Amarillo. Monday is an exciting day. We test launch HURRB as we prepare for the 2015 season ourselves. I will have a separate, more thorough blog post on what we are doing with that tomorrow evening or on Sunday. Until then, keep an eye on Blanca if you live along the Baja peninsula. The Atlantic Basin is nice and quiet now so no worries there for the weekend ahead.

M. Sudduth 12:00 PM ET June 5

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Hurricane Blanca likely a problem for Baja then Southwest U.S.

Hurricane Blanca in the east Pacific

Hurricane Blanca in the east Pacific

It’s like 2014 all over again in the east Pacific. Hurricane after hurricane developing over the abnormally warm water in the region. The latest, Blanca, poses a risk to the Baja peninsula and eventually parts of the Southwest United States.

The latest from the NHC indicates that winds are near 110 mph. The forecast suggests that Blanca will become significantly stronger as it moves roughly parallel to the Mexican coastline. Fortunately, the hurricane is far enough off shore to spare the mainland any direct impacts. However, in a few days, the southern tip of the Baja is probably going to have to deal with this system.

Most model guidance and the official track forecast from the NHC suggest that Blanca will turn slightly more to the east with time as the high pressure area over the east Pacific breaks down due to a trough of low pressure off the California coast. This will allow the hurricane to track right in to the Baja region this weekend.

The intensity forecast brings Blanca close to category five due to very warm ocean water and an ideal upper level pattern. In fact, the hurricane is going through a steady period of rapid intensification right now which should last for another day or so. This means at the very least, tremendous swells will begin to impact the coast ahead of the hurricane itself due to the intense winds over the open ocean.

How strong Blanca is once it encounters land along the southern Baja remains to be seen. Water temps cool off along the forecast track close to the peninsula. Also, the NHC mentions upper level winds becoming less favorable with time, inducing shear over the hurricane. All of these factors should result in a weaker system at landfall. No matter, interests in the region should prepare for a hurricane and its associated effects by this weekend.

Once Blanca makes landfall and interacts with the Baja it will decay very quickly. However, the moisture plume that will stream northward from the dying hurricane will inevitably dump heavy rain over parts of southwest Mexico and the southwest United States. Right now, this does not look to be as serious a situation as we saw unfold last year with Pacific hurricanes Norbert and Odile. Moisture will be on the increase across the Southwest by early next week but it is too soon to know just how much and precisely where at this point. The forecast will be refined in the coming days and much will depend on how strong Blanca remains after landfall.

In other news, I am heading out beginning today for a trip to Houston, Texas for the annual Ready or Not Houston/Galveston Hurricane Workshop this Saturday. It is probably the largest event of its kind in the country and is well worth the time of anyone who stops in for a visit. Numerous agencies, news media, hurricane experts and relief organizations participate in order to bring the public exceptional hurricane information and preparedness info.

I will have the HurricaneTrack Chevy Tahoe on display along with several pieces of brand new equipment that we have developed for observing hurricanes up close and personal using technology. I will also have our HURRB (Hurricane Research Balloon) payload to show off as well. In fact, after the workshop wraps up Saturday, the team and I head up to Amarillo to prepare for a test launch of HURRB on Monday morning.

Our goal is to have a successful launch and recovery of the payload via high-altitude weather balloon. The on-board weather computer will store air pressure, temperature and humidity data every two seconds for the entire mission. If all goes as planned, the payload will ascend to at least 100,000 feet above Earth before the balloon bursts due to extreme low pressure. HURRB will then fall back to the ground via parachute to be retrieved by our team using satellite and ground based tracking. We’ll get to see it all from the point of view of two GoPro cameras mounted on the outside of the payload.

I will stream the entire trip out to Texas and back live on our public Ustream channel. On Monday, bright and early at that, I will also have the HURRB test streaming live as well. It’s all part of our own preparedness activities for the season ahead, no matter what it brings. Despite the forecast for fewer than average hurricanes, we need to be ready just as you do for that one landfall possibility that could change everything. If you live close enough to Houston to make it worth your while, I invite you to come out to the George R. Brown center on Saturday. Stop by the Tahoe and say hello. It’s an important event and we are proud to support it by our participation. No one knows for sure what kind of season we will end up having, being ready makes sense, no matter the numbers being forecast.

I’ll have more from the road including blog posts concerning Blanca and its projected impact on the Baja and the Southwest U.S.

M. Sudduth 9:35 AM ET June 3

 

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