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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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