Seven days in August: Katrina mission day two – SE FL

As I continue on with my look back at Katrina ten years after the fact, we are now in day two of the field mission. I am in south Florida working with Mike Watkins, our first major mission together. We had a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time as Katrina gathered strength just off the coast of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

I had with me three brand new “Surge Cam” boxes which housed equipment that would stream a live video feed (no audio) to our subscribers who helped to fund the project. Think of it as an early version of Kickstarter – I needed funds, loyal supporters of provided much of it through subscriptions to our live video service.

Even though we had tested the live streams before the mission, this was new ground for us. In fact, no one that we know of had ever placed a live, unmanned camera system in a hurricane using cellular data to stream the video. Mike and I were ready and had a plan in place.

Photo of thunderstorm moving onshore north of Ft. Lauderdale as TS Katrina moved slowly towards the coast on the morning of August 25, 2005

Photo of thunderstorm moving onshore north of Ft. Lauderdale as TS Katrina moved slowly towards the coast on the morning of August 25, 2005

I departed my hotel in Titusville around mid-morning on the 25th and headed south down I-95 towards Ft. Lauderdale. The sky was gorgeous with growing bands of thunderstorms rotating onshore well north of Katrina’s center. Traffic was fairly light as I recall and I had an easy time getting to south Florida.

I met up with Mike around 1pm ET and we took off for some lunch. I mention this because it boggles my mind that the region was under a hurricane warning and yet most places were open as if nothing were going on. The rain was not too bad and only a stiff breeze was blowing outside. We used the time during lunch to finalize our plan for the day.

Our contact in Deerfield Beach helped us to gain access to the pier along the Atlantic Ocean. It was closed to the public but Mike and I had permission to place one of the unmanned cameras on it.

A look at the Surge Cam back in 2005. It weighed over 75 pounds and the camera would run for abour 15 hours.

A look at the Surge Cam back in 2005. It weighed over 75 pounds and the camera would run for about 15 hours.

Keep in mind these boxes are about the size of a foot locker and weighed about 90 pounds. The enormous AGM battery inside made up a bulk of the weight. The cameras (there were two, one for daylight and thus in color and one for night which was black and white) were tethered via a 60 foot cable which ran inside the case where the magic happens. A laptop and an S-VHS VCR served as the streaming and recording devices. The idea was simple: run the video signal through the VCR first, then in to the laptop via an analog to digital converter where it would then stream using Windows Media Encoder. The first generation of Surge Cam would run for about 15 hours with the S-VHS tape lasting for 9 hours. The stream was low bit-rate, only about 30kbps and 180 by 120 in size. It was just enough to pass off as useful and allowed us to stream live from anywhere, without US having to be there with it.

We lumbered like a couple of fools in the rain and wind to get the heavy box over the chain link fence and on to the pier. Once out on the decking, it was a piece of cake to set things up. In 30 minutes, it was done and we had a live feed from the top of the pier along Deerfield Beach as Katrina edged closer to shore.

We also had live video coming from the Tahoe, with audio. At this point around 50 people were subscribed and most had tuned in for this innovative broadcast. Everything we saw and heard, so did they. It was remarkable – for the first time ever, we had the capability to take people from anywhere in the world with us on a live hurricane mission. You could hear the excitement in our voices, so much so that my father called to remind me this was a hurricane, not a sporting event. Sometimes the weather geek in us loses site of the fact that we were there for the science, not the thrill.

Photo of Ft. Lauderdale in the afternoon of August 25, 2005 as hurricane Katrina made ladnfall

Photo of Ft. Lauderdale in the afternoon of August 25, 2005 as hurricane Katrina made landfall

Mike and I made our way around southeast Florida, taking wind measurements when ever we had an open space to do so. I recorded video blogs for later use, documenting the effects of the gathering storm, soon to be hurricane. Katrina was making news and finally, people got off the roads, but not before trees had fallen, causing issues for people across the region.

By late afternoon, Katrina as a hurricane. Our live feed from the Deerfield Beach pier was running perfect. Mike and I logged numerous wind readings and kept track of the pressure from the relative safety of our specially equipped Chevy Tahoe.

We ran in to our friend and colleague Mike Theiss who lives in south Florida and makes his living documenting the worst weather on Earth. He too was out and about documenting the unfolding hurricane as it tore through Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and surrounding areas.

VW covered in sand as Katrina lashed southeast FL on August 25, 2005

VW covered in sand as Katrina lashed southeast FL on August 25, 2005

It was surreal to see tourists standing between buildings, trying to let the wind hold them up as it blasted through, compressing as it did so, creating higher gusts than elsewhere. Sometimes the wind would relax and the young men would crash to the ground, screaming with joy like little children in a play pin. All of this while the worst hurricane in quite some time bore down.

As evening set in, we collected the Surge Cam from the pier and then decided to split up and regroup over the weekend. Mike needed to tend to his family who lived in southeast Florida. I was going to head over to Naples where I would stay with my good friend, Dan Summers, director of Emergency Services for Collier County.

I dropped Mike off at his car, though I have no recollection of where that was. Funny how some things I can remember like I am still there while other events escape me entirely. I gassed up the Tahoe and proceeded west across Alligator Alley. Katrina sagged to the southwest and dumped phenomenal amounts of rain on Miami and vicinity. Katrina blasted south and in to the Everglades like a giant monster headed for cover.

I streamed my trek across the Alley to Naples without a flaw. Several people stayed up with me as the night wore on. I arrived in Naples around 2am, Saturday the 26th. I was exhausted but needed to get the gear out of the Tahoe and recharge the batter for the case we had used in Deerfield Beach. Dan showed me to my room. I checked my laptop a couple of times to see where Katrina was and the latest thinking from the National Hurricane Center. I had at least a day to recover and stock up for the trip to the Gulf Coast. I finally turned in around 4am and slept like a baby. Somewhere over the warm water of the southeast Gulf of Mexico, Katrina put a foot in, then both feet. The clock was now ticking as the countdown to the historic landfall on the 29th was officially on. The day was a success but a much larger mission awaited in the days to come.

To be continued tomorrow with day three….

M. Sudduth


Erika forecast to become a hurricane, head towards southeast Bahamas

Latest tracking map showing Erika moving in the general direction of the southeast Bahamas over the next five days

Latest tracking map showing Erika moving in the general direction of the southeast Bahamas over the next five days

The NHC began issuing advisories on TS Erika late last night. At first, it looked as though the 5th named storm of the season would not intensify to hurricane strength – that changed over night.

Warm sea surface temps, higher upper ocean heat content and a fairly favorable environment are now part of the new forecast which calls for the storm to reach category one strength by day four. It is worth noting that the NHC mentions having “lower confidence than usual” in the four and five day forecast for both intensity and track. This is due to quite a spread in the models. Some are showing a strong hurricane, others nothing at all really, just an open wave of low pressure. I tend to think that once clear of the deep tropics and the shear zone that destroyed Danny, that Erika will have a clear shot at becoming a hurricane near the Bahamas.

The track forecast is fairly straight forward for the time being. A strong ridge of high pressure to the north of the storm will continue to force it on a fast-paced westerly to west-northwesterly course. This could place the northeast Caribbean at risk for some impacts as Erika moves closer. As such, tropical storms watches are up for a portion of the region. Perhaps we can at least get some rain from the outer bands and still have Erika pass comfortably north of the islands. We shall see, they certainly need the rain down that way.

A lot will be made in the coming days of the track aiming at the Southeast United States and Florida in particular. It has been a long time since Florida had a hurricane threat of any kind, much less a landfall. Remember that five day track forecast errors can be large, sometimes hundreds of miles. There will be plenty of time to monitor the progress of Erika and rest assured, NOAA and other government agencies will be conducting a plethora of field recon in and around the storm over the next several days to provide state-of-the-art intel on what’s going on with the storm. This data will help to initialize the computer models each day, providing even better guidance. Just don’t let the cone of uncertainty become the cone of unnecessary anxiety.

I will have a full in-depth video blog posted by later this afternoon once the morning model runs are complete. I’ll post it here as well as on our social media feeds and in our app, Hurricane Impact. I think you’ll find the discussion to be very helpful as I break down the major factors that are likely to be in play as we track Erika over the next several days.

I’ll also have a separate blog post later today or this evening as I look back 10 years in to the past and our hurricane Katrina story, part of my “Seven days in August” blog series.

M. Sudduth 8:30 AM ET August 25

Seven days in August: Day 1 – Katrina a milestone for us

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.

Satellite photo of TS Katrina on the day I left NC for FL

Satellite photo of TS Katrina on the day I left NC for FL

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

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….

M. Sudduth