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 HurricaneTrack.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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….