Eleven years since last major hurricane landfall and why it matters

Hurricane Matthew with the eye just off the coast of Florida - Oct 7, 2016

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:

  1. 2008 – Gustav and Ike – both responsible for tens of billions in damage and numerous deaths
  2. 2011 – Irene – another costly hurricane that affected areas from North Carolina to New York and even parts of New England
  3. 2012 Isaac and Sandy – combined, the two “category one” hurricanes made 2012 one of the costliest and deadliest hurricane seasons in years
  4. 2016 РHermine and Matthew Рagain, 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 Рthe 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.

M. Sudduth 9:10 AM ET Oct 24

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Hermine still full of surprises but, fortunately for coastal interests, not the bad kind

NHC track map showing the slow movement of Hermie generally away from the coast of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast

NHC track map showing the slow movement of Hermie generally away from the coast of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast

Remember back on August 18 when 99L was designated just off the coast of Africa? The hurricane social media frenzy went in to over drive as it looked as though this could be “the one”. All of the major global models at one point or another showed substantial development with the possibility of a strong hurricane heading towards the Southeast United States.

As the days went by, it became clear that we would have to wait a little while for 99L to reach a more unstable atmosphere, away from the smothering, dry effects of the Saharan Air Layer or SAL. So we waited….and waited. Nothing happened. Still, most of the models, including the much-praised ECMWF, went on to insist that this would eventually explode over the very warm waters of the Atlantic and possibly end Florida’s hurricane drought with a strike on the SE coast. In fact, the track and intensity began to have eerie similarities to infamous hurricanes of the past. People were getting nervous. Yet, nothing happened. The tropical wave moved along, sputtering with periods of convection coming and going but lacking any significant organization. The probability for development went up to 80% and it seemed like it was only a matter of time. And so we waited.

The global and regional hurricane models continued to generally suggest a powerful hurricane could develop once 99L made it in to the Gulf of Mexico. As the system moved through the Bahamas, it still lacked much structure and no signs of developing. It looked like it might never get going. It was a bust for the models as a whole since all of them at one time or another had their moments of over-developing the wave in to something potentially historic. Lucky for coastal residents of the Gulf Coast, it never happened.

Finally, once 99L moved in to the southeast Gulf of Mexico, it showed signs of living up to some of its potential. All of a sudden, it looked like we might actually have a tropical storm or even a hurricane to deal with for the first time in almost eleven years along the Florida coast.

It took until the afternoon of August 31 for 99L to become tropical storm Hermine. It was now just a day and a half from making landfall in the Big Bend area but it wasn’t very organized and so the threat of it becoming a hurricane was not very high. Wrong again.

It wasn’t until Thursday, just hours before landfall, that Hermine began to strengthen. It did so fairly quickly and managed to become a hurricane around mid-afternoon Thursday. The threat of a significant storm surge for the Big Bend region was looming large. I set out cameras in St Marks and on Cedar Key, awaiting the arrival of the much talked about first hurricane since before the iPhone was invented.

Hermine made landfall roughly 12 hours after it became a hurricane and brought with it flooding rain, damaging surge, power outages and now a new threat: the chance it would strengthen over the Atlantic, just off the coast of Delaware and New Jersey and then hook back, similar to what Sandy did in 2012 but not as dramatic.

All of a sudden it looked like Labor Day weekend, the last big hurrah for beach lovers up and down the East Coast, would be ruined. The threat of “dangerous storm surge” was the headline as the wind field of the now post-tropical storm was expanding and could push water in to areas such as Hampton Roads and eventually the Delaware and New Jersey coasts. It didn’t look good at all and this was the worst time for it to happen as millions of people were flocking to the coast before saying farewell to summer.

I packed up the Tahoe with four live camera units plus my weather station and 5 meter wind tower. I was ready. It looked like 50 to 60 mph winds could be experienced along parts of the Jersey shore accompanied by damaging waves and storm surge, especially during high tide cycles. I departed Wilmington, NC around 5pm yesterday. The signals were beginning to become mixed the further north I drove. It now looked like Hermine would move farther off the coast and in fact it was. The track it was taking was more east than north, putting it at a greater distance away from the Mid-Atlantic. This was not expected but was a good sign for New Jersey especially.

As the night wore on and I got closer to my destination of Vineland, the 00z ECWMF came out. I checked in to my hotel and took a look. East. Hermine was going more east. This reduced the threat of a significant surge event for the Mid-Atlantic. I figured that the 5am advisory package would show a track farther away from the coast. I hit the pillow and logged about 6 hours of sleep.

I woke up to good news. My trip to New Jersey will be more about covering the beach erosion and some high tide effects than anything else. For coastal New Jersey and the people who call it home or vacation here, the news is much better now. The weekend will be salvaged and not a total loss. The forecast track shifted a little more away from the coast on the 11am advisory but the threat of storm surge still remains – for now. All in all, it probably won’t be nearly as bad as feared just 36 hours ago. The guidance changes constantly and meandering storms, hurricanes and anything in between always pose a challenge for forecasters. I just go with the flow and if it looks like a high impact event, I will be there. People want to know what the effects are and that’s what I do best – show the impact.

In this case, I will show the impact from a unique perspective. I am going to place two live cams out in Brigantine later today – one on the seawall and the other on the back bay. Both cams will be low angle shots – close to the water. Any rise or wave action will be easy to see and hear. You’ll also see that overall, it’s not too bad. The surf conditions are not good for swimming since rip currents will be common. Otherwise, Hermine will leave the scene with one final poke at the weather geek community. No one wants to see a disaster unfold but when the guidance suggests one is imminent, everyone pays attention. Hermine gave us glimpses of an alternate future that never came to pass on the scale that it could have been. No hurricane in Miami. No Katrina Part II. No Sandy Part II.

Instead, the reality is we had a hurricane landfall in Florida this past Friday in the early morning hours. It was bad for some, not so much for others. Hermine reminded us once again what hurricanes are capable of even if those memories fade quickly in this ever-changing news cycle world that we live in. For meteorologists it was a massive headache. The public needs to depend on forecasts, even if the forecast calls for complete devastation. Trying to convey risk and uncertainty is always challenging. On the one hand, something obvious like Katrina or Andrew makes people take notice but the end result is awful. It’s the situations like Hermine, where the potential is there for something very bad to happen yet it probably won’t, that pose the biggest challenges. The line between over stating the danger and being caught off guard is razor thin sometimes. At the end of the day, all we can do as mere humans is to try our best.

Hermine will turn away from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast but not before an agonizingly slow drift just far enough offshore to keep the worst from happening. Of course, we’re talking about the next 72 hours or so. Remember what we thought would happen with Hermine just 48 hours ago? Nothing is ever certain with weather. The situation looks markedly better but it’s not done yet. Beach erosion, rough surf, rip currents and some periods of strong winds will make for a less than ideal Labor Day along the coast. As long as no more surprises are waiting to be sprung by Hermine, it will end up being remembered more for its forecast challenges than a legacy of damage and loss of life.

I will be out later this afternoon to set up a pair of live cams in the Brigantine area to show what effects there are. The morning high tide tomorrow could be somewhat dramatic – we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way, it’s great to be back in New Jersey where I have made a lot of friends in recent years….all due 100% to the weather.

M. Sudduth 12:20 pm ET Sept 4

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Hermine saga continues with major impacts expected for Mid-Atlantic

Tracking map showing the slow moving path of Hermine off the Mid-Atlantic coast this coming week

Tracking map showing the slow moving path of Hermine off the Mid-Atlantic coast this coming week. Click for full size.

I am back in my office now in North Carolina where I am also gathering more equipment, charging battery packs and getting things ready for another field mission – this time, in New Jersey.

Hermine made landfall as a category one hurricane in Florida in the early morning hours of Friday and brought with it a swath of minor to moderate damage, power outages, storm surge and very heavy rain. The effects were felt from Florida to points north up the I-95 corridor in to eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia. It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.

A bizarre transition is taking place with Hermine that will infuse the storm with energy from the atmosphere combing with the tremendous amount of heat that the storm is releasing due to its tropical warm core. This will lead to a larger storm system off the Mid-Atlantic states that it poised to sit there for several days and send enormous waves and high winds towards the coast. This storm has the potential of rivaling the damage from Sandy back in 2012 but not everywhere along the East Coast. Let me explain.

No two hurricanes are ever exactly alike but we can see similarities between them. Sandy was a unique, late season storm that came from the Atlantic towards the New Jersey coast, pushing unimaginable amounts of seawater ahead of it. We saw the results and will never forget those images.

Hermine is different in some ways but the same in others. First off, it’s early September, the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. Water temps of the East Coast are very warm compared to late 2012’s season and above normal for ANY season. This will allow Hermine to strengthen back to a hurricane and begin to pile up the water along the coast from the Tidewater region of Virginia up the Delaware and New Jersey coasts and possibly in to southern New England when all is said and done.

The one major and very important difference to take note of is the fact that Sandy ultimately made landfall in New Jersey – Hermine is forecast to stall off the coast but close enough to pound the area with near hurricane-force winds along the beaches, high surf, periods of rain and a relentless on-onslaught of waves and storm surge. Beach erosion and over wash will be a certainty for the barrier islands and as water levels rise, some homes and businesses will be inundated with water. I would not be shocked to see 6 to 8 feet of water rise in some locations. I wish I could pinpoint exactly where that might occur but as the NWS points out in their discussion, even minor changes in track and strength can have huge impacts on the effects.

The bottom line is this: Hermine is not done yet and poses a serious threat to life and property for portions of the Mid-Atlantic coast all the way up in to the Northeast. Unlike Sandy, Hermine is not forecast to come inland. This will mainly be a coastal issue with only limited impacts for inland locations. It could be several days before the storm, which is forecast to become a hurricane again, moves on out in to the open Atlantic and away from the United States.

I am preparing to head up to New Jersey from North Carolina later today. I will bring with me one state of the art weather station to set up along the coast along with four of my unmanned cameras. You may have seen the incredible live video from the one I deployed in Cedar Key on Friday. The storm surge ripped off a huge piece of wooden deck/walkway and sent it crashing in to the camera itself, knocking it off the pole it was mounted to. The battering from the waves eventually caused the cam to shut off but not before revealing the danger and destructive power of storm surge. I went back and recovered the camera yesterday fully intact and operational. The Pelican case it is housed in did its job and protected everything inside. I will bring that same camera with me to New Jersey.

My plan will be to deploy the four cams along the coast of New Jersey from the Cape May area north to include Brigantine for sure and then two other locations that I will work on as I make my way north. I want to be able to show you the immediate coast where the waves will be but also have a camera or two in the back bays of the region to capture the rise of the water with each high tide cycle. All of the cameras will be available to view at no cost right here on the HurricaneTrack.com site. I will post the links once they are operational beginning tomorrow morning.

The weather data will feed in to our app, Hurricane Impact. The data updates in real time every minute with wind speed and gust info plus the air pressure. There is also a pressure sensor that sends the air pressure reading each minute as well. And to top it off, the weather station set up has its own camera to send a picture to the app every minute, giving you a look at the area where the station is deployed.

I will be posting updates from the road to the video section of the app so be sure to check that often as I will be keeping the information updated several times per day.

I will post an in-depth video discussion on Hermine and what to expect in the Mid-Atlantic through the Northeast by Noon ET today.

M. Sudduh 10AM ET Sept 3

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Field missions 2016: taking you beyond the edge of the envelope via technology

It is now hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin. So far, not much going on which is typical of early June. But what about when things do get busy and we have a landfalling hurricane? Assuming that this in fact happens, let me spell out for you how incredible our field coverage will be in 2016.

The plan

Our plan is to provide complete hurricane coverage from the moment we see a landfall threat until it’s all over and the recovery process begins. We have a dedicated and extremely talented team ready for field work and behind the scenes efforts. When it’s time to go, we will immerse you in the process like you’ve never seen it before. If you have any interest in hurricanes, whether it be from being fascinated by their raw power or maybe you and your family are in harm’s way, we will have it covered.

Everything we do will be streamed live on our public Ustream set of channels. It all begins the moment we leave the driveway and it won’t stop until we get back. We’ve been doing it this way since 2005, before most had any clue of how to stream live from a moving vehicle. It was pretty good then, it’s absolutely incredible now – the technology has come so far, it’s like you’re there with us every step of the way.

This gives us the advantage of keeping you in the loop every second of the mission. When there is new information coming in, we’re on it the moment it breaks. When we know, you’ll know because you’ll be joining us live as if you are there in the Tahoe with us. For those who have seen our coverage, you already know – and it just keeps getting better.

Unmanned cams

One of our 12 unmanned camera systesms - here seen while testing during the blizzard back in January, along the NJ coast

One of our 12 unmanned camera systems – here seen while testing during the blizzard back in January, along the NJ coast

Once we get to the area where we expect landfall, we will begin working to place our unique, state-of-the-art unmanned camera systems in places that no human being should present once the hurricane comes in. We have 12 of these cameras and can literally blanket a region with a virtual fence of live feeds that will leave you breathless when the worst of the weather arrives. Keep in mind that we now have audio with the camera systems, and let me tell you it is stunning how much this improves the experience. We’ve tested the new cams in winter storms and flood events as of late and the audio brings it to a whole new level of virtual immersion in to the worst weather imaginable.

Our goal will be to show the storm surge primarily since that causes the most damage and has the most potential for resulting in loss of life.¬† Our hope is that by placing an unmanned camera that anyone nearby who refuses to evacuate will think twice considering we believe it to be important enough to stick a camera in their neighborhood. What’s more, we have our own water height markers, surge markers if you will, that we will set up in front of the shot to show you how high the water is at any given moment. This is unprecedented in terms of the value to the public, emergency management, the NWS/NHC and the media. Live cams showing water and storm surge are great – but showing precisely how high the water is at a given location is the next level and can benefit so many people, even in the face of a terrible disaster. Our test in Deweyville, Texas for the record flood back in March proved the worth of this concept.

Screen grab from our Deweyville, TX streaming event that covered the record setting flood from the Sabine river back in March, 2016. Notice the flood marker that we set up on the stop sign to show the rise of water. We will use these same markers during hurricane storm surge events

Screen grab from our Deweyville, TX streaming event that covered the record setting flood from the Sabine river back in March, 2016. Notice the flood marker that we set up on the stop sign to show the rise of water. We will use these same markers during hurricane storm surge events (click on pic to enlarge)

The unmanned cameras typically run for 32 hours which is plenty of time for covering the entire landfall event. This also allows us to set them up in places that would perhaps otherwise be left without any coverage. Small towns or barrier islands that would be it hard by storm surge are now going to have a live camera that, once set up, will provide the people who evacuated with a look at what’s happening. All of this while keeping us out of harm’s way since we won’t be there where the storm surge is. Technology will provide the solution to the problem of how to get incredible live video from the most dangerous part of a hurricane. We will accomplish this goal using our new generation of unmanned cameras.

All of the live feeds will be made available to the public to view at absolutely no cost. We will post links right here on the HurricaneTrack.com homepage and make it very easy to follow along. We encourage viewers to share the links, embed them on their own pages, social media and elsewhere. Since we are using the ad-supported Ustream platform, we have no cost to provide the live feeds. Anyone with a modern device and and Internet connection will able to follow along for as long as they wish. It will be a remarkable experience, I guarantee it.

Weather data

Live weather data will be an important part of our field coverage in 2016

Live weather data will be an important part of our field coverage in 2016

The next step in our field work will be to set up our weather stations to collect the all-important data from the wind and the air pressure. Again, using top of the line equipment, our wind and pressure sensors will provide reliable, accurate data every 60 seconds from the moment we turn it on. This data, along with a web cam image from the site, will feed to our app, Hurricane Impact. It also goes exclusively to our subscribers via an interface we have developed for online viewing of the data. We have two complete weather stations in the U.S. now plus one in Bermuda (I left it there after Gonzalo in 2014). The two stations for U.S. landfalls will run for about 24 hours, providing exceptional weather data no matter how strong the hurricane is. Our goal will be to sample the highest winds with one station, likely placing it within the right-front quadrant relative to forward movement while placing the other station where we believe the eye will pass over, giving us (hopefully) the lowest pressure reading possible. You will be able to watch all of this as it happens – just get our app, it’s a great way to support our work and it gives you something that no one else offers. Sure there is plenty of online weather data, but how many of those stations were set up SPECIFICALLY for that hurricane? Ours are exactly that. Hurricane Impact- two words – search for it on the App Store and in Google Play.

HURRB Weather Balloon

HURRB payload ready for testing in 2015

HURRB payload ready for testing in 2015

All the while our equipment is streaming live video from what could be hell on earth conditions, and our weather stations are sampling the extreme environment, we will be preparing to do something that no one has ever even attempted, much less accomplished.

We call it HURRB for Hurricane Balloon. It’s a cute name for something very important and innovative. We have designed a payload that will be lifted via a 1500 gram weather balloon through the eye of the hurricane just after it makes landfall, to the stratosphere, and back down again via parachute. The payload contains weather sensors to collect temperature, humidity and pressure readings every 6 seconds. Using APRS and Amateur Radio, this data will be sent back live every minute or so. It’s also stored of course on a micro SD card inside the payload. In addition, a high-end GPS device will record the position and speed of the payload, also every 6 seconds, throughout the flight. This will help us to understand the wind pattern in the eye and as high as 100,000 feet above the planet.

Of course, all of this will be recorded via a pair of GoPro cameras placed on the outside of the payload. Never before have we seen the inside of a hurricane’s eye like this – not going vertical. Now imagine the moment when the payload exits the top of the hurricane and soars another 60,000 feet above – looking down on the white, massive spiral bands of the slowly dying hurricane as it moves inland. We don’t know what it will look like but we’re going to find out – if we get a hurricane, or even a tropical storm of decent strength and organization, we’ll launch in 2016.

The weather balloon will reach burst altitude – hopefully around 100,000+ feet – where it will pop and send the payload back to earth via a 4 foot parachute. APRS and satellite tracking will tell us exactly where it is and where it landed. All we have to do is recover it and see what we captured. It could be some of the most incredible video ever seen of a hurricane – we won’t know unless we try.

Colleague Kerry Mallory holding on to the inflated weather balloon and payload right before our test launch last June in Colorado City, Texas

Colleague Kerry Mallory holding on to the inflated weather balloon and payload right before our test launch last June in Colorado City, Texas

We’ve tested HURRB three times since designing it in 2012. The next test is coming up on June 12 in Kansas. After that, we wait for the chance of a lifetime.

Once it’s all said and done, we will have accomplished quite a bit. Basically it’s just a few guys working together to provide what amounts to the most comprehensive hurricane field coverage possible. No TV network will have 12 unmanned cameras placed in the teeth of the hurricane. Other “storm chasers” will certainly have impressive live feeds and hand-held video but they too will have to retreat at some point or risk being hurt or killed. Our cameras have no fear, no wife and kids to come home to, they just sit there and bear witness to the unleashed power that hurricanes bring. We will literally go beyond the edge of the envelope, the danger zone, so to speak, and immerse you in the wind, rain and storm surge like you’ve never witnessed it before. All of it executed via technology.

So there’s our plan. Now we wait and watch for that suspect area of weather that gradually becomes better organized, captivating our every thought as it strengthens and heads towards land. If and when the time comes, we will deliver the best hurricane coverage yet. Come along with us, we’ll take you there.

M. Sudduth 9:30 AM June 1

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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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