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Hurricane Gordon Chase

Sept. 16-17, 2000

By Jim Edds

I left Marathon in the Florida Keys Saturday morning for Tampa, hoping to beat the outer rain bands from strengthening Tropical Storm Gordon in the southern Gulf of Mexico. No need to drive in the rain if you don't have to I thought.

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A hastily assembled evacuation train from Miami rushed down in blinding rain only to be swept off the tracks by the massive storm surge 18 feet high.

Less than an hour later I passed through Homestead where in 1992 Hurricane Andrew, packing winds over 160 mph and the third strongest hurricane to hit the US, destroyed most homes and businesses.



It soon dawned on me that I was in the impact zone of the Storm King and that the very history of Florida had been shaped by hurricanes. I wondered too if Gordon would spin up to a similar monster fueled by the warm Gulf of Mexico.

I was unfamiliar with the Florida west coast and kept wondering where would be the best vantage point, would the roads be accessible, and would it come in during the day?

I traversed the Everglades via two lane Hwy. 41 to Naples. I always take this wilderness route over the quicker but very boring Interstate 75 alternative. I like to watch the wildlife and alligators in the adjacent swamps. Years ago, I actually got in one of those swamps to photograph Manny Puig, from Animal Planet's Extreme Contact, lifting a 10 foot gator off the bottom for the first time . . and yes we still have all our appendages!

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At Naples I got on I75 north for the rest of the trip to Tampa. As I pulled into my sister's place for the
night, veteran storm chaser Jim Leonard called me on the cell phone. He had just filmed a tornado spawned
by Gordon west of Miami. Jim was about 3 hours behind me when his weather radio alarm sounded with a
Tornado Watch. He altered his route significantly and was rewarded with catching a Gordon tornado.
Gordon was still over 30 hours away but the action had already started. During my 5 hour trip the pressure
had dropped 14 millibars and the winds were nearing hurricane force.

The next morning I left my sister's place having converted her PC savvy kids into storm chasers. Kids are
fascinated by storms especially when it means they don't have to go to school the next day!

My plan was to go to the coast just south of where the center of Hurricane Gordon would make landfall.
I knew from Hurricane Georges in Key West in 1998 not to head for the center in a hurricane that doesn't
have an eye. The strongest convection, and therefore highest winds would be out from the center-maybe
as much as 40 miles.

As I neared the coast I tuned to the Tampa Weather Service frequency and listened for the new coordinates.
Ground zero was going to be Cedar Key. All I had to do was drive north up the west coast of Florida and
stop just south of Cedar Key. Easy I thought. Unfortunately there aren't many coastal roads in this part of
Florida. I drove north on Hwy. 19 and checked out a place on the shore called Yankeetown. Nope this
won't do I thought. Can't maneuver here and the storm surge would get me.

Now I had a problem-where to go? I pulled out a higher resolution map and peered intently at my options.
I had run out of suitable towns. However, this map showed Cedar Key sticking way out with lots of low
lying areas. Humm, I like the way this looks. I may not get the strongest winds but I would see the storm
surge and you know how that water piles up on the Gulf Coast.

Cedar Key is one of the best kept secrets in Florida. A small village isolated on the coast that the developers
haven't worked over. I drove down main street and pulled into this empty parking lot next to the NOAA
weather tower-which turned out to be a storm chaser beacon. It was about 1pm Sunday.

Chasers from all over started showing up. There was Ken Mckinnon from GA, Mark Sudduth and Eddie
Smith with the Hurricane Intercept Research Team from NC, Tony Whitener from Tennessee, and finally Jim
Leonard and first time cane chaser Mike Theiss from the Florida Keys.

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few local and state police, and a handful of locals. About 5:30pm the show started with the wind pushing the water up against this small bridge next to the appropriately named "Sea Breeze Restaurant". One of the news guys actually did a live update holding on to a rail above the seawall as the spray from crashing waves blasted him. It was really funny watching him choke and cough trying to get

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a clean take not to mention it made for great action video!

The law enforcement folks were easy going and didn't seem to mind when a number of the chasers got on the
bridge and experienced the thrill of 60+ mph wind and spray first hand. No doubt some of the video stills
would be going up on their webpages after the show.

One time I was taking a still picture of a news crew at the seawall with my window down. I was looking
through the viewfinder trying to focus the darn thing when a big wave outside my field of view rolled in. Half
a second later the spray came through my window soaking most everything. Luckily, I had a blanket in the
back seat and soaked up the mess.

Downtown Cedar Key, mostly on pilings over water, was really spooky looking now. Further down the

road I could see storm surge blasting through a gap between two restaurants. I couldn't hold my camera steady anymore cause the wind was rocking my vehicle. Mark Sudduth, sporting goggles and an underwater housing for his video camera, went back out into the elements to film that up close and personal storm surge kind of shot.

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Even though Gordon weakened slightly before making landfall, no one was disappointed with the footage at Cedar Key. To see the water level come up that much was really amazing and it scares me to think what a Cat III could do. Probably take out the entire downtown strip of Cedar Key.

One by one the chasers headed back towards the mainland in hopes of finding a motel. The police set up a road block about 5 miles outside Cedar Key turning away anyone trying to get back in. I drove for about 45 minutes inland and found a Best Western in Chiefland that was open (and had a room!). That hot shower never felt so good. I was still too excited to sleep and uploaded some video stills on the internet late into the night.

The next morning I drove up to my folks place in Pensacola for some R & R on the sugar-white sandy beaches. Little did I know I would get the 2 for 1 storm special on this road trip. Tropical Storm Helene was soon to arrive . . . but that's another story.

2000 Jim Edds

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