Hurricane Journey - Life in the Danger Zone
by Jim Edds
Some folks in my business start watching tropical waves as soon as they come off the coast of Africa. Every day, these folks check to see which waves exhibit signs of organization. The NHC will circle suspect areas and give a percentage, based on the chances the wave will form into a tropical cyclone in the next 48 hours. That information goes on their website. Also, a tropical wave that is showing signs of getting better organized might be given a number, like "invest 97L," and weather forecast models might be initiated.
While the models have gotten better over the years, they are still often unreliable until a system spins up into a closed circulation (tropical depression). Without a closed circulation, the models are only decent at predicting the general movement of a developing tropical wave across the Atlantic.
For most people, the local nightly weatherman is probably where they're going to first hear about a suspect tropical wave or other potential threat from the tropics. If a wave does spin up into a depression, the NHC will issue advisories, including a long-range, five-day projected path and a strength forecast. While the five-day forecast has a lot of error, if the track is just offshore of your city or town it sure gets your attention - especially if it's forecast to be at hurricane strength.
For example, a tropical depression just east of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean is just five days out from Florida, where it could be a strong hurricane by the time it arrives. If you live where hurricanes can strike, it's always wise to check the tropics at least once a day, especially during the peak of the season in August and September.
As we saw earlier in the seasonal graphics, hurricane season really gets going in August and September with a peak around September 10th. There are seasons where hurricanes do form in June and July, but most come in late summer when the water temperatures are at their maximum and the upper level winds are more favorable for development.
As soon as the long range models hint at a storm coming your way, you should start preparing. There are some things you can do at the start of hurricane season, like making sure your generator (if you have one) is running properly. Get some batteries, too - they have several years of shelf life.
It's a good idea to film the inside and outside of your house with your ipad, so you can document what you have for insurance purposes. Also, you might want to back up important documents and photos. More details on how to do this are in the Resources section at the end of the book.
How do you prepare for a hurricane? First, you prepare early. No two hurricanes are the same, and how far you are away from the eye or right side of the storm makes a big difference in the winds you can expect. Maybe you won't get a direct hit and the damage will be light, but you just never know. That's especially true early on, when you're busy getting ready.
You should be stocked up on the standard necessities, like:
Food for at least a week (your
favorite fast food place will likely be closed)
Top off your gas tank on all vehicles and get fuel for the generator (if you have one). Do this early before the lines form. If you have extra five-gallon plastic gas cans get them filled, too.
It would be a good idea to have a way of charging your cell phone if the power goes out. Cell towers have a 24-hour battery backup, and there's a good chance the cell tower will come back on line before the regular power. Having a small battery powered source for your iphone is a good idea. These usually run on AA size batteries, and you can find them online or at your iphone store. Remember to get one that uses batteries, not one that plugs into the AC wall outlet.
As the storm nears, turn the
refrigerator and freezer to the coldest settings and keep them closed as
much as possible so that food will last longer if the power does go out. I
would also turn the AC down, too. At least you'll have one night's sleep
where it isn't so hot inside your home. I recall in 1998 I turned the AC
down all the way in my house in Marathon, FL before heading to film
Hurricane Georges in Key West with Jim Leonard. The AC stayed on until the
power went out. When we came back in from filming later that night, it was
still cool inside and we slept well.
If you're really prepared, you'll have all your important documents and photos digitized on a hard drive/USB stick or your ipad. Also keep a separate copy somewhere offsite, like in the cloud. Don't be one of those people who lose precious photos and paperwork to water damage. Backup storage is cheap, so back them up and put the backup in an offsite location.
I have a saying: "smart people don't wait in line." If you're waiting in line, you're not using your time effectively. Go to the store and stock up early on supplies before the mad hurricane rush. There is precious little time to prepare for a hurricane, because you have to spend one day securing your workplace, another day securing your home, and a third day to evacuate if you don't plan on riding out the storm.
Evacuate or Ride it Out?
The first thing you need to know is if you're in an evacuation zone. The local county will have a "slosh model" map that will give you an idea whether your house is susceptible to the expected storm surge. If you need to evacuate, they will notify you. Keep in mind, though, that hurricanes with a greater wind field are going to generate more storm surge. Category three Hurricane Katrina generated a maximum storm surge of 27.8 feet at landfall, vs. category five Hurricane Camille at 22.6 feet (both at Pass Christian, Mississippi).
Whether you evacuate or not depends on a lot of personal considerations, and it can be a tough decision. I recall the evacuation traffic for Hurricane Katrina as I was driving from Pensacola, Florida to Gulfport, Mississippi. It was a bumper-to-bumper, 130-mile line of slow-moving cars on Interstate 10 in the eastbound lane.
I know it was just awful in the mega traffic jam. That's surely a worst case scenario and doesn't happen often, but you have to expect some sort of evacuation traffic if a strong hurricane threatens your area. Katrina had bottomed out at 175-mph sustained winds and most everyone was "running for the hills," especially after the famous doomsday forecast by the New Orleans Weather Service Office.
Many folks I talked to that evacuated say they won't do it again because the traffic jam was horrendous, the motels charged too much (if you could find one with a vacancy), and many of the motels that did have vacancies wouldn't take pets. Plus, you can bet the gas stations along the way would have long lines. On the other hand, if you have a family will they be safe if you decide to "ride it out?" You have to make the decision.
If local officials don't evacuate your area due to storm surge or flooding concerns, then you may decide to "ride out the storm." What can you expect? For sure you can expect the power to go out as the wires sway in the wind. They will touch one another, and then short out. The water may or may not be safe to drink during and after the storm, depending on whether the pumping stations have backup generators and other factors.
If you've been through a hurricane you have an idea of what it's like without power or even water. It may be two weeks or longer before the power is restored if your area has taken a direct hit from a category two storm or higher. You need to be prepared for the worst case scenario. You might be cooking your own food, too, so if you're addicted to fast food you'll have to suffer for a while.
A few reasons to stay put and ride out the storm are: you don't have to worry about getting back in and won't worry about your house, you won't be stuck in another traffic jam coming back – where power line crews should have priority, and you can start cleaning up and addressing any damage issues immediately. My personal opinion is if the water can't get in your house and you don't live in a trailer, just stay put for a category one, two, or three storm. The rare category four or five storm is a different beast altogether when it makes landfall. The wind is so strong that it will definitely scare you, and likely damage your house in some way. We just don't build them to go through a category four or five unscathed, and evacuating might be your best choice.
After a hurricane it's dangerous outside. Stay off the roads. Let the power crews and emergency vehicles have the road.
I recall one time after Hurricane Gustav, I was driving for hours trying to get home to Florida from Thibodaux, Louisiana. The main roads were blocked by fallen power poles, but I took a bunch of side roads and finally made it to Interstate 10 just west of New Orleans. I was stopped at a checkpoint leading into New Orleans. The trooper advised me that traffic into New Orleans was closed. I asked about Interstate 55 north. He advised that interstate 55 north was cleared, so I took that route. I'm driving along at night around 55 mph, and 20 minutes into the drive I see a huge fallen pine tree all the way across both lanes going north. Talk about a heart attack! I quickly hit the brakes and slid under the main trunk, snapping off branches as I went. Where did that come from? I thought the trooper said the road was clear! It's just best to stay off the roads after a hurricane. Take it from me.
Recovery after a hurricane is often a long and difficult period. Power and water is out in the short term, but damaged homes and property sometimes takes many years to bounce back. In the old days it could take a month to get the power back on after a hurricane - like when Fredrick hit Mobile in 1979. These days the power crews from states all over go on alert and prepare to travel to an area hit by a hurricane. It's also a nice paycheck for them. It's unusual now to go without power for more than two weeks.
In 2004, the power crews first responded to Hurricane Charley in Punta Gorda, FL. After they got the power back on, they headed off to Fort Pierce where Hurricane Frances hit, then off to the Pensacola area hit hard by Hurricane Ivan. Then they went back to Fort Pierce to turn the lights on again after Hurricane Jeanne.
The road to recovery can be long and difficult. In the long term, however, just like in nature the areas do bounce back and in many cases are better than before.
Hurricane Ivan went ashore near Gulf Shores Alabama on Sept. 15-16, 2004 as a 120-mph category three hurricane. A large and powerful hurricane, Ivan pushed an incredible amount of storm surge onto the coast - especially to the right of the hurricane's eye in Pensacola and the surrounding area. However, within a few years the beach had bounced back and most of the damaged structures were rebuilt.
[Before and after photos of Pensacola Beach, then and now http://www.extremestorms.com/hurricane-ivan.htm]
Here is a link to Galveston, TX photos after Hurricane Ike
in 2008, and then one year later, from the Houston Chronicle
Areas hit by hurricanes do bounce back, but it takes time. Being prepared for one can make all the difference in taking a lot of the stress and worry out of the event. That's what I've tried to do with this book - take you into a hurricane to see what really happens or could happen. Then you can make a better decision as to what to do. In the next section, I list some of my favorite resources and apps for the ipad & iphone to keep me informed during hurricane season.
A Hurricane Cameraman's Resources - What do I Use? Here you Go:
The best source of hurricane information in our mobile society is the NHC website. It's gotten a lot better over the years, and now they circle suspect areas in yellow and provide a percentage chance that it will form into a tropical depression or storm in the next 48 hours. Once a depression forms the NHC will issue advisories and a five-day forecast track. I pay particular attention to the "discussion" because that is where the forecaster discusses the storm in detail. Forecast points with corresponding wind speeds are also given. For me the discussion is the most useful bit of information on the NHC site, along with the forecast track.
A good site that has model forecast
tracks plotted out is the SFWMD site.
My thoughts about model forecasts are that unless you know how they behave and how to weigh them, you can really get turned around. I challenge anyone to consistently beat the NHC forecast track over a summer. Once a depression or storm spins up, just go with their forecast track. Those forecasters have been there a long time, and they're really good at what they do. Sometimes they're wrong, but nobody knows what's really going to happen if the steering currents are weak or a hurricane approaches a mountainous island like Jamaica. No model or forecaster could foresee that Hurricane Elena in 1985 was going to miss Pensacola, go over to Cedar Key, do a cyclonic loop, and then skirt the Gulf Coast and hit Biloxi, MS. One has to remember that for any storm, if the steering currents are weak so is confidence in the forecast track - especially if the models are all over the map like they were for Debbie in 2012.
Another nice mobile feature is to have text messages for tornado warnings sent to your mobile device. If a spiral feeder band is moving in, so is the Danger Zone and you need to know about it. If you get a tornado warning, then open up my favorite radar app called "RadarScope." It will show your GPS position and a red box around the rotating cell with the tornado. Loop the display and if it's coming in your direction you need to get out of the way or into a shelter. Spiral feeder bands are dangerous and not to be taken lightly.
Another free tracking site with loads
of info is the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies
I like the interface because you can easily pull up the track, satellite imagery, and forecast for any cyclone in the world.
Another great site is Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com/tropical/
Co-founded by Jeff Masters, who flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990, this site is loaded with all kinds of weather info around the world. Jeff's tropical blog is a must read during hurricane season. http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=2149
Jeff was also the flight director during a NOAA P3 flight into Hurricane Hugo in 1989. His harrowing account of that flight can be found here: http://www.wunderground.com/resources/education/hugo1.asp
For nice color infrared satellite loops, I like Intellicast's high resolution Atlantic and Caribbean pages. I've been using them since 1998. They usually update quickly, too. Like the SSEC site, you can play animations without a problem on iOS devices like the ipad and iphone.
The Naval Research Lab (NRL) site has great satellite images of cyclones around the world, including the Joint Typhoon Warning Center's forecast track. You can pull up IR, visible, or water vapor imagery, as well as microwave imagery that will quell the thirst of any cyclone weather geek.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Center
(JTWC) at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii issues cyclone information for the
Northwest Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean for the US Department
of Defense as well as US and Micronesian civilian interests. I use this
site a lot when based on Guam for typhoon season.
Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA)
I use this site when out in the Northwest Pacific filming typhoons. They also have forecast track guidance and wind speeds. It's always advantageous to look at all the forecast tracks and possible scenarios. It's important to note that they use a 10-min maximum sustained wind instead of the one-minute maximum used by the NHC. JMA has a radar net that covers Japan all the way down to Okinawa.
Main site (English) http://www.jma.go.jp/en/typh/
Okinawa Radar: http://www.jma.go.jp/en/radnowc/index.html?areaCode=217
Area of Responsibility http://www.jma.go.jp/jma/en/Activities/image/intcorp-fig01.png
Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration
Area of Responsibility: http://kidlat.pagasa.dost.gov.ph/cab/par.htm
I met up with some of the PAGASA employees in 2009 during Typhoon Lupit at the radar station in Aparri, (Luzon), in the Philippines. They'll have current typhoon and flood information on their website for their area of responsibility. Note that they also give typhoons another name in addition to the JTWC (JMA) name.
Here are a few other websites for tracking cyclones in their respective areas:
China Meteorological Agency
Hong Kong Observatory
Korean Meteorological Administration
Thai Meteorological Department
Vietnam's National Hydo Meteorological
Hands down my favorite app is RadarScope by Base Velocity. It loads fast, doesn't have to cache images to loop, and overlays your GPS position. It will put red/yellow boxes around Tornado/Severe Thunderstorm Warning areas and provide text bulletins. Zooming in/out is fast and easy. This is the best radar app, hands down. It is a bit pricey as apps go, but it was the best $10 I ever spent.
The next program I'll use - especially
on the road - is an ipad App called "Hurricane HD." It has a nice simple
interface showing you the storm's wind speed, pressure, forward speed, and
the forecast track. It's a great choice for people who find the NHC site
iBooks – obviously if you're reading this book you have the iBooks app installed, but many folks don't know you can put all sorts of manuals in the iBook collection. I have all my equipment manuals stored on the ipad. I found them online in PDF format and emailed them to the ipad and selected "open in iBooks." It sure cuts down on my travel weight. My complete factory service manual for my vehicle is also stored in my iBooks. With at least 16 GB of storage on an ipad you have plenty of space for photos, too.
Ipad camera connection kit – [maybe a photo?] you can import photos directly from your camera via USB or via the SD card adapter found in the Apple camera connection kit. It will store the pictures in your photo library, where you can manage them.
IMovie – This app is very useful if you want to import photos or video and edit them. I've created an easy tutorial if you want to learn how to import Iphone 4 footage or digital SLR footage into IMovie here: http://www.extremestorms.com/ipad.htm
Speed Test – I use this app to quickly check the download and upload speed of any WiFi connection. If you're searching for a fast data connection, this is a great tool to use to see whether you found one or whether you need to move on.
Putting it all Together With the Ipad
Since the ipad shoots video, you might want to shoot video of your belongings and property and then back it up to the cloud before a hurricane hits. Don't be too quick to move the ipad between shots. Remember, you'll want to clearly identify items in the video and you can't do that if you move it too quickly. You can then edit the video in IMovie and export it out to "camera roll" in your ipad photo library.
If you no longer have cell phone service and need to get in touch with people, you might be able to find a WiFi hotspot in your area. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina I drove out of Biloxi, MS to Pensacola, FL. The power was also out at home in Pensacola, but the next morning I was able to drive a few miles away and find an open Starbucks where the WiFi was working. I used the WiFi to send my footage out to the national news. With an ipad you can facetime or imessage family and friends to let them know you're ok. You can also download the Skype app and do the same thing if they don't have an iOS device.
If your cable TV is out, you can still
get news on your ipad if you have power and WiFi. A number of the national
news organizations offer apps for your ipad, as well. CNN & Fox News have
a free live streaming app if you subscribe to a cable provider. You just
log in with your online account username and password to access the live
stream. Look for more news organizations to follow this trend.
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