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Hurricane Irene Chase
October 15, 1999
Florida Keys

 

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Background: Ever since the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 swept an evacuation train off the tracks near Islamorada, residents of the Florida Keys have had to keep a weary eye on tropical storms. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is full of surprises and Hurricane Irene was no exception.

In the early morning hours of October 15th, I was watching the Key West doppler radar site as Irene cleared the Cuban coast. The big question was whether Irene would behave and follow computer models up the west side of the Florida Peninsula toward Tampa/Fort Myers or shift to the right and come through the Keys. As I watched each new Key West doppler image, it dawned on me that Irene was making a surprise run for the Keys.

The good news was I wouldn't have to drive across alligator alley (and quite possibly alligators in the road) to Naples to catch Irene. The bad news was Irene was already here. The lights inside were dimming and the howling wind had popped the rivets and shredded my screen door. The horizontal rain was pounding the windows incessantly, looking for the slightest crack to start pouring in the house. The message from Irene was clear-don't come out here!

Maybe I should just ride this one out in the safety of my home I thought. About that time (4am), veteran storm chaser Jim Leonard arrived. Jim had made it across 60 miles of vulnerable open bridges and low-lying islands from Miami. To my surprise, Jim said he didn't have any problem getting through and nonchalantly added, "Oh, by the way, your screen door is falling apart outside".

Jim Leonard has been chasing extreme weather "since dinosaurs roamed the earth" and has more footage of hurricanes, tornadoes, and waterspouts than anyone. His website at can attest to that.

The power cut out and I was counting my lucky stars that the recently purchased APC backup unit kicked in and kept the doppler image up on the screen. Jim and I studied it for a while and decided to head out to the Lower Keys where the worst of Irene appeared to be headed.

We drove separate cars and I graciously let Jim take the point as we headed out of Marathon toward the exposed 7-Mile Bridge. Creeping along at 20mph and watching for flying debris, all I could see was the bright red glow of Jim's brake lights in front of me.

Once in the Lower Keys, Jim and I split up to videotape different areas. I filmed a gas station enveloped in eerie wind driven rain. My drivers side window was opposite the rain and I was able to get great video without shooting through those annoying wipers.

It was daylight now and I pushed on to Key West where a year ago Jim Leonard and I chased strong Cat. II Hurricane Georges. Key West residents were also expecting Irene to pass to the west near the Dry Tortugas and many ventured out in cars only to get trapped in the flooded streets. City officials implemented a curfew but it was too late. Key West didn't get the strong winds of Irene but there was no escaping the deluge of water from the sky.

On the way back to Marathon, I stopped by the Bahia Honda Bridge and filmed storm surge coming up over the seawall. The picture to the right will give you an idea of how quickly storm surge can swallow everything up on the shoreline and remember Irene was only a minimal hurricane. bahia_honda_thumbnail.jpg

As the day wore on Irene got better organized and strengthened. One of the strong rain bands was pounding Marathon as I approached. I had to drive around a tree blown down in the road.

It was around noon when I finally got back to Key Colony Beach where I live. The wind was still blowing about 60-65 mph, some telephone lines were in the road, and a few of the roads were underwater. I took a few "short cuts" and made it back to my place though.

A few hours later Jim Leonard showed up. Jim was able to get some incredible storm surge footage from the Atlantic side of the Keys. We watched our chase video on the TV monitor and swapped experiences. That is until staying up all night and the adrenaline of the chase took its toll. I drifted off into a deep sleep knowing that with video I could relive this chase again.

2000 Jim Edds

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