9/24/05 REPORTS: Hurricane Rita

Dan Robinson

More photos and video are posted here:

My brother Matt was with me helping shoot video and taking stills with his Canon 20D. His shots are here:

I left Charleston, WV at 1:30PM EDT on Thursday and after 1,200 miles and 24 hours, made it to Houston by noon CDT on Friday. My brother Matt flew in to Houston from Raleigh, NC on Thursday, and on Friday we headed to Port Arthur. We spent the rest of the day in Port Arthur (from 3PM to around 10PM), then moved north to Beaumont to avoid potential flooding close to the coast. We stayed in downtown Beaumont until around 2AM, then moved to a large parking garage at a hospital to ride out the eyewall (David and Jay, I looked for you guys but maybe it wasn't the same spot!).

All in all a classic hurricane chase with some amazing sights and experiences. Rita in downtown Beaumont from midnight on put on an incredible show, to be topped off only by the intense eyewall later at the hospital.

I will be posting a detailed summary in the days ahead, meanwhile my brother has a good timeline of events on his still photo page:
Stationed on the Northwestern side of Orange, TX:

Due East winds yielded to variable light breeze and a pressure of 939mb was recorded for a 5 min. period. Soon after (within 5 min after the "relative calm, which would be a light breeze no stronger than 5-10 mph, of Rita's eye") the winds picked up from the south and the pressure rose to 944mb.

I'll have to consult video for the exact times of these events, but the information above is correct.

(Can not give exact wind measurements, so that will be excluded in this post)

SMALL CORRECTION TO PRESSURE DATA: our barometer was calibrated for an elevation of 30ft, and GPS detected the elevation of the exact area of the barometer to be ~11ft. So, the pressure of 939mb is a little higher than the actual pressure, which would be closer to 938mb, but I guess I could determine the difference, but I'll do that some other day when I've got the time.

NEW: a sloppy, but eerie vid clip (majority of clip involves short shots of first aid to a severely injured man, then followed by frequent 'eyewall' lightning): http://www.stormgasm.com/Hurricane%20Rita/...ritatrailer.wmv

Simon Brewer
What can I say but WOW! This was probably one of the most tiring and incredible experiences I have ever had. Emotions from excitement, anticipation, dread, pure fear and relief totally overloaded the senses for about 24 hrs. The noise, the feel, the sights, the water...etc... This is not like tornado chasing!!

I feel considering the situation we headed into and the aftermath we drove out of we were extremely prepared for most contingencies and actually had an easy and safe chase.

Once I was at David's and we packed his van we decided to stop at Wal-Mart and pick up more water and food. We had 2 gas cans totaling 10 gallons. His van gets pretty good mileage so we figured that was enough. After being on the road for a few hours I talked with a friend of mine who was watching the evacuation and said that gas was running short already due to evacuees. Once we got to Sweetwater on I-20 we cut SE on hwy 6 towards Waco. This is normally a 2 lane "back road" and traffic is very light but not today. it was very busy. Evacuees were heading that far west to get out of the path. We decided we would stop in Waco and grab some more gas cans. We stopped at the Wal-Mart and it was packed with shoppers. People buying water, batteries, flashlights, food...etc. we checked in automotive but ALL gas cans were gone. We asked and they said all their stores were out. We topped of with gas, grabbed what we figured would be our last hot meal from the McD's and headed east. Soon as we left Waco the traffic increased dramatically. All heading west towards Waco. This 2 lane road looked like an interstate in rush hour with cars as far as you could see. We decide then that we would stop at least every 75-100 miles and top off our tank and keep looking for more gas cans. The traffic grew worse the closer to I-45 we got and there were lines at all the gas stations. Right before we got to I-45 we saw another Wal-Mart and figured we would look for gas cans but knew they would be gone. We were right but we lucked out and improvised. They were in the middle of setting up a display of 7.5 gallon water containers. These are made of the same material as gas cans and have a vent tube and spout. We grabbed 2 of them. Also while in the parking lot a family of evacuees pulled up and asked us if we knew of any hotel rooms available. We told them that from what we had been told all rooms from Waco east were full and they would probably have to go almost to Abilene before they found one. They helped us out a great deal also. Since they were from our target city of Beaumont we aksed them about parking garages in the area and they gave us directions to the best one in the city right by the hospital. So now we had our shelter and wouldn't have to spend time driving around burning gas searching for a safe place. They also told us Hwy 287 was not contra-flow and we could easily drive south into the city.

We were almost to I-45 and planned on just crossing it and heading to Crockett to try and find gas and catch hwy 287 south into Beaumont but ran into a massive traffic jam. it was a few miles long and it was cars waiting in line for gas!! With this being a 2 lane road there was no way to pass 2 miles of cars so we had to backtrack and take a dirt road south to another farm-market road that crossed I-45 and then snake our way NE to Crockett. This was altogether about a 45 minute detour. Once in Crockett we discovered only 1 station had gas left. Luckily the lines were short so we could top of our tank and fill the containers. The only problem was all they had was super so we paid alot extra for the precious gas but now we had 22 gallons in our tank and 25 gallons in cans. We figured we could drive almost all the way home on that so we were in good shape. We headed south on 287 and encountered the same thing. Miles of cars heading North with deputies and DPS troopers directing traffic at every small town. The lines at the gas stations were so bad they had to have officers direct cars there too and the wait was hours. We saw 1 station that had about 200 cars in line in a town of about 1000! Cars were pulled over and abandoned all over the sides of the roads from people who ran out of gas.

As we got into Beaumont we diced to try and find gas and ice but knew this was a tall order. The 1st place we stopped didn't have gas and all the ice they had was the kind in the coke machine but would sell us some for $3 a cup!!!! Talk about price gouging. We politely told them what they could do with that and went back outside where we ran into some paramedics. We talked to them and they said they were going to get gas at a station down the street that had some so we followed. There were only a few cars in line so we pulled in and waited. The tanks must have been close to empty because the pumps were very slow... and I mean slow. Once we got to the pump we only needed about 1/3 of a tank to top off but it took us 30 minutes to pump 8 gallons!!! It was excruciating watching the hundredths of a gallon tick off 1 by 1. while there we asked the medics about that parking garage and they gave us even better directions on how to get there and said it would be perfect so we headed straight there arriving about 7am. 22 hrs and about 800 miles since I had left my house!

Soon as we pulled up we noticed a satellite truck and MSNBC crew there. Also police vehicles everywhere. We pulled all our antennas of the top so we could fit in the garage and headed in to find our spot. We chose a spot in the NE corner on level 5 of 6 so we would have good field of view and be protected from the NNE winds by the stairwell in the NE corner. Once that was done I went over and starting talking to a few officers to make sure they didn't have an issue with us being here since it was private property. They said no and actually were glad we were here so they would have some info. The hospital was where the police were staging. Once the winds hit 50mph all police units would come to the garage for shelter and all officers would take refuge in the hospital. it was there shelter for the next few days. You could see officers arriving by private vehicle and patrol car and unloading suitcase, sleeping bags, equipment, etc.. This was now their dorm. It was still a while before the storm so David and i decided to try and get some much needed rest so we crashed in the van. It was already hot and humid so sleep was almost impossible. We decided we had enough gas so we started the van and ran the AC so we could sleep. I was only able to get an hour or so because I was so excited and nervous of what was coming. Dave slept a little better but not much. By noon we decided to drive around and get some before shots and try and find some ice. All stores in town were closed but we figured maybe a hotel would have an ice machine outside we could use. A few blocks away we found a La Quinta that was shut down and evacuated but their ice machine, even though unplugged, still had ice in it so we packed the cooler since it was going to melt and go to waste anyway . We then drove south to Port Arthur and out towards Sabine Pass on the coast. On the way we passed the airport and saw 6 military transports (c-5's & c17's) loading evacuees and trying to get out before the winds were too high. The one road out to Sabine Pass runs right by the ship channel and is only 6 ft above sea level according to our GPS. The tide and surge were already coming in because the water was only about a foot from the road. we didn't want to get out on the coast and then have our only escape route cut off by water so we decided to grab some quick video right there and get out. Winds were now up to 30-40 and the 1st rain band had already come through. We then decide to head back and stay close to our shelter.

Once back at the garage we started prepping our equipment, we placed our pillows, food, etc.. in plastic bags in case we lost a window. We put our cameras in large ziplock backs and cut holes for the lenses so the saltwater wouldn't destroy them. We also kept constant data coming in on the laptop thanks to a Sprint PCS card. I can't say enough about Sprint and that card. Except for a few spots in the boonies we had internet connection most the way down and through most of the hurricane. Even after we lost power we had internet until almost daybreak Saturday morning when I am guessing the cell towers backup batteries died.

The winds started getting up to close to 50 and that's when PD called in all their units. The garage filled quickly. We talked with numerous officers and some firemen during the night. They would come up and see what was going on, ask us questions and we would show them our radar and tell them what to expect, etc..They were very nice to us and made us feel welcome. Think we made a few friends. By now winds were starting to get up to 75+ and we could see power flashes around town. a few transformers exploded down the street from us scaring the hell out of us. it was like shotgun blasts close by. We knew the hospital had a generator but much of Beaumont was going dark. Power flashes were occurring about every 10-15 seconds. We could hear trees snapping, buildings tearing apart etc... but could not see anything. We finally lost power in our area including the garage but the hospital itself was on backup and had some lights on. The only other light source was flares (gas burnoff flames) from 2 refineries east of us giving an eerie orange glow on the horizon. A few times we had power substations go out with incredible flashes that would last for 5-10 seconds followed by the roaring buzz sound of electricity shorting seconds later. The winds increased to about 100 and the rain became like a wall of water. I can't explain the total water saturation close to the inner band of a hurricane. Even with a full rain suit I was soaked. Water was running off my face, the ceiling of the garage was wet, and I wasn't even in the rain. I felt like I needed gills to breathe. Another bothersome thing was there were metal signs hanging in the garage telling what level you were on. These were 1ft x 5ft and hung by cables attached to the ceiling. the wind blowing through the garage was making them flap back and forth violently against the ceiling making incredibly loud crashing sounds until they would finally break off and go flying. It was very dangerous to be downwind of these. About 2:30 the full effect hit us as the west eyewall hit us. We had winds of around 120 with higher gusts. The noise from the wind and destruction was overwhelming. Then it really got freaky. The rain shorted out the fire alarm in the garage causing it to go off. There are audible chirps along with strobes on every pole in the garage on every level. The combination of pitch black, wind noise, trees snapping, alarm chirps, metal signs slapping the concrete and dozens of strobes flashing was too much for the senses. it was a freak out. I felt like i was in the 70's on an acid trip or something. That was the only time during this trip I was actually scared. I was cold, wet, exhausted and my brain was overloaded. My body hit a brick wall about then so I got into the van to dry off and relax for a minute as did David who was in the same condition as me. Next thing I know a huge crash woke me up 2 hour later!!!! A light pole on the roof had crashed down on the ramp about 30 ft from us. We both came flying out of our seats trying to figure out what happened and if we had been hit with something. 2 minutes later i was unconscious again and didn't wake until after 7am. The winds were back down to 50-60 by then. So both David and I slept through the last half of the eyewall . We went and looked out and saw we were totally surrounded by water and were trapped for a few hours until the water receded. We had been told the night before by a cop that this area floods alot but would drain in a few hours so since we couldn't leave we got back in the van and rested for a few more hours. By noon the water had drained so we loaded up and decided to go survey damage.

This is where I want to point out something very important that most chasers and media there haven't mentioned. This was not a typical hurricane in a typical area. Usually you have a hurricane come ashore and all it has to deal with is a few palm trees so the wind can be concentrated on structures. SE Texas is a forest. it has massive 50-70ft pine trees everywhere. While in the garage we noticed the effect when the winds were 50. The trees were swaying but the bushes on the ground barely moved because the winds couldn't mix down to the ground. i would say you could easily subtract 30mph or more off of winds up where we were on the 5th floor 50 ft up compared to ground level. I heard reports of winds of 80-100 during the worst part but if they had measured up at the top they would have seen 120+. When we went out to survey we could see the difference. In the neighborhoods with alot of trees the tree were blown down or were missing limbs but the structures were mostly undamaged except for a window or roof tile. Telephone poles were snapped or wires were brought down by fallen trees. Once we got away from trees into business areas or along highways we saw much more structural damage because the winds weren't blocked by trees. Roofs were missing, whole buildings collapsed, billboards flattened. Also most underpasses were heavily flooded with 10+ft of water. We had to do alot of snaking to get where we needed. This is where the advantage of getting to know the cops came in. Not only did we not have any issue going where we wanted to see damage but a few actually stopped us and told of places to go look at major damage and how to get there. I know most chasers has problems getting around and through roadblocks but with David having TV station logos on his truck and a press pass and me having Emergency Services credentials we had free reign including other cities we went to like Port Arthur. DPS would just wave us around while stopping others. We drove around shooting damage for a few hours then decided to head west and get out of the damage area and to Waco for the night but not before one of the police sergeants had invited us back to the hospital for dinner with the guys. We said thanks but we were getting out of dodge. We then worked our way west on hwy 105 to Bryan. The entire way we passed downed trees and damage and didn't find electricity again until 30 miles west of I-45. We stopped in a small town west of Bryan and had our 1st hot meal in 2 days. It was a huge chicken fried steak with baked potato and salad. We then drove to Waco and found a room at a best western. The entire way back to Waco from Beaumont had been just like when we drove in. Never ending lines of cars going the opposite way but this time we all were going home.

On that note I want to make some personal observations about the people in SE Texas and especially the officials in the disaster area. Every person we encountered not counting the lady who was price gouging ice was friendly, calm, and helpful. The local authorities were very prepared and organized. They had most everything prepositioned and ready to go soon as the wind calmed down. Fire, Police, Medics, DPS, National Guard, Utilities were out in force by noon. We didn’t see any looting or lawlessness. All the people we talked with were calm and taking things in stride. Radio was broadcasting information and instructions to people still in the city and to those wanting to come back. This was not New Orleans and the local officials were making sure it didn’t become one. I am very proud of my fellow Texans on their behavior and preparedness. Don’t be fooled. There is a lot of damage and it will takes weeks to restore power and clean up but most homes are livable, Water, sewer, and gas will be available soon as industrial generators are brought in to power the plants. The main problem will be electricity which will take weeks. I would say 75% of all power lines are down but as we left there were convoys of power company trucks coming in to get to work.

David and I both wanted to experience a hurricane so we chose to go. This is not something I would recommend anybody doing. We have 40yrs of chase experience between us and still weren’t truly prepared for the raw power of a hurricane. It is not like chasing a supercell where if something goes wrong you can just back off a few miles and be out of danger. Once you are in it you are stuck there good or bad. If you didn’t chose a safe shelter or didn’t pack enough supplies you then are no longer a chaser you are a victim and the authorities have to use resources meant for local citizens to help you also. We packed food and water to last 5 days. We carried 2 spare tires and tire kits for repairs. We had 25 gallons of extra gas. We had 5 days of clothes. It is like backtrail hiking and camping. Take in what you will need to survive and get back out. Don’t divert resources to help you. We both feel that we were well prepared if things went wrong. We only had to patch 1 tire from a nail, we had enough gas to get home on without stopping and we still have tons of food and water that we brought back. The only bad thing that happened was while he was on the cell doing a live phone in with the station we chased for a 100mph gust blew his video camera over slamming it onto the concrete floor and damaging it badly. He will have to buy a new one before next season but we learned to always hold your tripod.

Now the damage pics


Note to Dan**** we were on the 5th level. we wanted to get above some of the trees for visiblity. sorry we missed ya.
I left Wichita Wednesday morning at about 4AM. I was planning on going straigth to Houston, but contra-flow(spelling?) and the gas shortages convinced me that I needed to stay the night in Dallas so that I could head straight to my target on Friday morning.
I wanted to target Port Arthur, but I was afraid storm surge would be a serious problem down there so I decided to target Beaumont, Orange, or Lake Charles. After pulling an all nighter on Wednesday, I had a very hard time getting myself out of bed on Friday morning so I didn't get out of town until 10AM. Once again they switched the highway I was planning on taking over to North bound traffic only so I had to take back roads for part of the way to Beaumont and the drive took a lot longer than I anticipated. Here is a picture of one of the traffic jams I saw on the way down there.


The drive down was pretty crazy. There were cars that had run out of gas all over the place and people were pitching tents in the ditch.
As soon as I got to Beaumont I started looking for places to ride out the storm. After driving around town for about an hour, I found a parking garage next to a hospital. I then headed East to scout out Orange. I couldn't find a parking garage and the only strong buildings I could find didn't have any structures around it that I thought would turn into debris. I was planning on heading over to Lake Charles next, but the winds were starting to pick up and I decided I had better just get back to Beaumont. A transformer exploded about 30 yards in front of me when I was driving out of Orange, but unfortunately I didn't have my camera on.
Once I got back to Beaumont I went straight to the parking garage. My primary objective, aside from staying safe, was to get good video and I didn't think the parking garage setup was going to produce in that regard so I decided to drive around until it became to dangerous to be on the roads. When I was out driving around I found a good location to ride out the hurricane on the East side of Beaumont. There was a 2 or 3 story building that had a 20 story building just East of it with a North-South road running between the two of them. There were a lot of lights around the area, Fox and MSNBC were there with there satellite trucks shooting live so I knew I wouldn't be alone, and I could get a signal for XM(I couldn't get one in the parking garage). There was even a brick building with a steel deck on the second floor one block away which would serve as my fall back position if things got bad(and it did). I thought it was a good compromise between being safe and getting good video. There was a 20 story building just East of the building I was behind which forced the wind between the two buildings and it was blantantly obvious that the wind speeds were much stronger here than anywhere else I had seen. I took a wind measurement with my anemometer at 10PM on that road that ran between the two buildings and I measured a peak gust of 96mph, which was enough to make me drop down on all fours(I only weigh 135lbs. dripping wet). I went back to the parking garage to see what chasers were there and when I told them that I had measured a 96mph gust they all looked at me like I was lying because the winds around the hospital complex weren't gusting anywhere close to 90 at this time. I stayed at the garage for about an hour before I headed back to the East side of Beaumont to ride out the storm. Here is a picture of Shepard Smith of Fox news doing a report from my location.


Everything was going fine for the first few hours. I saw a large metal sign fly through the air about 15 feet off the ground and slam into a building, which was pretty cool. When the eye wall was about two hours away, the Fox news crew took shelter inside the building and stopped shooting. The MSNBC guys were troopers and kept shooting. By 2:45 the winds had increased significantly. I didn't dare walk out into the road to take another wind measurement because I knew I would get airborn if I did. Just from going off the 96mph gusts I measured earlier, I would think the gusts getting channeled between the two buildings were well over 120mph at this time. At approximately 2:50, the roof started to rip off the building I was parked behind. Debris began raining down on my vehicle and large pieces of tarp started flying off the top of the building. I thought most of the debris was small and I would be OK, but then a large piece shattered my rear window and another piece broke out my side window. You should have seen how fast MSNBC scrambled to get their satellite dish down when that roof started to come off. That would suck to be the guy responsible for ruining the million dollar sat. truck. Both Fox and MSNBC lost windows in all the vehicles they had in the parking lot minus the satellite trucks. After the window shattered, I quickly backed my car up against the Fox satellite truck so that rain and debris would stop coming into my car. I stayed there and watched the roof continue to come apart with each gust until the MSNBC crew took off. I decided that if they could drive there cars without getting rolled over then I would be alright also. We all ended up parking under the steel deck on the brick building I mentioned earlier. I was getting lots of rain in the car though so I decide to make a run for the parking garage which was about a mile away. I only made it half way before debris and water blocked the road. This was probably the most terrifying moment of the chase. I didn't think I was going to die or anything like that, but I though there was a solid 50-50 chance that the car was going to get totalled. Luckily I managed to get back to the building with the steel deck. I drove up on the sidewalk and backed up as close as I could get to the building. I couldn't shoot video from this location, but I was happy with the video I had already shot and I was glad to be safe. I was awed by the sounds of Rita. The wind made a howling sound up until the eye wall got close and then it sounded identical to a passenger plane taking off but much louder.
I ended up getting a flat tire to go along with the two broken windows, but I don't regret any of it. It was an incredible chase that I will never forget. I wasn't sure how much I would like chasing a hurricane before I went, but after doing it, I am hooked. The whole experience was amazing. It was like a war zone down there after Rita hit. There was total chaos and anarchy. Traffic ligths didn't mean anything, you could park in the middle of the street, there was debris everywhere, it was a complete disaster. The hurricane was both terrifying and fun. It may not be as violent as a tornado, but the scope of it more than compensates for the lack of intensity and it was right up there with the most incredible things I have ever seen.
I didn't actively search for damage in Beaumont. The only damage I photographed was what I saw driving staight out of town and I am sure I could have found much worse if I would have driven around for a while. I am having trouble saving pictures to the web and all I got up was two damage photos, but hopefully I can get some more uploaded tomorrow and I will add them to the report so check back if you want to see them. I am sure most of you have already seen what has happened to Beaumont over the news though.



I talked to Shepard Smith in the morning after the winds had died back down. Shepard Smith was driving a SUV with no windows and the rain was blowing right in on him. He did not look like he was having a good time. It was definetely the funniest thing I saw on the trip. BTW he is not nearly as nice in person as he seems on TV.
Sorry to go on for so long. I will wrap it up. The extent of the damage with Rita really surprised me. There were downed trees and power lines more than a hundred miles inland. I had no idea a hurricane did that much damage so far away from the coast. I learned a lot of important lessons on my first hurricane chase. I thought some of these guys that were giving hyped up warnings about chasing hurricanes were full of crap, but after going through it, I now understand that it is deadly serious if you don't stay in a parking garage. I don't want to scare anybody away from trying it, but you need to be very careful. It was an awesome experience and I can't wait for our next major hurricane. I need to thank Jay Cazel and Jim Reed for helping me out. Jay got my FTP sites up and running before I headed down there and he was there to give me any information I needed while I was gone. Jim's help was invaluable. He walked me through it over the phone and gave me good advice every time I needed it and I can't thank him enough. Congratulaions to everyone else who got to watch Rita make landfall.