Hurricane chasing tips - part 2

Dan Robinson

After Frances, I have a few new tips to offer about chasing hurricanes. Again, I'm not claming to be an expert now with only two hurricanes under my belt, but as a fellow chaser I can offer these lessons I learned in the hopes that they would help the chaser who decides to head out for their own hurricane expedition.

All told, hurricane chasing is a lot different than the tornado or lightning chase, but still an enjoyable experience. It is a long-duration marathon that requires planning, endurance, great inconvenience, great discomfort, and a heightened attention to safety. Hurricane chasing IS inherently more dangerous than a tornado chase, but not impossible to do safely. As can occur with all types of chasing, there is usually a trade off between safety and dramatic experience/video - better video can be had outside and along barrier islands, but at a great risk to safety. Sturdy shelters like parking garages might not have as many benefits of awesome, dramatic video shots, but are a much safer and preferred way (in my opinion) to experience a hurricane by protecting both you and your vehicle.

Here are a few lessons learned from Frances:

- Moisture/dampness problems. The long duration of this hurricane meant that everything was going to get soaked, or at the very least dampened, by the relentless rain and moisture hanging in the air. This creates unpleasant situations like mildewy car interiors, soaked clothes, fogged windows, etc. You can bring dry clothes but it usually doesn't take long for them to get damp also. I don't have much of a solution for this problem other than maybe bringing some type of air freshener to make your car interior bearable until it can dry out later.

- Watch the condition of your feet. This is related to moisture problem. Wearing soggy shoes and socks for long periods of time does not bode well for your feet. This isn't a pleasant topic but one you *will* run into chasing hurricanes. Your feet will turn into hideous raisin-like objects and could possibly be susceptible to all sorts of fungus and other irritations. I'm not a podiatrist but I would definately suggest taking your shoes and socks off every so often and letting your feet dry out. My shoes were soaked to the core by the time the chase was over and I actually drove back to WV barefoot (OK, no WV jokes here please ;) ) rather than risk getting some rare tropical fungus on my feet by wearing wet shoes for 12 hours.

- Fuel problems. With Isabel, we had a fuel shortage, but nowhere near the scale of the crisis with Frances. Isabel's swath was smaller and we were able to easily make it outside the damage zone to find gas. Frances required great amounts of planning, strategy and conservation in the area of fuel consumption. The entire Florida east coast and well inland had no fuel, and many chasers and news crews got stuck. Turn off your engine when it isn't needed. Limit driving around as much as possible. When you see gas available, top off your tank regardless of how much you already have - it could be your last fill-up until after the storm. You can carry gas cans with you, but one or two containers isn't going to help you much with the scale of the gas-deprived area in Florida this week. You need a spare *tank* in a situation like Frances, not a spare gas can. I was VERY blessed to make it out of Florida, but it only happened because I limited my driving and topped off my tank repeatedly until there were no gas stations left open. My limited driving no doubt cost me some video opportunities, but it's a trade off for not spending an extra few days stranded.

- Car battery power. This is more related to fuel conservation, but can be compounded by using accessories like inverters and radios, and headlights and dome lights for illumination for long periods of time while you wait out a storm. Every time you turn the starter, you take a huge chunk of power from the battery - and if you don't drive long enough to allow recharging, your battery will eventually not have enough juice to start your engine. Opening your hood to jump start, either with a battery jumper pack or another vehicle, is risky in high winds and may not even be possible at all without damaging or losing your hood completely.

- Curfews. Unlike Isabel where curfews were in effect only at night *after* the storm, with Frances curfews were 24-hour in some towns *before* the storm hit. This means that you will not be free to be out even long before the storm hits, including during the day.

- Food. With the scale of evacuations and the loss of power happening very early on from the outer rain bands, food and drink were very hard to come by as stores closed up shop. It is imperative that you bring food (real food, not just snacks and junk food), enough to live on for several days. With Isabel, you might have been without food and water for hours, maybe one day tops. With Frances-type storm, it would be *days*. If you don't have enough food with you, you're going to have your own Survivor episode happening, and it's not going to be fun. I brought enough for 4 days, but in retrospect it might not have been enough if I had been stranded. I also ran into chasers who were running low on their food supply early on. It might be a good idea to bring some extra along so you have enough to share to those who are in dire straits. I'm not suggesting that you try to take care of every chaser out there, but if the worst-case senario need arose, it would be good to have some extra from a purely humanitarian standpoint. I admit that I didn't plan my food supply well, I just bought a dozen cans of Chef Boyardee and 48 bottles of water. While cheap, clean and not that unpleasant to eat cold, I got sick of the pasta and water after 2 days. Bringing a variety of food would have been better.

- Temperature. While temperatures through the duration of a hurricane are usually in the 70s, the blowing wind and soaking rains make it very cool at times. You will be uncomfortable in shorts and a t-shirt while you are outside - wear long pants and a jacket. On the flipside, sleeping in your vehicle or indoors is usually hot and sticky with no power and AC, and is easier with light clothing. So, having both is a good idea.

- Rain ponchos are usually not rated for hurricanes. They last about 10 seconds. Enough said.

That's it for now, I might think of more to add later.
Those are some great tips. I had a feeling the storm chasers were having a rough time down there. I think Frances raised the bar in terms of marathon chasing. Your chase account and many others describes quite an epic.
If you really want rain wear that will survive a hurricane, and keep you mostly dry, get real foul weather gear. We're not talking about the $3 poncho from the camping store, we're talking a $150 set of Helley Hanson raingear like I used to wear on a commercial fishing boat. They come with the raincoat, overpants, and Gorton's fisherman hat. I have worn them in many nor'easters off the New York, Mass coast, they work.
Another thing to think about when chasing out on the Florida peninsula is how we get our gas. As far as I can tell, a big chunk of it comes over water. So effectively, a large hurricane that goes coast to coast here can cut off most of the state's gas supply about as effectively as you could imagine. We run out early, and we stay out for a while. People here used to be pretty complacent about storms, and gas was not an issue. Charley brought them up to speed on things, so they tend to pay attention and dry up gas stations days beforehand now.
Here's a question... how do you deal with curfews, etc? I noticed you have a photo of one of the DOWs roaming about, and one of Weathervine's photos shows one of their vehicles with "TV" written on it in masking tape.

Are researchers exempt from curfews? Are media exempt?

If so how does one define "researcher" or "media" or a person with a legitimate reason for being outside. Who does local law enforcement allow on the roads during a curfew, if anyone at all.

How do you stay on top of what curfews are in effect and where?
Adding another question with the one Mike already asked.When you
have the entire state of Florida moving north,and your driving south for
a hurricane intercept.what do you tell law inforcement for your reason
for being down there?
Mike Hardiman wrote:
How do you stay on top of what curfews are in effect and where?

I can tell you from living in a hurricane prone area that if you pay attention to local radio stations (there will always be at least 3 staying up on the weather) they will keep everyone updated on the local curfews.

I know MRE's are expensive and not that appealing, but they will last forever of what you don't use, and will provide a nice variety of food if you're willing to spend the money, and get used to the taste. Also Nabisco crackers make good snacks and are small and have a nice wide variety to choose from.

Fish and Game wear - alot of stores that supply boots and gear for hunting and boating should have a good/fair selection of items that are very good for protecting your body against cold and wet weather conditions, alot of them use gortex now and other thin materials that won't leave you sweating as much as plain outdoor gear. They will be a little more expensive but should last a VERY long time.

I hope this helps - just some small tips...
Originally posted by Mike Hardiman+--><div class='quotetop'>QUOTE(Mike Hardiman)</div>
Here's a question... how do you deal with curfews, etc?[/b]

Due to the ever-present problems of ruthless looters, curfews are pretty strict in most cases and as far as I can tell, media, storm chasers and research crews are not exempt. Police seem generally less worried about obvious chasers and media but will still stop you if you are out (happened about 6 times with Isabel). Seeing as they are entitled to arrest you on the spot at their discretion, I wouldn't advise being out during a curfew day or night.

With Frances, 24-hour curfews were in effect starting at 1 PM on Saturday, 10-11 hours before landfall. The outside photos I took were before 1PM, as after that, we were confined to our parking garage except for a brief trip to the marina 2 blocks away at 1:30PM.

I still saw chasers and media out after that, and it's possible that they had no problems, but probably were at risk of arrest. I wanted to play it safe so I stayed put.

Like Bridget said, the radio stations are wall-to-wall with hurricane coverage and are constantly going over the curfews.


When you
have the entire state of Florida moving north,and your driving south for
a hurricane intercept.what do you tell law inforcement for your reason
for being down there?

On my way to the coast on Thursday and Friday I didn't run into any problems. Landfall was a long way off, and it was actually 'business as usual' to some extent with many people still out and about. Traffic was heavier northbound but still some traffic southbound, and no 'checkpoints' at all for incoming vehicles.

As long as you are there at least 2 days early, you shouldn't run into any problems. The only encounters I've had with police have been during curfews with Isabel.
Another thing I forgot to mention was a problem with fan belts. They were slipping and squealing like crazy on my truck, the truck of the chasers with me and many cars I heard on the road. Mine is still doing it and I'll likely need to have the tension adjusted to fix it.

This has happened to me before in heavy thunderstorm cores as the fan belt and pulleys get wet, but usually goes away soon after the rain is over. It was constant in this hurricane and is lingering even today.

Also a correction - I've been told that today's car batteries should be able to handle numerous starts in a short time. It may be that my battery is on the way out or possibly some other factor contributed to my battery running out of juice suddenly. At any rate, anything requiring opening the hood in a hurricane isn't a good situation to be in.
A few things I noticed about curfews durring frances...

Police scaled back their presence as the winds picked up... and a mobile radar truck cruised around my area throughout the storm without problems.

we left the region while curfews were still in effect. Numerous police cars were out and about but none bothered us. If you look like a storm chaser, with gas cans food and cameras strapped all over your car, id say your odds of getting arrested are slim, especially if you stick to main roads durring the day. Im not sure a county curfew even has any jurisdiction on a state or interstate road.
The Ivan chase went rather smoothly and was without incident, but I do have a couple more tips I learned this time around:

- Use dry ice in your cooler. Turns out that dry ice will last for *days* and a small amount of it will do the work of 2 or 3 times its volume in regular ice. In fact, it can freeze your drinks solid if you are not careful! Dry ice can be found at Publix stores in the south. Once I found out that I could use it, I was already too far into the hurricane 'supply deleption' zone to find any. All I could find were 3 bags of normal ice, which kept my drinks cold for about 16 hours. However, the last place that had ice of any kind left was in Montgomery, so my drinks were warming up halfway through the hurricane. Next time I will get dry ice, not just for hurricanes, but for the Plains in the spring. Just a note - dry ice requires some precautions in handling and packing in your cooler, including that it will burn skin if contacted and should not be used inside enclosed spaces due to the vapors - see

- Those 5-gallon ventless gas containers from Lowe's are a pain. If you haven't bought your gas containers yet for hurricane chasing, get 7 or 8 small ones (2.5 gallon) with vent plugs instead of the 4 big ones. The 'in-nozzle' vent system on the 5 gallon cans doesn't work, so the gas only trickles out. Holding the heavy 5-gallon can in an awkward position forever while filling the tank is agonizing. I had to cut vents in the cans so I wouldn't have to hold it up for 15 minutes. I suppose you could also use a siphon pump, but it might also be a hassle to use.

Incidentally, I didn't need any of my gas reserves this time. I used the reserves to fill up on the way home so I wouldn't have to store 22 gallons of gas in my house.

I was also thinking about how it would help to have 5 or 10 extra gallons of gas while chasing the Plains in the spring. I will try to do this next year if I can find a way to keep the containers out of the hot sun. (Gas containers expand rapidly in sunlight or heat).