Hurricane chasing tips & tricks

Dan Robinson

Simone's posts reminded me that the USA's hurricane season is fast approaching (technically here already, but nothing happening yet) and many of us will be switching our focus to the coasts for a hurricane chase or two. I am planning on one or two hurricane trips this summer/fall.

I went on my first hurricane intercept last year with Bill Coyle for Isabel in North Carolina, and although it was an excellent trip, we learned a few lessons about a hurricane expedition. I'm not a hurricane chasing veteran, but here are a few helpful tips I can offer, maybe others can add to this list:

- Bring a BIG cooler with LARGE supply of food and drink. You many not be able to find food or water for days due to loss of power and blocked roads. Bill and I were nearly stranded in rural NE NC due to hundreds of large trees blocking the roads. We did find our way out, but not after a long detour that included an overnight stay in the vehicle at a truck stop without power. I went 16 hours without food or drink (after only a light meal for the whole day), and it was not fun.

- Bring a chainsaw to clear small trees from the road. Some trees were far too big for one person with a chainsaw to safely clear, but there were many smaller ones that kept us from passing that a chainsaw would have been able to handle.

- As with Plains chasing, watch your fuel. Many gas stations will board up and close long before the hurricane hits, and all will likely be out of commission afterward when the power goes out. The isolated ones running on generators will have cars lined up for miles waiting to get gas!

- Curfews will be in place after dark, and expect to get stopped constantly by police during the night if you are out - you may even be forced to stay at a shelter (we almost were). We didn't intend to be out after dark, but the blocked roads kept us on detours well into the night. In retrospect the shelter may not have been too bad, they would have had food and water - but I didn't envision it being a very comfortable place to stay (makeshift cots lined up side-by-side in a gym, no AC, with droves of upset people and crying kids)

- Your video camera will need extra protection when filming outside due to blowing rain, salt spray, and sand. A Portabrace or similar rain-slicker won't cut it, you will need a rigid waterproof housing. I built a custom waterproof housing out of PVC pipe and plexiglass for under $20 that worked great, although I ended up doing most of the filming from inside the vehicle without it:

http://wvlightning.com/isabel/housing1.jpg
http://wvlightning.com/isabel/housing2.jpg
http://wvlightning.com/isabel/housing3.jpg

The camera is stabilized on the inside with socks or rags stuffed around it, and it is controlled with the remote (which is in a ziplock bag itself). Focus must be on infinity.

- As with most Plains areas, radio stations have excellent coverage of hurricanes. We used the radio to position ourselves as they described a play-by-play location of Isabel's eye.

Some points of discussion:

- Isabel was a potent hurricane, but very weak as hurricanes go. Our chase consisted of driving around about 20 miles inland and filming at various locations - safer than the dangers of the coast. In a stronger hurricane I'm not sure I would do this again, as flying debris and falling trees would be a great danger to a vehicle even that far inland. We first planned on finding a parking garage or other strong building in the eye's path and riding out the storm, but could find none in the small towns of coastal NC - so we just stayed mobile. Isabel's marginal strength at landfall made this a better choice, though falling trees were still a threat.

- I'm curious to hear some strategies and preparations used on coastal intercepts. In addition to avoiding dangers such as storm surge and stronger winds, there are mandatory evacuations in most coastal locations. Salt water is bad for your vehicle also. While I would love to experience a hurricane from the coast, the dangers and potential costs (saltwater-flooded vehicle, etc) so far keep me away.

Dan
 
Dan,

Those are some great hurricane chase pointers. I totally agree with them. I also chased Isabel and was stranded on I-95 for about 5 hours because of fallen trees. (If I was on a secondary road, I have been stranded for a day or two) I got great video of a falling tree earlier but any of those trees could have fallen on me. At one point, I was blocked in with other cars and trucks and watched tall trees sway over me in the gusts of wind and darkness. Many had already fallen over. I asked myself, do I sit inside the car and be protected against the small debris but not see a big tree or stand outside and have a slight chance of jumping out of the way as a big tree falls.

http://www.harkphoto.com/isabel.html

I would suggest extra caution when chasing inland. The winds may not be as strong as on the coast but it doesn't take a very high wind to knock down a tree. Also, potential chasers should allow extra time away from work in case of being stranded for a couple of days.

Bill Hark
 
Batteries, bug spray, can opener, first aid kit, flashlights, hard hats, life jackets, matches, paper towels, portable (small) generator, portable outdoor camping stove, portable radios and tv, rainwear, rope, sleeping bag, toilet paper, tool kit.

To name a few that might come in handy.

Mike
 
Here we are non stop 'round the clock with the season... but I can say that the peak is in May-November.

Now great concern for Mindolle here.......
Cheers,
 
Chasing hurricanes is a totally different game then tornadoes. In a tornado it is extremely unlikely that you will become a victim or a burden. Affected areas cover hundreds of square feet to maybe a few square miles. Hurricanes affect thousands of square miles. If you purposely get yourself into a hurricane and take up space in a shelter or eat Red Cross food shame on you. That is for people who live there and wish they weren't. If you get into that situation you better find a way to make up for what you used.

BTW...watch out for salt water, it does a number on your car. That's when a rental comes in handy.
 
Just a clarification on my original post.

B Ozanne is right. As a chaser I would never plan on using the resources of a shelter or the Red Cross. Just be aware that if you happen to get stuck out on the roads after dark due to fallen trees or other obstacles, you may be stopped and ordered by law enforcement to stay at a shelter. We were fortunate that the police officer eventually let us continue to try finding our way out, as staying in the shelter was the last thing we wanted to do.

We learned the lesson and will be better prepared next time so we hopefully won't find ourselves in that situation in the future.
 
Dan, your Isabel chase was interesting. I do enjoy reading Hurricane chase stories and will definitely read any future ones you may have. Also, you bought up some good points in your post. Just a little something to add to that is to bring some Fix-a-Flat or some kind of an extra spare tire. I remember seeing cars stuck with flat tires shortly after Hurricane Andrew, fortunately I was not one of them though as everything was closed for miles and I would could been stuck with them for who knows how long.
 
Hurricanes

Isabel was my first hurricane in my first purchased home, which I am currently still residing in. Got alot of wind and only had a power outage for four hours. Response time in NC has greatly increased over the past few years, thankfully. If any of you decide to come down for a hurricane, you are more than welcome at my house for a place to stay. They did have a curfew in my area for the majority of the day, but that didn't stop the local bar owners from serving with the "doors closed" - Another piece of advice - I know you veteran storm watchers know well the dangers of driving in rising waters. The year Dennis hit, I was staying with my ex-fiancee and he owns a house on the Pamlico Sound. Dennis shocked everybody with floods that hadn't occurred in the area in around 50 years. Nobody thought the storm would do anything as it was barely a tropical storm when it came back in the second time, (hence the name, Dennis the Menace) but it still had a pretty good storm surge when it hit. We went for a ride to see how things were doing, when we came back, we had to move two boats from the backyard in two feet deep water and it didn't stop there. Poisonous snakes are also out and about looking for high ground and the area I'm located in is reputed to have seen a gator or two. Might be a good idea to really check out the areas you're going to be driving in.
 
Update

I think I need to update a little on my earlier post. My offer is there for anybody who does want a "base" to set up or at least to make a stop or whatever. If you do plan to come down this way, I am unlisted, and I would very much like to be aware if you would like to stop in to my place. I have a roommate and often have visitors from family's who live around me who often check up on me to make sure I'm okay - alot of good friends who like to party so my house is most likely going to have beer and lots of food, and being indiginous to the area, we are always prepared when it comes to the hurricanes, but I'll need to know way in advance if I'm going to have extra guests. Something else I didn't mention in my earlier note - Black bears and bobcats are around these areas. Hunters are usually the only ones who have had problems with them in the past, but I have seen a bobcat myself that was the size of a black lab, in fact I thought it was our black lab. I don't know how they react during hurricanes, and have never heard of a problem, but if you do plan to stray away from the major roads onto the rural roads, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere is always a possibility. You may be able to find some websites that show you how to react to an encounter with a black bear, bobcats I'm not absolutely certain of. I have no doubt that the first step is probably to stay in your vehicle!!
 
Growing up on Long Island, NY I got to see MANY tropical storms/hurricanes. There was really no chasing to it, they just rounded the East Coast, strafed Hatteras, and slammed directly into the sore thumb jutting into the sea that is LI, NY. Belle, Gloria, Floyd, Bob are just the ones I remember by name.

Gloria sticks out in my mind the most. I was 15 at the time, and it's what really got me into meteorology. The eyewall made landfall at the beach 1 mile south of where I lived (the beach was straight down the road from me). the Great South Bay advanced with the storm surge, bringing the shoreline 1/2 mile up the road! You could not go down a single block without a LARGE oak tree blocking the street. Power was out for a week. Ice, food, and drinkable water was in extremely short supply, if not non-existant. Looting was becoming an issue in some areas.

Be very wary of trying to intercept a major storm like this. As mentioned before, the damage swaths are huge. Most roads will not be passable, and supplies will not exist. Realize that the angry guy with the shotgun is not interested in your meteorological curiosity. To him, you're just another out of town looter coming for his stuff!

Most of the time, however, the storms would make their turn early enough to be a few hundred miles out to sea. This didn't make for very interesting weather, except for some nice outflow bands to the south, but made for some of the best surfing to be had on the East Coast!
 
Hurricanes

I've been through quite a few over the past 6 years and they get less and less scary the more I go through. When the hurricanes blow through here in NC they pull a mandatory evacuation off the outer banks and police generally cut off all the routes entering those locations, and the next day they only allow homeowners/business owners back on to view their damage. Alot of people head inland, even from the inner coastal towns, and quite often they have a greater problem getting back to their homes because of damages incurred along highway routes. I find staying home is just as easy, get to see the storm and I've never been out of power for more than 2 days, but that was only because I was in BFE and the power company had quite a bit to deal with from that storm. Any of the Cat 5 storms approaching NC usually lose their strength somewhere along that turn hitting the gulf stream and knock down to Cat 3, and the Cat 3's not that bad but I also only received the southwest winds at that time. I have yet to experience a direct hit in my house. I'm probably 5-15 miles from the coast line in any given direction, so it puts me in a good location as far as not having to deal with the storm surge, but I will get a full brunt of the winds. I also live in a pretty decent neighborhood with a lot of Marine families around, so I doubt very seriously looters would be a problem.
 
I have only lived in the South for 4 years so only encountered Allison. While she was not a hurricane, she was one mean tropical storm! Like Dennis, she wouldn't go away. I sat high and dry in my home E of Katy, but 4 miles to my E on HWY 6 and east into Houston she did a myriad of damage. From my west facing windows, I could see blue sky horizon as I was on the edge of the "canopy". It was very surreal. There was no way to chase anything with her, the intense flooding brought Houston and surrounding area to it's knees for awhile.
The new mayor of Houston, Bill White, seems to be the guy to get things done here. Imagine, a R rooting on a D! :) I only hope he is sincere about fixing our constant flooding problems that plague us here. The former mayor (Out of Town Brown) left him a big mess to clean.
Anyhoo, I lost the pics I have of that time to a bad hard drive, wish I would have burnt them, they were unreal!!!
 
pics

I've got some pictures of when Dennis hit but it was getting close to dark and I need to find some other pictures of comparison so you can see the difference in the rise of the water level.
I've got a really good camera for taking pic's but I need to get me a camcorder, I'll have one this year before the next hurricane hits us.
 
Hurricanes

I may have found a new found friend down here with a love for hurricanes. He is one of the other cab drivers in the company I am working for and we got on the subject.

He was on Hatteras for Floyd to go surfing on the waves of the approaching storm.

I gave him a very difficult time for not having video taping of the event due to his story he told me of the crashing waves upon the dunes.

He also told me that Fran and Bertha really had a drastic effect on the town I live in. He said that Jacksonville was out of power for almost two weeks and that the mess was terrible.

But he may know someone on the outer banks willing to allow for people to come out there before the onset of the closing of the islands. I'm going to try to find out more on that one.
 
Good post. I been armchair chasing hurricanes since I was nine years old. I lived in Georgia for a long time and got the after effects of hurricanes. Just watch out for right front eye wall area, can be nasty there.
 
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