Katrina Chase - Very Humbling

Good morning everyone,

I have not finished updating my site yet but will soon, but the story below is MY experience with Katrina as for something to read in the meanwhile...

I was chasing with Jeff Gammons (KG4PGA) and Jim Edds (KG4TBE) in my chase vehicle, a 2004 Ford Focus Station Wagon and Jim Edds in his own (Nissan, I think) vehicle. We intercepted the storm at it's first landfall in South Florida as a strong category one storm on 8-25. On 8-26, Jim Edds (needing myself as his assistant for CBS) and Myself were VIP passengers aboard the NOAA Gulfstream IV research jet and flew around, through, and over Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico on the 26th at about 45,000 feet. On the 28th, we were on the road once again and headed out to Mississippi for Katrina, then a rare category-5 storm at 902 MB and 175-MPH sustained.

We were out there from 8-28, which was basically "ferry time" to the target area, the interception on 8-29, then the "ferry" road-trip back to FL on the 30th. The hurricane only slightly weakened to 915 / 918 MB at landfall west of Gulfport and Biloxi with 150-MPH+ sustained winds. This was a strong category-4 storm many, MANY, MANY times the size and strength of hurricane Charley last year. Imagine Charley in Punta Gorda, being stronger, and lasting for 4-5 hours instead of a half hour, and having a 25 foot storm surge thrown in too?

My chase associates and I were were "stationed" at the Mississippi State Coliseum / Arena along Highway 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. We were about 1/4 of a mile from the beach, and 20 feet above the level of the Gulf of Mexico.

We were as ready as any "seasoned" hurricane chaser could be. Batteries charged, cars parked in a safe place, my weather station recording data, food and supplies packed in coolers and tools, rested up and ready to see Katrina'a core head on.

Monday morning brought on the beginning of Katrina at daybreak. This quickly deteriorated to 100 MPH winds, blowing and falling trees, and violent sideways rain. There were 50 evacuees also in the arena, which had up to 6 levels, a steel dome roof, reinfoced steel and concrete all around us, so we would be safe there - "Safe" being "Safer" in a relative sense.

At about 9:30 or 10:00 AM, the eyewall (core of the hurricane hit), and the 100-MPH winds suddenly ramped up to 150-MPH sustained with gusts to 180-MPH. The winds also changed from easterly to southeast, and were now onshore. Trees went flying, roofs ripping off, lights falling down, rattling and shaking. The wind sounded like a jet plane with a "freight train" sound mixed in with it.

As I was shooting video against the building, the storm surge started coming in. Dou you remember the Tsunami in Asia last year? Well imagine a wall of water like that, just rising and rising, not stopping, but inside a hurricane (not sunny like in Asia with the tsunami).

I ran back to where my car was parked, and quickly drove it out of the "protected" area, as it was flooding with rushing waist-deep water, and up a flight of stairs on the outside front of the building entrance. My car fit, thank god, and the other chasers with us did the same thing. I was not gonna deal with insurance, lose my car, and be stuck there, no way!

The water wave slammed the parking lot, then into the building. Boats, piers, cars, busted pieces of debris, styrofoam, trees, everything was drifting by the building and slamming into things. A large yacht went across the parking lot. The water rose half way up the first floor of the building glass outside walls, looked like a fish tank of dark water, then the glass shattered and doors flew open from the force of it.

Water was rushing into the first floor, and everyone went up to the second level. I stayed on the first floor as long as I can to get video until it got too dangerous, even for me. You see a door swinging in the winds, then a huge wave, like one in Hawaii would come across the parking lot and lobby, slam into the door, then water would rush into the hallway carrying away tables, chairs, furniture - everything.

Then the door flew off. The entire wall and other doors collapsed. A large tree trunk, yacht, and some cars slammed into the wall and the whole thing collapsed. Now wide open to the outside world, more 5 and 10 foot waves came into the lobby, then into the entrance to the arena. The hockey court was now under 5 feet of Guf of Mexico salt water. One chaser even saw a shark swimming there.

On the other side of the arena, the water was still rising, nearly half way to the second floor where the people were. I saw the water coming up the stairway where my car was, but I could not move it higher because someone elses was there. I did not wanna lose my car, especially after what my insurance did with the stuff that got stolen back in February. I was rmpaging all over asking whose car was ahead of mine, and found it to be Bill Holmes county comissioners.

I begged him for his keys, saying I will save his car too. He capriciously handed them over and I put them in a bag with mine, and went outside the first floor in nect deep water. People were screaming "dont go, your crazy, you will die!" I carefully swam over to the stairs where my car was on, cars and junk was floating all around me. This was the SAME place that was high and dry just an hour ago, I thought. I though about some disaster movies I saw, I couldn't take in what I saw out there.

There were objects floating in the water, and they were dead people. The sound out there was deafening, a high screeching wind noise and roar of water. The cars were all jumbled up agaist the glass wall which was already destroyed, with lights flashing and alarms going off. I just kept my cool, made it to the stairs, and moved the comissioner's and my vehicles higher up the stairs / walkway ramp. I returned back and was safely back inside as the water covered the wall and flooded the area where my car was just seconds before.

The sound inside the building was unreal, a whistling and freight train sound. The 50 evacuees were moved away from the windows into a reinforced concrete maintenance room we were using as a "bunker". The owner of the arena told everyone we needed to go there, and when he said we have already lost a LOT of people, half the people in the crowd broke down and hugged each other. I put my camera down, went into the arena outside the "bunker" room, and I lost it. Tears rolled down my face and I was crying. It was just too much to take in.

The crashing and banging lasted for hours, through the early afternoon. Most windows on our side of the arena held since we were on the side away from the southeast wind. The side facing the wind was totally destroyed. I peeked out a doorway and finally got a glimpse of the edge of the eye of the storm.

I saw a brightness in the sky and the winds let up a tad, still over 100 MPH, though since we only got clipped by the eye's right side and did not officially get into the eye's calm. The wind shifted south, then southwest, and after this eye passed, the water suddenly began rushing back out. This is because the storm surge is usually AHEAD of the storm's eye and right of it.

The water rushed out so fast, nearly everything on the first floor was "sucked out" of the building and swept out to sea down the road. The water left a dirty mark on the walls, and you could stand next to it and see how high the water was. With 20 feet above sea level and at least 5 feet flooding in the first floor, the storm surge was basically a tidal wave 25 feet high. In comparison, the Asian tsunami averaged about 20 feet.

The surge water was gone, like magic, in less than an hour. Cars and boats were piled atop one another, and if someone saw that AFTER the surge was gone, there would have been no way to figure out how they got like that. Debris (trees, boats, board, probably bodies too, but I did not wanna look at it in detail) was piled everywhere. The storm was subsiding by afternoon as the owner of the arena screamed at anyone who was on the first floor would be thrown off the property and / or arrested. He was upset, and I told him I was so sorry for him. He lost his business, and most likely his home too.

After the storm, I broke out a crow bar and tools (I carry my entire toolbox with me too), and started dismantling a huge piece of lumber / pier section that lodged into the staircase where my car was. It took 2 hours, but I got it cleared. I drove my car back down the stairs and ramp, and looked at the laptop inside awing at the wind and pressure recorded from the weather station. I felt "guilty", since me car was fine, and everyone else there had nothing to drive out of there anymore.

It took another 2 hours to negociate getting inland to interstate 10, just 2 miles inland or so. Damage was absolutely sickening. Entire buildings gutted, just a frame and columns remaining. A motel was GONE, but just the railings in the second floor remained. Kind of weird, seeing only railings and NO motel - where was it? NOTHING was not damaged. The highway (90) was busted up into segments as if an earthquake hit it, and a 6-story casino, originally in the Gulf, was across the road and sitting high and dry on the land. The casino was busted wide open and there were about 20-30 people picking looting there, up chips and putting them in buckets / garbage cans.

Finally, we made it to Interstate 10, still flooded with jet skis and boats, Yes - JET SKIS and BOATS, across it and people driving both ways on both sides of the highway - What the ????

Heading east, we got out of the real devastation, but passing through Mobile, Alabama, I saw the whole city with no one out and no lights. This was so weird, not a single light in the city. No headlight, no car, no building, no generator, not street light - nothing. Just the dark silhouettes of the buildings against a black-grayish sky. Pascagoula, Mississippi was similar. It looked like the world simply ended and we were the only ones left.

We did not run into any restaurant or gas station open until we reached Tallahasee, Florida. Even Pensacola was dark and shut down, with Interstate 10 closed there where we had to take highway 93 around it on a long detour. Our problem finding gas was solved because we carry 4 gas jugs (20 gallons total) in the car with us (about 2 tankfuls in my car). My chase partner and I drove home quiet and half teared, I never imagined being upset after a hurricane chase. This one was just too much.

So, here we are, back home and I am back at work. Business as usual for central Florida. Turn on the TV or Radio, you are instantly reminded once again of "the storm I just chased" (more accurately "the worst and deadliest natural disaster in the USA ever" - "that I just chased").

I just donated $100 to the Red Cross and designated it as hurricane relief. Simply going to work in the morning, starting my car, and going to the store for milk or food gets me thinking how much we take for granted in this world. Birthdays will be taken much more seriously now for me, and I will appreciate my family's and friends kindness more than their faults that any human may have.

Katrina was an INCREDIBLE chase opportunity for myself and my chase team / associates. Intercepted the storm first in South Florida, then was lucky enough to go aboard NOAA's research plane (Gulfstream IV jet) to fly over and around Katrina, then finally intercepting the storm in Mississippi and getting some of the best footage any storm chaser can even dream about. But I am sad. I feel "dirty", and am praying for those who suffered losses from Katrina.

Katrina did things to me. There are things I think about differently now. I quit joking about "hurricane chasing" and even look at that differently. I want to show my footage to everyone, to show what such a storm can do so they will protect themselves and not "stay behind" when told to leave. Meanwhile, I am getting over the tears and nightmares ... Last night I woke up from a nightmare where I was underwater in an arena (of all places) and saw dead people with no skin around me - woke up screaming, actually.

Shrink time!!

Anyway, gotta get back to work ... That's my "Katrina and the waves" story ;-(

Chris Collura - KG4PJN
 
Chris, what a remarkable account. Your last two large paragraphs are particularly telling. "I feel sad...dirty..." I can only imagine. You went to indulge a passion and found yourself in the midst of a catastrophe beyond anything you could have conceived, a catastrophe whose impact in terms of suffering continues to unfold and is rippling through our entire nation.

You've lived through something you never expected and it has changed you. You've found new eyes and a new voice, and the footage you've acquired will probably take on a far deeper mission than you ever anticipated. Your words reveal your heart, and I think it's a good one. I will pray for you, that God will use your experience to bring blessing out of inconceivable calamity, and peace in the face of troubling questions.
 
Wow, what a story. Thanks for sharing. We're all glad you guys made it out okay.

Just reading that sent chills up my spine. I can't imagine how it would have been actually being there.
 
Hey Chris im so glad you are alright. I know how you feel with having a dream chase but feeling guilt, sadness and *dirty* afterwards. Have you considered allowing some of your footage to be used in the chairty DVD. That would be a good way of helping out and letting people see how powerful these storms are.
 
Chris, it sounds like a very harrowing experience. I definitely think that you should try to market your video, if nothing else, to show people what a major hurricane is really like. I think if the media would have stressed the impacts of a Cat 4/5 storm (e.g. showed video of Charley, pics of Camille's damage, etc.), perhaps more people would have evacuated. In my opinion, seeing video of wimpy hurricanes from the past lulls people into a false sense of security.

Glad you made it out okay. :D

Gabe
 
I was in the #stormchase chatroom a few nights ago and a group of very respectable chasers were arguing like children about storm chasers profiting from video footage of this event. Without naming names, I hope this account shows them that chasers are not immune to emotional impact from storms.

I know you're still recovering from having your stuff stolen, but I certainly hope that some profits from this footage go towards emergency relief funds.
 
I think the hardest to deal with for me would be leaving and wondering if I could have helped and saved a life or two since it might have been hours before others even made it in. Pulled some debris of someone.Carried some injured out.

Sorry but with so many people wanting to go down and help and to read about people just up and leaving back to their normal life is a struggling point right now for me.
 
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