All reasonable questions to be asked. Early indications on global models that now tropical wave 99L would eventually evolve into a powerful hurricane and turn out to sea posing little, to no threat to the United States. However, over time as the tropical wave eventually became a Tropical Depression models were now indicating a much more alarming picture. Run, after run began to have a more westerly trend. Taking the now Tropical Depression South of the Florida Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico as what would be Tropical Storm Hermine. Where waters were the warmest they have been since 2005 and exploded it into a major hurricane making landfall anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas. Just a wee bit of uncertainty in regards to track eh?
In the 6 years I have been chasing storms I've seen just about it all. Epic tornadoes, insane blizzards, and historic flooding. But, one thing has always avoided me. A hurricane. So, you can imagine I was getting those prechase jitters and that butterfly feeling in my stomach even when it was still just a struggling tropical wave.
It didn't take long for models to quickly give the middle finger to the major hurricane impacting the US idea and actually start trending in a negative direction. Positive for home owners though. The American (or GFS) computer model which just days before showed a strong hurricane impacting Florida now only had a Tropical Storm at best heading into the area. While the Euro model painted a much more bullish scenario. Sending a strong hurricane into the New Orleans area (as pictured above) before making a second landfall along the Alabama coastline.
The reasoning for the sudden flip flop in intensity was the Tropical Wave was entering a very hostile environment for Tropical Development. Strong wind shear and dry air took its toll on 99L for days making it probably the most talked about Tropical wave ever. My hopes of a hurricane chase were quickly fading away and I had almost written it completely off. However......
The Euro, WRF, and GFDL computer models all insisted on further development as now Tropical Depression 99L made its way South of Florida and into the gulf. Causing a forecasting headache for many. Especially chasers like myself who needed to make a plan soon to chase. Another couple of days went by and the Euro. Well, appeared to be caving into the GFS solution. Bringing what was barely a Tropical Storm into the Florida Panhandle along with the GFDL. The only model standing with stronger development was the always bullish WRF. So, you could imagine this was a bit hard to believe from a forecasting aspect due to its track record of always overdoing hurricanes and seeming to turn every tropical wave into a major hurricane.
Despite models consistently talking down on little ole 99L it was somehow holding on for dear life as it entered the Gulf passing South of the Florida Keys. At times, the center being completely exposed to the wind shear and dry air its a miracle it had even gotten this far. A couple more days pass and 99L had finally hit a pocket of lighter wind shear and just like that, Tropical Storm Hermine was born as it slowly begins to drift North. Intensity models still even this close to landfall don't have a clue as to what will happen. Anywhere from a Tropical Storm to a Category 5 hurricane was being played out. I had just made a post the night before how I was getting eager to take an adventure soon and the night before landfall hurricane warnings were issued for Florida. Just as I basically committed to not going due to continued wind shear and more dry air. I specially remember messaging the group chat we have with my chase partners saying "Damnit! Hurricane warnings out. I'm going." I threw all of my junk in the car and about 30 minutes later I was on the road. I said I wanted an adventure after all didn't I? Just like that, the chase was on. But a very, very long drive was ahead of me since I did not commit the night before. It was pretty comical when my buddy Don Murray messaged me a picture of the Hurricane Warnings for Florida and asked when I left. My response was simply "Do you really want the answer to that?" (as I enter I-70 still in Ohio). Mixed feelings were going through my head as I head to Florida alone. My chase partners opted to stay home and with good reason. There was no guarantee this would even become a hurricane. But, after years of waiting I was sick of waiting around for my first hurricane. Also, what better of a potential hurricane to be my first than a lower end one?
With the adrenaline pumping, and my excitement level through the roof. It was not a problem staying awake for this all night drive and really didn't hit me until the sun came up to even start getting tired. After all, due to my late departure I wouldn't have time to sleep anyway. I finally made it to Alabama and with me starting to doze off at the wheel I had no choice but to pull over just South of Birmingham and take a power nap. My life is more important than any weather event. Period. After a 15 minute power nap I was ready to go again and eventually arrived in Florida later that morning.
There were even a few people wondering how the heck I got to Florida so quickly. Simple reply was "The chaser grind". I had left in such a hurry I was very unprepared. I didn't have spare food, nor had I eaten all night on my drive to Florida. Everywhere near me was closed (with good reason) but with what felt like a starving belly, I finally found a Burger King that was open and mowed down a large meal before the madness unfolded. There was even a gas station open where I was able to pick up some water, snacks, and fuel. But man, was I feeling the tiredness when I arrived to Alligator Point when the first outerbands started to hit me. I ran into a lot of chaser friends at this location as well including Brett Adair, Ryan Cartee, Stephen Johnson, Don Murray, and Michael Phelps along with a few other chasers and it didn't take long for me to wake back up. This eased my thoughts a bit as more experienced people were around me for this event. The crappy thing about this area of Florida is its very unpopulated and parking garages to hide in are nearly non existent. We were on an island after all about to ride out a Tropical Storm.
First thing that jumped out at me was the crazy waves coming off of the Gulf already and after shooting some B-Roll and chit chatting with Brett I logged onto Facebook to see that Hermine was now officially a Category 1 hurricane! Finally! It was time to bag my first official hurricane. Several intense bands hit my location producing winds of 40mph gusting to 50mph as storm surge began to overtake parts of the island I was on.
There was even a truck that drove passed me and pulled into a driveway of what I can only assume was his house to collect a few last minute items before leaving. Several hours past by and visible satellite imagery was becoming ominous. There were clear signs that Hermine was now rapidly strengthening with angry convection building around the center. Taking on a classic hurricane as apposed to earlier where it was a disconfigured piece of junk.
Forward speed had seemed to increase and I was beginning to wonder if Hermine was going to make landfall sooner than predicted as it continued to wobble back and forth making it complicated to predict where the eye would pass over. Waves began to increase in size as it continued battering the island and eventually knocking over a section of the flood wall in front of me. Piece by piece it began to fall into the Gulf.
One of the waves that crashed onto the shore was so big it overtook my car just before I got out to take a photo of the collapsed wall.
Another image as waves batter beach side homes.
Shortly after the flood wall I got a call from a number I did not know. Confused, I answered "Hello?" and a man answers "Hey Aaron! Its Jeff Piotrowski. What's it like over there buddy?" I damn near choked on my own spit because I was talking to someone who I have idolized for many years on the phone discussing the chase. We exchanged stories on what it was like at our locations and I alerted Jeff of the recent satellite imagery showing the hurricane rapidly organizing despite the wind shear still in place. The shear now was actually helping to aid in outflow thus, better organizing the hurricane and increasing its strength. We hung up a short time later and kept in touch off and on throughout the event.
With the hurricane only a couple hours away from landfall and daylight beginning to fade and high tide approaching. I repositioned off of the island and found a new location to film the surge and large waves where I would run into Brett and crew once again and even Brandon Clement.
I snagged this video grab off of Brett's video of a huge wave crashing up and overtaking me despite being on a patio well above the ocean filming. Not only were the waves battering us, we also got sand blasted in the face forcing me to shut my eyes and film blind half of the time as our road began to erode away and fall into the ocean.
Just before nightfall an officer pulled off and we exchanged info with each other as far as the weather went and he and every other police officer we saw were super nice about us chasers being there despite mandatory evacuations being underway. Night fell and I was beginning to grow concerned that the hurricanes eye would pass more to my East. So, I crossed the bridge into Panacea, Florida where I filmed some B-Roll of the surge coming up into the parking lots there as well before I continue East. I arrived in Saint Marks only to realize police had blocked all access to the beach and weren't letting anyone in. This is also where I bumped into Gary Schmitt and Logan Poole. Other good friends of mine and at this point I'm getting dead tired from being awake for nearly 35 hours straight. Just as I was about to fall asleep for a nap in the same parking lot as them a hear a BOOM! and see a bright green flash as a transformer explodes. Thanks mother nature. Guess i'm not getting any sleep. The more I sat there the more I wondered if I was too far inland. After all, I wanted to feel the full brunt of this hurricane. Being surrounded by trees would block the most intense winds from hitting me. So, I waved farewell to Gary and Logan and blasted West as fast as I could to where I was previously located as the eye was just offshore now by maybe 30 miles and the eye wall being even closer.
Then, just as I arrived back into Panacea the eye wall hit. I wanted the adrenaline to pump. So, I parked up on the highest point of the bridge to ride it out. 80-90mph sustained winds pummeled my location. Knocking out power and violently shaking my car back and fourth. I've been in these winds before but never for so long. I barely managed to open my door to get out and winds were so strong they knocked me off my feet. Once getting back up, you could lean into the wind and have it hold you up. Waves crashing along the shoreline, tree branches flying past and pieces of debris zipping by along with multiple tornado warnings. Never felt more like a badass in my life than being in a hurricanes eye wall while under a tornado warning haha. It didn't matter anyway. Because we wouldn't see anything if it did produce.
Then, as if someone had flipped a light switch. Winds suddenly vanished and it was calm. Creepy calm. You couldn't even hear bird chirping it was so calm. It was like a scene out of a horror film right before being attacked as I got out of my car to chat with fellow chasers on the bridge I was on. It didn't take long after landfall for the hurricane to quickly fall apart either. So, it was at this time I decided to call the chase and head to the hotel I was staying at before the second eye wall hit. Or so I thought.
Before I even got close to where the hotel was, the road I had just been on not 30 minutes earlier was now nearly underwater with debris scattered all over both lanes. I could see fellow chasers Brett Adair and Brandon Clements tailights up ahead. Indicating they made it through. So, carefully navigating the half lane left I hoped I wouldn't get a flat tire by running over debris, or that the water wouldn't suddenly drop off flooding my car. Somehow, I made it through though. First obstacle out of the way. Then, out of no where it seemed to start raining birds. Yes, you read that correctly. Hundreds, even thousands of birds got caught in the eye of the storm, and as the eye passed overhead they began falling to the earth. Two of which hit my car. It didn't take long for me to catch up to Clement and Brett. But, they seemed to be stopping to discuss their next move. I only had one thing on my mind. Sleep. I had after all been up for nearly 30 hours straight. So, I decided to push on with the voice in the back of my head hoping this wasn't a mistake as I was using them to guide me from hitting debris or trees (oops).
My only thought, and excuse my language was. "You have got to be shitting me! How the hell am I going to get home?!?!" That was probably still the shock talking as all of my friends made sure I was okay. Thankfully, I didn't hit the tree hard enough to deploy my airbags. At first glance it didn't appear to bad. Besides a busted headlight and hood the car seemed fine. Until we opened the hood. Revealing that I had bent my radiator, bent my fan, and punctured the AC unit. Ugh. So, I had to give the dreaded phone call no storm chasers parents ever want to get and let them know what happened. Being on the road as much as we are, we are more proned to accidents like these. So, its probably a shock it hadn't happen sooner. Trying to explain this to the insurance company was the funniest part. But, i'll leave that out of the chase log.
After about over an hour of being on the phone and getting everything figured out Brandon Copic offered me to stay in his hotel room in Tallahassee, Florida and he'd tow it back to Ohio for me using a UHaul trailer. I was so grateful for this because I had no idea how on earth I'd get it back to Ohio. Trying not to fall asleep at the wheel as my adrenaline wore off we finally found a route to the city that wasn't blocked. We also managed to get the one hotel that hadn't lost power. Originally I needed to go to Walmart and find a new phone, but apparently at some point when we got to the hotel I passed out. Can't say I have ever been so tired to where I pass out mid conversation before. So, its probably a good thing I held off on getting a new phone.
As if I wasn't already down, someone kicked me in the teeth at somepoint that night or yesterday afternoon. Because when I grabbed my wallet I realized all of the cash (about 150 bucks) had been stolen. No where to be found in my car or any of our bags. Good thing I have a Credit Card I guess? Could this trip get any worse? Yeah.....
About 15 minutes into the drive (not even out of the city limits yet) Copic's check engine light comes on and smoke starts pouring out of the back. After pulling over we realized the truck had gotten on fire. Yeah, you read that right. Caught on fire. After putting it out we all sit in disbelief with the luck we were having this trip. Thankfully Brandon Clement was nearby and took Copic to the same UHaul place to rent a truck as we waited for AAA to tow Brandon Copic's truck. Although, no matter how bad life kicks you down. There is always light in every situation. That light just so happen to be a few neighbors that had seen our fire and came over to ask if we were okay. I even remember the older man after I finally asked their names after talking for over an hour going "Names Mud". My response was "Its a helluva thing aint it? Its a helluva thing". There is a movie named Mud where he quoted that from and its one of my favorite movies. We both busted out laughing as if I was talking to someone I had known for years. The other woman across the street even brought us ice cold beers and water as we sat, roasting in the heat and humidity. With all of the crap going on in today's world with mass shootings, corrupt politics, its so amazing to see people like this to remind you there are still good, genuine people out there. You can really get to know a lot about someone by just sitting down and listening. "Mud" went on about his younger days about a truck driver and he had just about seen and heard it all. But, said this was a first for him running into a bunch of storm chasers. I was actually quite sad to part ways from these fine folks as we began our long drive home. But the memories will last forever. But, this trip wasn't letting us go home that...."easily". We noticed early on that the back left tire on the UHaul was bald. But figured we could make it back. The other person on the other hand probably not. Well....yeah...about that. Arriving in Knoxville TN we hear a loud "BAM!" my heart sunk because all I could think was that my car had fallen off. But, to my relief as we pulled over found it was still there. But, realized the bald tire we were worried about had blown. So, after limping it to a gas station where a domestic despute broke out and police swarming the area I walked over to Taco Bell and came up short on ordering food in the drive thru without a car. Thankfully though AAA arrived quickly and had a new tire on the truck in no time and we would finally make it home that morning.
Conclusion: Finally got my first hurricane! One of the only meteorological events I had been lacking in my career. But, my God. This would be one of the most frustrating, but fun and memorable trips I had ever been on. Even among what had happened, this reminds me exactly of why I love doing what I do. Living life, and becoming a story teller. It was a nice surprise that this hurricane in the end actually ended up over performing rather than underperforming like most.