Thursday, October 20, 2016

Major Hurricane Matthew Intercept-10/6/2016

With the results of my last hurricane chase (Hermine) still fresh in my mind, and going through the stress of getting approved for a loan, down payment, and finding a new car to chase in for over a month now. Another hurricane was taking aim at the US. However, this would be a much bigger beast to tame. It didn't take long for now Matthew to become a Tropical Storm and rapidly intensify into a category 1 hurricane as it tracked into the Caribbean. Initial long range models had Matthew becoming a classic "Caribbean Cruiser" as chasers call them. Taking it South of Cuba and curving up into the Gulf of Mexico turning it into a Major Hurricane (Cat 3 or higher). However, as models got a better handle on Matthew, that solution came to an abrupt hault as models were now picking up on Matthew getting picked up by the first trough, taking it on a due Northerly course into Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas and curving back out to sea as another trough ejected from The Great Plains. I had mixed emotions about this. On one hand, I didn't have to stress about missing the potentially first Major Hurricane landfall in a decade because of a car. But, at the same time my inner chaser nerd was clawing at my insides with slight anger that another hurricane would turn out to sea.

Not so fast though! As the event progressed and Matthew now a Category 5 Hurricane (yes you read that correctly) South of Cuba after undergoing a 20mlb pressure drop in less than 48 hours models were now showing something ominous. With each run the trend continued to shift West. Closer, and closer to the East coast. North and South Carolina in particular. Models still weren't showing a landfall before Matthew drifted back out to sea. But we were now within 50 miles of the OBX (Outerbanks) of North Carolina. At this point, I have to look into gambling and heading down to the coast. Even if a Major Hurricane were to stay 50 or so miles off of the coast. The affects would still be destructive. Especially with storm surge. Now, my main problem at this point was the hurricane was projected to near the coast or make landfall a day or two after I had to give my rental truck back. Something I had been driving since my backup car also broke. Yea, its been one of those kinda months. My initial plan was to get a rental car even though I didn't exactly have the extra funds to do so and head down with my chaser partner Alec Scholten (Twisted Sky Tours) and we'd meet up with my other chaser partner Stephen Jones. Nerves were particular higher with Stephen, and for good reason as he has lots of family in South Carolina and some models were showing the exact track of previous Hurricane Hugo. Which made landfall in Stephens hometown causing millions in damages.

Both the Euro, and GFS spaghetti models were now locked and loaded showing the hurricane making landfall along the East Coast in the Carolina's around the 10th-12th time frame. By chance, I walked into my Credit Union to see if I had gotten pre-approved for my loan yet for my new car and sure enough, only a day later it was. Finally, something good was coming my way. Not only was I able to get a car now, I was able to save money by not getting a rental and taking my own vehicle.

Matthew was already on a rampage. Killing hundreds in Haiti, mass damage in Cuba, and now taking aim at the Bahamas. Still as a Category 4 Hurricane. Matthew was now the longest lasting Major Hurricane in the Caribbean in over 30 years. Four days it had been a Major Hurricane now. There was however one slight problem. The Western trend refused to stop and now we were potentially looking at a Florida landfalling Hurricane. What was causing this? A stronger Bermuda High Pressure than originally forecast. A ridge had built over the Atlantic and a Negatively tilted trough (that was sparking severe weather in the great plains while the Hurricane was in the Atlantic) had slowed down. Thus, the Western shift continued. Great. Back in Florida for another Hurricane. What could possibly go wrong like the last time? It was almost as Florida was taunting me to come back for a rematch. Stephen would arrive sooner than Alec and I to scope out areas to ride out the Hurricane as I had to work the day before we left and couldn't hit the road until I picked up my car around 6pm. Which absolutely sucked that this was taking aim at Florida. This mean yet another 14 hour, no sleep drive ahead. Thankfully, I would have someone with me to keep me awake unlike my last minute split decision to chase Hermine and drive the 14 hours all night alone down there. This would also make landfall sooner. Matthew if it were to make landfall would approach Florida on the 6th. So we had to rush as mandatory evacuations were underway up and down the coast, and the biggest evacuation in the history of Florida was underway as models continued to not weaken Matthew and so many models made landfall as a cat 4+ Hurricane. Knowing what had just happened in Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas I had a knot in my stomach for this chase. Something I have never experienced before and I hadn't even left yet. Later that night I picked up my new chase vehicle from Richart. A 2011 Chevy HHR with only 75,000 miles on it. Same vehicle as last time, but much newer and much less miles. Literally after leaving the car dealership I made my way to Florida. Which in my eyes is hilarious. I can't think of many people who have bought a new car and then immediately after leaving the dealership go chasing. Total a car by hitting a tree in a hurricane, buying new car, then going to chase another Hurricane. Us storm chasers are a crazy breed. But, when you have passion you are willing to do whatever it takes to persue it.

Of course, before I departed I had to add some Ohio Storm Chasers swag to the car as the bright white paint shined brightly before being put to the test of the over 2,000 mile round trip to Florida. The whole drive to Florida I could not at all shake this scared feeling. The knot in my stomach refused to get untied. With words like "Catastrophic", "deadly", with winds of 150mph+ , and wording by the NWS stating areas will be inhabitable for weeks and even months how could I ease my nerves? I'm purposely driving from Ohio for this as thousands of others who live down there are fleeing. I also wasn't sure what I might see. In my 6 years of storm chasing I am grateful to have never come up on fatalities and I wanted that streak to continue. Not knowing the outcome of my car or how long i'd be stuck didn't me any favors either. But, as with any chase you need to set emotions aside and focus on the chase. If you don't, that's how errors are made and errors can put your life in danger.

Knowing there wouldn't be any food to buy in Florida Alec and I decided to fuel up on food and fill up our gas cans well before we got to the state. Almost right after leaving the state of South Carolina we found a Walmart and felt this was an appropriate time to get some food, water, and other items we still needed. We already had some food, but just in case of the worst case scenario we decided to get more. Well, that'd prove to be more complicated than initially realized. Even over 350 miles away from where we were going Water was not to be found(as pictured above).

Off to the snack food aisle we go! Wait.....samething. Bread aisle? You bet ya! Samething! This Walmart wasn't even on the coast either. This was one 50 or so miles inland! We did manage to snag a loaf of bread and a couple bags of chips that were left and loaded up on cans of spaghetti O's. Then there was the issue of water. It took four different gas stations to finally find gallons of water and we stocked up plenty and the drive continued to our hotel.

Tensions were high, sleep was deprived, and things got pretty heated when trying to figure out where to ride out the Hurricane. Both locations were just South of Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, one location was at Cocoa Beach, and the other was just Cocoa Florida. Cocoa Beach was on a barrier island and Cocoa was more inland. The biggest debate was how many escape routes did we have and how high would we be able to park our vehicles? All of this happening just minutes before we arrived. This isn't like tornadoes. This is a long lasting even that covers hundreds, even thousands of miles. Its not something you can adjust. You have to pick a spot and wait and hope its safe. I wasn't thrilled at all about the Cocoa Beach area nor was Alec. But, after receiving a phone call from our friend Bart reassuring us that this location was safe and that the police had their HQ setup here it eased the tensions a bit. So, after checking out the first hotel we all got Waffle House to eat and discuss our game plan before we continued further. Businesses were shutting down, and the roads were clearing. Time was running out and after much debate we went to Cocoa Beach to check out at the hotel. Being in a small group during a hurricane makes me feel much better in case anything goes wrong and wanted to make sure we weren't in over our heads. My optimism was high however after getting to the hotel. The place looked like a fortress. Concrete walls, tile roof, about 75 yards between us and the ocean with a wall in front of the hotel it had to get over. We already knew we'd lose windows in the hotel. But, one of the rooms that we got had very, very thick glass. It'd take a very big object to smack that at 100mph to break. This is where we finally decided to setup and had the okay from EMA to park our vehicles in the parking garage down the street. However, the thought of what if we lose the two bridges onto the island was still in the back of my head. There was only one thought though we were strictly focused on at this point though. Sleep. Neither Alec and I slept all night and it was now 1pm.

However, I was presented the opportunity to work with WeatherNation in setting up their live shots for their on air segments and i'm not going to sleep through that. That's my dream job and to live that another day I can find time to sleep later.

Night was about to fall, and Matthew was beginning to make his presence known as Tropical Storm wind gusts become more and more frequent and longer lasting as the outerbands spiraled onshore and it didn't take long after dark for the power flashes to begin illuminating the sky as Matthew approached. There was also a creepy howling noise echoing through the hotel as the winds from Matthew continued to pick up speed.

With Matthew's eye still on course to hit us, we received news that sent my heart into my stomach. Our offer to park our vehicles in the parking garage had been rejected! Our friends already up there had been kicked out with punishment being threatened even with the permission we had. Several other chasers and media tried to talk reason into them and their words were "Even in a life threatening situation you can not park up here. We can not have an interference. Interference from what?!? We are just parking our cars up here! This is the only parking garage around, how are you about to kick us out of it when we aren't causing any problems? These officers were not having it and left us scrambling to find another option. Stephen had found a Holiday Inn with a parking garage and after scoping it out it appeared safe. However, parking was limited. There was maybe 5 spots left and this garage was 3 miles away. So, we'd all have to pile into one vehicle to get back. But, I'd rather do that than risk losing, or severely damaging my car.

Not long after that I was walking back to the hotel room from outside and I randomly stumbled across my friends Reed Timmer and his wife Maria and Connor McCrorery who were also targeting the same area as us. Earlier in the day I also came across my friends Michael Phelps and Don Murray and now had quite the great group together. We all made our way down to the beach to document the incoming surge and to feel the full brunt of the wind as there was nothing blocking it on the beach. Some of the gusts nearly knocked me off my feet and blasted sand on the backs of our legs as we watched multiple more transformers explode on the horizon and more areas go dark.

I love this radar grab provided by Chris Heater as it almost looks like nature is sending a bowling ball our way and we are the pins its waiting to strike. While the winds were rapidly intensifying and were now hurricane force I was battling my lack of sleep which was going on 35 hours now. But, no rest for the wicked!

The more the night progressed on, the more apparent it was becoming that official landfall might not happen. It appeared the Northern turn was underway. But, it was going to be close and if it did make landfall it was going to be where we were or no where. Also, Matthew had now been downgraded to a Category 3 Hurricane and my "life is in danger" knot went away.  Which honestly, I was okay with for it being my first Major Hurricane. This was a nice middleground point and now we could kick back and enjoy the show.

Winds were howling, winds sustained at times of 60mph, the sound of small debris being ripped off buildings, power flashes getting bigger and brighter and more frequent. Matthew was beginning to show his fury. We would experience these conditions for several more hours as the lights in the hotel continued flashing on and off wondering when we'd lose power as sections of Cocoa Beach continued to darken.

Around 5am my lack of sleep finally hit me like a wall. Even me moving around filming, walking around the Hurricane wasn't waking me up and at some point I made my way back to the room to lay down until the eye wall hit. Well, yea. I passed out and thankfully Alec and Stephen found me and woke me up. I feel asleep for a whole 40 minutes. 40 minutes in the last nearly 48 hours. I dragged myself out of bed and slightly delusional I walked down the hallway and out to the balcony to film where I finally came too and woke up after standing for a good 20 minutes. Then, the eye wall was in full affect. The strongest winds were still 10 or so miles offshore and this would be as close as we get to those. But man, did they pack a punch. It was creepy. Every 30 minutes or so you'd hear a loud crash! Then, pop. Pieces of roofs being torn apart. Siding being ripped off, sheet metal being hurdled like projectiles. Then about 10 huge explosions happened and out went the power everywhere around us. Except our hotel!

A huge gust of wind came probably 90+mph and after that happened we kept hearing a strange alarm going off. We'd later find out at this moment the roof from the nearby grocery store had been torn off and this was the security alarm going off.

Realize that the eye was indeed going to stay offshore we made a last ditch effort to get as close to the eye wall as possible. We jumped into Bart's rental and booked it North to Cape Canaveral and were blasted with winds over 100mph, ocean spray, and debris laying all over the road.We also came across a heavily damaged trailer park with roofs ripped off and trees collapsed onto other homes. Thankfully, it didn't appear anybody was home and they had evacuated.

After we returned as the sun rose, the shed that had been outside our balcony all night had been blown apart, tossed up into the air and into the field. We also had realized that the loud noises we were hearing throughout the night were pieces of our hotel roof coming off and breaking against the blacktop parking lot. Many businesses had roof damage if not had lost their roof completely, signs bent down or completely blown apart, trees down everywhere. It was crazy how dramatic the wind was on the other side of the eye and now that they were blowing a different direction, places that hadn't been damaged before were being damaged now. But, overall that 10 miles made all of the difference in the world and Florida was spared a catastrophe. To make it even better, we weren't trapped and we were able to get out of there that next evening. Not before passing the heck out for a few hours of much needed sleep.


Conclusion: While some could argue that Matthew was all hype, I'd argue that it was well warranted. What are people supposed to do when all major forecasting models show a major hurricane making landfall? Had this of happened like forecast and it had been underplayed there's no telling what the death toll would have been. Second, always be over prepared rather than under prepared. We had enough food to last us for 5 days. Which might have been excessive to most, but I didn't want to take any chances. I'm glad my worst fears weren't realized and I'm very glad we took this hurricane as seriously as we did and used a group to make a final decision and stick together.


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