History of Chasing

 

HISTORY OF HURRICANE CHASING

Keep in mind several news photographers chased hurricanes in the 1950s; most well known is Clarence G. of CBS. I met him during Hurricane Diana in 1984, as a stringer for CBS, and he told me of his 3 decades of filming hurricanes, and lectured me on proven methods of filming hurricanes.  Much of the 1954-55 black and white footage of Hurricanes Diane, Hazel, Carol, Ione seen in newsreels were shot by Clarence. 

They say Thomas Edison was the first chaser: he filmed the aftermath of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, that killed 6000-9000 people, depending on the historian.

Others say Moses was the first storm chaser, in general, as he knew to be at the shore of the Red Sea as a giant tornado formed over his people and moved out over the sea, the giant eye and wall cloud parting the sea around the Hebrews. As the tornado moved across the Sea his people walked inside the eye, the sea being held back by the outer ring of the large "tornado eye." The sea returned behind the eye and drowned Yul Brenner's army, as Charlton Heston led his people onto the far shore of the Red Sea. (Much later on he became president of the National Rifle Association, I have heard).

Arthur Pike, long time researcher at the NHC, chased Hurricane Donna to the Florida Keys in 1960. He woke up in his motel bed, floating near the ceiling, as the surge crashed ashore. Winds gusted near 185 mph in that hurricane, and Lake Surprise in Key Largo was blown dry for over an hour. I don't believe he chased after that. Donna went on to extremely affect all of Florida and most of the whole east coast of the USA. (The scene of him in the motel would have to be recreated and CG’d.

Dan Rather, a news correspondent for CBS affiliate in Houston at the time was assigned to cover Hurricane Carla in 1961 in Galveston, Texas. He credits this unique coverage to his beginnings of a national career.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmJnbeRr0vc

In 1965, several Florida State University seniors headed out from Tallahassee to intercept Hurricane Betsy near New Orleans. They made it to Mississippi, when a huge tree collapsed across US 90. No interstates back then, and the only way to continue west was to drive 60+ miles inland. Timing of landfall ahead made that impossible as the correction would be a 150 mile and 3 hour detour.  Also, another student was in a state of panic after that tree came down barely missing the car.  Two of these guys, Joe G and David W soon after went to work for the NWS, eventually becoming "high" administrators, and never chased again.



Terry Nixon, myself, and Dane Clark (son of "famous" NHC forecaster Gil C, and later a NWS employee and then administrator) chased Hurricane Inez from Tallahassee, back to Miami in 1966. Terry and myself chased together until 1989-1990: Hurricane Hugo to Puerto Rico and S. Carolina in 1989, and finally Trudy to Baja California in 1990. Terry chased one more hurricane, Andrew to Miami, from N. Florida by himself.

Jim Leonard started chasing in 1972, and we also chased a few storms together; like Frederick to Mobile, Alabama and Alicia to Texas. Jim passed away in 2014. I continue to chase today.
 
In the late 1980s two more chasers from Miami got into the act.


From our chase in 1966 through the 1998 escapade with our arrest and trial during the eye of Hurricane Bonnie, much of chase history is chronicled in my script outline @ http://www.canebeard.com/articles.html .  This 18 pages contains details of some of the most memorable hurricane interceptions by myself, Terry Nixon, and Jim Leonard--the only chasers during most of that time period.

A majority of the History of Hurricane Chasing is contained in the above outline.

This includes interceptions of major hurricanes:  Elena, Gilbert, Hugo, Andrew, Emily, Opal, Bertha, and Fran.  Detailed accounts of several of these are contained in that script/outline and my accounts of Elena and Andrew. Extensive footage is in the can of all of these storms.  In addition to my footage, some great sequences are available of some of the same storms shot from different locations by Jim Leonard (deceased). I hold copyright to much of his footage.

http://www.canebeard.com/elenastorm.html

http://www.canebeard.com/andrew.html

In the mid 1990s another 4 or 5 people began to chase.
Since 2004 the number has increased to over 60.
There are a few others who have chased here and there; but the above list pretty much covers the "dedicated" hurricane chasers from 1966-2003.
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I possess extensive footage from all of these chases since 1984:  which will certainly enhance the production of a TV documentary centered on the Science and History of Hurricane Chasing.  The costs of production would also be held down considerably by incorporating much of this footage.
Many clips captured over the years can be viewed here: 

http://www.hurricanevideo.citymax.com/VideoClips.html

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Below I have copied the narrative from my 18 page script/outline detailng several of the most grueling, or memorable hurricane interceptions:

Betsy, 1965:

 

Two days later, Hurricane Betsy approached New Orleans, 500 miles west of Tallahassee.  My roommate, Terry Nixon, came in and exclaimed, "I am going with seniors Joe Golden and Dave Woodley and a few others to chase Betsy to New Orleans."  Wow!  This was one of the first hurricane chasing missions anyone had ever gone on; there was no history (save a couple of individual occurrences--which I can detail) of a combined mission of people to intercept a hurricane coming ashore. Certainly a quite unique idea.

Terry's group took off in an old car of one of the older students and headed west on two-lane Highway 90 along the Gulf Coast; there were no interstate highways back then.  The large hurricane was sending gale force squalls and hurricane gusts (75+mph) and blinding rain across the coast once they got to lower Mississippi.  Suddenly a large pine was toppled across the highway. One of the students was in a panic in the back seat, whimpering, calling for Mommy. The only way to continue onward would be to travel inland over 60 miles and head back west, then drop back to the coast.  Timing of landfall of Betsy and the extra time to get there made that impossible. 

Betsy struck New Orleans later that day and sent 8 ft. of flood waters throughout the city; many died.   During the next forty years many urged that the levees be fortified and heightened to prevent another such occurrence. Politics and budgets kept that from happening. Hurricane Katrina finally struck in 2005, and more than 1000 people perished-- mostly due to the lack of necessary actions to protect the city. Large sections of New Orleans  remain in ruins today.

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Hurricane Elena, 1985

 

Hurricane Elena, Labor Day landfall, brought my most grueling chase, most successful video mission, footage that I have sold segments of over a hundred times for TV documentaries about hurricanes.  My sequence of a house being destroyed by surge and pounding waves is still considered one of, if not the best, sequence of this type of occurrence. My drive over the crumbling causeway to the barrier St. George Island, is looked at as probably the most "death-defying" hurricane chaser mission on film. Below is URL to some footage of Elena.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbGu23XW_Uk

As with this footage, our History of Hurricane Chasing production will include much live-action footage of this nature incorporated into the story line.  These sequences will repeatedly display the exciting-adventure sub-theme into the show; and display it graphically.

Elena of 1985 was a five day chase: exhausting, successful, exciting, landmark footage for TV coverage, competition destroying, with several good anecdotal stories.

I drove 15 hrs to beat the hurricane to Pensacola, FL, from Miami, 700 miles away. The eye then stalled offshore, but sent humongous 15+ foot waves and flooding over the fishing pier and into the barrier island. The hurricane drifted eastward towards the "hairy-armpit" of Florida near Cedar Key and an 8-ft surge was predicted to inundate coastal towns. 

I parked at the city hall / fire house / tag office / etc.--in the small town of Inglis, situated along a river several miles from the Gulf of Mexico. It was 10 pm., Elena was sending several feet of water flowing across the causeway road to the coast itself; winds were gusting to 60 mph, and occasional blasts of blinding horizontal rain blasted through.  I was standing against the lee side of the building with several other locals; and struck up a conversation with one, who happened to be the mayor of Inglis. 

Knowing the predicted tidal surge for that town was 8 ft. above sea level I asked what the town's elevation was.  She replied "4 ft above sea level."  I one time noted to her that the NHC was predicting 8 ft. of ocean to come ashore with waves superimposed on top of that."  She didn't seem phased. Luckily the hurricane soon turned away, and headed back to the northen Gulf coast.  That whole town was not evacuated, and only luck stopped a possible deadly mass-drowning disaster.

The Mayor noted to me that she had seen another of "my ilk" sitting on top of the high-bridge on US 19 just east of town, in a P/U truck with an anemometer mounted on top.  Only 3 long-time chasers were in existence at that point in time, and I immediately knew it was Terry Nixon. I met him on top of the bridge, and we chased in tandem for the next two days.

The CBS assignment desk told me they had four of their crews after Elena as well.  When Elena abruptly looped and headed back WNW briskly, I sped back towards the Florida Panhandle, 300 miles away. This was the third day with only a couple of hours sleep in the cramped car--and of course, accompanied by my trusty half-Saint Barnard dog, Hurricane.  Approaching Appalachicola I called CBS and was told, "Richard, you have left our other crews in the dust, exhausted, so do your best to get us some good footage."  

I got over to the barrier island and filmed the enclosed footage of Elena www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbGu23XW_Uk, which includes the crazy drive over the collapsing bridges, and the rare footage of a tidal surge on a barrier island.

The CBS contact asked if I could go back to their affiliate 30 miles north of Tallahassee.;  even as the eye was still offshore and headed quickly towards the Miss. Coast.  Through the tropical storm conditions Terry and I went back to the station to feed the footage to the network. At the station were several of their crews transferring their footage of minimum storm conditions to the network. 

Again the union cameramen and field-producers did not even want to look at my Little-Camera footage; but after I contacted the Bureau Chief he got them to view my stuff.  Four hours later they finally did, and, of course, my footage led off the CBS Morning and then the Evening News again.

With no sleep I left Tallahassee north, and headed towards Mississippi, calculating I had to average 70 mph for 6 hours to intercept the wall cloud and eye as it came ashore.  I managed a total of 10 minutes sleep, slumped over the steering wheel, and drove into Biloxi smack dab in the middle of the wall-cloud and 115 mph gusts just after dawn. 

I filmed this landfall in Biloxi, then the eye came over and I drove inside the clear, majestic eye 8 miles west to Gulfport, where the second half came ashore with 120 mph gusts; blowing roofs off in front of my camera lens.

Four days with a total of maybe 7 hours sleep; but the adrenalin of the power of the hurricane coming ashore slapped me awake, and I enjoyed and filmed this final landfall; capturing landmark footage of tidal surge to be later used by Emergency Managers, FEMA, and the NHC to help educate the public, ----graphically, on the dangers hurricanes present.  

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Kate, 1985

 

Later that year I intercepted the eye of Hurricane Kate; back in NW Florida again. I filmed the eye of the hurricane as the sun set in the eye itself.  More rare, spectacular footage.

Terry and I took different positions during this landfall. He decided to stay on the NE quadrant to measure the likely highest gusts. I went west to Mexico Beach to experience the eye itself. I could not contact Terry for over two days afterwards.  Turns out, as he attempted to leave the immediate coastal area of Cape San Blas State Forest, the highway got undercut by flowing surge water, and the roadbed dropped out beneath the weight of his truck..

Water quickly filled up the cab, and he escaped to spend the whole pitch black night, outside, in the bed of his truck (still above water) in hurricane winds and torrential rain much of the time.  He was rescued later the next day when road clearing crews made it into the area.  He said the howling wolves, and howling hurricane Kate’s winds, and pounding tropical rains, kept him quite "alert" the whole night.  Picture of his truck in the collapsed highway is here:
http://www.canebeard.com/i/Album/truck_front.jpg.

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Hugo, 1989

 

As category #4 Hugo slowly headed towards a possible hit on Puerto Rico, we flew there about 36 hrs. before the expected landfall. All the other storms had been curving offshore that year due to the persistent steering currents, and this seemed our only chance to see one this season (it was Sept 18th already.).  As we approached the island a violent outer band of Hugo, filled with lightning, engulfed our commercial flight.  For over an hour we circled the airport, unable to land, lightning lighting up the otherwise dark cabin almost every second.  Updrafts from the thunderstorms rocked the plane constantly as we dropped and rose what seemed like 1000 ft. at a time.  Passengers were screaming in freight.  A  stewardess, during a quick downdraft, rose to the ceiling,  then came tumbling down into a passenger’s lap as the plane leveled off.

As the hurricane came ashore, Terry and I stood up against the wall of the Sands Hotel on the beaches of Isle Verde, Puerto  Rico. 125 mph gusts were thrashing the palms, the sound of breaking glass permeated the air, sections of roofs and other debris were flying by left to right.  We looked into the lobby and the manager and assistant manager waved at us from inside; having spoken with us earlier, and knowing our mission to document the storm.

The howling hurricane winds were now swirling and sending debris flying by, too close for comfort. We went through the lobby doors, and viewed, across the lobby facing south towards the ocean, huge plate glass windows , covered by sheets of plywood.  As we stood in the lobby the first plywood board tore loose and headed skyward--then the next, and then the next sheet of wood. 

The large windows were now bare.  Smash!!  Debris shattered one huge pane, 30 ft away and a sheet of flying shards flew our way at nearly 100 mph; the full-force of the hurricane coming into the lobby. Terry and I each dived behind brick “Roman Columns” that decorated the huge, ornate lobby. 

For the next half hour, the wind would drop back to 65-70 mph for a few seconds, quickly gust back above 100 mph.  Flying glass was going by frequently, getting embedded into the walls behind us.  The entire lobby floor was glass shard-covered, and each time the winds gusted upward, the chiming sound of thousands of glass pieces would lift up and fly by us;  still hiding behind columns, like a field of shrapnel.   Finally, when the winds dropped off for 20-30 seconds we each ran the gauntlet into the more protected casino area 75 ft. to our west; and luckily no huge gust again lifted up the shards until we got to relative safely.

The eye of the hurricane passed just to our west, as winds gusted up to 130 mph.   The hotel walls vibrated with each pounding gust.  

The manager came over to us and made a request.  We had showed him our Emergency Management badges that were provided to us by Florida Emergency Management; mainly for gaining access into restricted zones during hurricane landfalls.   He frantically wanted our opinion, when the wind was going to shift, how strong the winds would get on the back side of Hurricane Hugo.  The west wall of the area they had huddled their hundreds of quests was apparently built many decades earlier and they were worried it might collapse into that area as the winds shifted and picked back up. They wanted to know if they should move their guests elsewhere in the hotel to avoid a possible disaster.

We made it clear we could not be responsible for what happens, as we had no authority in Puerto Rico, but would offer our opinion how strong the winds would get on the backside.  Based on past occurrences and my knowledge of Hugo’s wind field, I gave him our estimate, and he made his decision based on that.  All came out OK as we predicted, and no injuries occurred.  I left my camera running on the table, during this decision making process, and “secretly” recorded our conversation.
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Hurricane Bonnie, 1998

 

Hurricane Bonnie, 1998 provided another interesting occurrence.  Two CBS Sixty Minutes crews were accompanying  us to produce a piece for their show.  Being “investigative reporters” by nature, but not so, we thought, on this specific assignment, they seemed more interested in knowing how we were able, over the years. to get through the official roadblocks to the evacuated barrier islands, when their crews were often denied access.  We hid our civil defense badges from them, told them it was a trade secret, but knew eventually they would “find out” when we got them through the roadblocks to the NC coast to Wrightsville Beach, east of Wilmington. 

I am quite certain the focus of the story was supposed to mostly observe and present the work of us rare few hurricane photographers that had been supplying their network lead-story footage for years now.

Andy Dressler, a some-time chaser, was driving my car at the time we went through the roadblock.  The policewoman manning the roadblock came over to our car and asked why we wanted to go onto the dangerous evacuated barrier island.  Andy presented his Florida Emergency Management Badge through the cracked window to the police lady standing outside in 80 mph winds and blasting rain squalls stinging her face.  

“OK” go on out there, but be careful,” she screamed over the howling hurricane gusts.

The two cars-full of 60 Minute producers and camera men and three and us (Andy, Jim, and myself) proceeded to the far end of the island and set up for filming on the third floor of a parking garage, on the edge of the peninsula.  110+  mph gusts blasted though, the tidal surge covered the roads to two feet deep and more in some places, and the CBS guys filmed us doing our thing.

During the eye one of the crews decided (unwisely) to go back to the mainland to file a story for the Bryant Gumble show for later that evening.  20 minutes later a producer still with us gets a cell phone call from that other crew advising him that they had been arrested at the roadblock and the cops were coming out to arrest us as well for violating the 24 hour curfew and for other charges as well. 

Sure enough, a deputy in a P/U got to the parking garage and ordered all of us scoundrels and “Yankee” newsmen to follow him back through the flood, in the eye, back to the mainland.
Once there, they set up a makeshift court in a bank building, called the local magistrate at his home, and insisted he come to administer the court hearing; as the second half of the hurricane was now coming ashore.  Absurdity gone wild.   

Apparently, the crew that went back through the roadblock opened a fat mouth to the newer policeman now manning the roadblock and got him angry with their arrogance. Probably.   Nonetheless the hurricane is roaring outside and many network crews who were not allowed through the roadblocks were filming this court hearing through the glass doors of the bank/courtroom, hurricane winds whipping their backs.  

The police lady, apparently was only supposed to let LOCAL Emergency Management officials and FEMA through the roadblock.  She must have lied to her superiors and stated we told her we were from FEMA.  Our badges said F (Florida) E (emergency) M (management) A (authority) and that is what we presented to her.

We were chastised by the local police captain / prosecutor during the hearing, and finally fined for breaking curfew and presenting ourselves as “officers”;  and told we had to come back to a court hearing several weeks later.  They formally ARRESTED Andy for driving the car and presenting his “false”  (which they were not) credentials that got us through the roadblock.  In the end it cost most of us several hundred dollar fines; but Andy had to hire a lawyer and pay him much more to explain to the formal court that our actions were not criminal.

The next morning Jim and I were asked to do a live interview about the hurricane and present footage on Good Morning America.  Lo and behold, they knew about the arrest and court hearing, and were more interested in that.  We agreed to do the interview, but only if they did not ask about that part of our hurricane Bonnie experience.  The interview went fine.

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Andrew, 1992

 

Andy's and my experience of Hurricane Andrew can provide another hurricane experience story from 1992.  If it were not nighttime, we likely would have positioned ourselves in the Cutler Ridge or Perrine Shopping Centers in S. Dade County.  Good we didn’t, as both were basically destroyed and later rebuilt.  We ended up at my house in Perrine and experienced the only Cat #5 hurricane that storm chasers have ever intercepted.  Of course, several hundred thousand citizens also experienced Andrew as well.  

Cars were flipped upside down across the street, but howling winds were so loud (like a jet engine next to your ear) we did not hear them flipping, from our cowered perch under a table  in a fortified  room in the house. http://www.hurricanevideo.citymax.com/albums/album_image/578146/101580.htm

Ceramic shingles from nearby homes were blown through the windows in other rooms and got embedded into the inside walls of those rooms.  The extremely scary moments of Andrew were so intense, that I used up a whole case of toilet paper;  hoping constantly the winds would start to abate.  The roofs of many homes nearby flew off during the 175 mph gusts. and ours sounded like it was trying to lift off as well, but stayed intact. 

A very detailed narrative of our Hurricane Andrew experience can be read here:

http://www.hurricanevideo.citymax.com/andrew.html