Quiet Hurricane Season Presenting New Challenges

After the 2004 hurricane season, Mark Sudduth from Hurricanetrack.com started working on a new project and needed some help.

The concept: measure storm surge and wind data from landfalling hurricanes – safely and remotely – using remote equipment, taking high resolution data readings and feeding visual data back to the internet in real-time.

Surge Cam

Surge Cam and Storm Case from Hurricanetrack.com

There are other scientists and universities out there capturing scientific data on wind, but we want to understand the impact hurricanes have on people, places and communities. After all, an exact wind measurement is one thing, but understanding the impact complete of a hurricane, before, during and after the event, is just as important (if not more so).

How could I not sign up for that? It was a part time job, with little pay. But, the mission was certainly worth saving my vacation time so I could leave work when a storm popped up.

The Plan:

1. Identify the most likely location to be impacted by storm surge, with enough time to place a storm case safely before the surge comes up

2. Turn on the surge cam and weather station at the latest possible moment, so it can run on battery (up to 24 hours) and capture the surge

3. Ensure the data and video streams to the internet and local officials as designed when a storm makes landfall

4. Recover the cases successfully after the event

5. Process the data and use the video to learn about storm surge and the impacts of hurricanes

The plan seems simple, but there have always been challenges.

Putting the Plan into Action

The first real shot came in hurricane Katrina at landfall in FL in 2005. We successfully launched the first “storm case” on the Deerfield Beach pier as Katrina made landfall just south of there, proving the concept. Data and video streamed back to the internet and was seen on the internet, in real time.

The second test was again in Katrina as it approached the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We estimated the highest surge would occur to the right of the landfall track in western Mississippi, and prepared to document the surge and wind impacts from Gulfport, MS.

The mission was both a success and a failure. The data we captured on the remote cases was invaluable, but the cases were also lost forever in the epic surge. The footage we shot before and during the event has been viewed over 400,000 times on Youtube since 2005, demonstrating the impact of the storm surge.

We found the right location, turned 3 cases on in time and had live video and data streaming through landfall, but lost all of the cases to the 25-30 foot surge (you can find out the exact details by viewing the video link).

We learned a lot from that first mission. We learned to elevate the storm cases out of the surge – and time lapse of the 2005 Everglades City surge from hurricane Wilma shows storm surge in a way that hasn’t been captured before or since. Wilma was a success at every level of the plan – we captured the surge and recovered the cases.

Our next real shot didn’t come until 2008 during hurricane Ike – but Ike came in at night and the surge cams, with power to the island off, couldn’t “see” the surge. Irene and Issac also gave us some opportunities, so did Sandy (which was also a nighttime landfall), but the quiet 2013 season has obviously kept us from having another chance at continuing our efforts.

I left my “safe” job in the corporate world last year to help take up this cause full time, and build a business around understanding and visualizing hurricanes. Understanding storm surge, the most deadly and destructive part of a hurricane, remains the primary and most elusive challenge. We know we have the technology, process and the experience to embed our surge cams in the right place the next time a hurricane impacts the United States.

Challenges Bigger than Storm Surge are Emerging

Capturing the impacts of a hurricane, safely and remotely, remains the primary goal of our effort. As we move from this historically quiet hurricane season, different, more immediate challenges are starting to present themselves:

1. Public interest in the impact of hurricanes is fading. We’ve gone over 2900 days since the last major hurricane (Wilma) impacted the US. We haven’t had a category 2 hurricane make landfall since 2008 (Ike), and we’ve only had 2 hurricanes hit the US since 2009 (Irene in 2011, although whether or not it was a hurricane at landfall is debatable) and Issac in 2012.

2. The lack of activity has created a lack of “demand” for hurricane information. To keep up with technology, we’ve developed applications to deliver the data and visuals we collect to clients and subscribers, but without information to deliver, we continue to build these applications at a loss.

We’re currently working on funding options to keep the mission alive as we move into 2014, and are aggressively looking at every available opportunity to ensure we have the chance to leverage the storm cases and surge cams the next time a storm threatens.

If you would like to help support our research or learn more about our mission, please contact me using the form below:

About Michael Watkins

Mike Watkins is the founder of Hurricane Analytics, a private organization specializing in data visualization and predictive analytics, with a special focus on tropical meteorology. They analyze complex meteorological data and communicate that information in easy-to-understand terms, to help clients prepare and anticipate the disruptive impact of Atlantic hurricanes.