Friday, September 23, 2005. 
Rescuing my Mother, and a "last look" at my house and trees as I knew them
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Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts
Flickinger Weather
Flickinger Weather
Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts
Flickinger Weather
I woke up Friday, September 23 knowing I wouldn't get any additional sleep for quite a while. Landfall is "scheduled" for that night. 

Not counting the TV dinner and nasty breakfast bars, I hadn't enjoyed a regular meal in 48 hours. Today a half-empty cereal box of "Pops" would have to do.

John and I looked out of place, like a small market TV operation compared to the network guys. While we strapped two plastic spare gas cans to the roof rack and carried little food, we noticed that a CNN crew brought an entire extra trailer filled with extra gas and goodies.

John and I were hungry. We needed more goodies!

....

Friday:

Good morning Galveston!

Hurricane conditions arrive later today!

It's the day of! It's here! This is it! The hurricane is really going to smash Southeast Texas!

Think about this: how often do you wake up on an evacuated island less just hours before a hurricane hits it! It's a somewhat quivery experience.

When I woke up that morning I was instantly awake-- no snoozing, stretching, yawning or nothing. The alarm clock went off, and I was fully powered in seconds! There's a lot on my mind today!

Galveston was mostly empty except for us media junkies. There were no families and no children touring the city. Nothing was normal. Instead of tourists walking along Seawall Boulevard, lots of news trucks, cameras and cables crossed the street.

Landfall loomed in 18 hours. The hurricane was centered about 300 miles away. The overhead cloud cover thickened during the next hour. 

The 7am NHC advisory indicated the winds had decreased slightly overnight to 140mph. Rita might weaken a bit more as the hurricane ran over the shallow Texas coastal shelf and cooler water, but the storm would still plow into the coastline as a major hurricane.

The forecast path shifted eastward again, now centered toward the TX/LA state line-- Orange, Texas to be exact. When the NHC puts out its forecast we're not supposed to fixate on the exact line of the track. But we do anyway, and I was becoming fixated with the idea that my hometown would get blasted-- this isn't looking good for Mom!

Drawing a gradual arced path of the hurricane's likely track, 100mph+ winds including the right front quadrant of the storm would be highly likely in the Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange, "Golden Triangle" of Southeast Texas.

....

I dressed and strolled out to the seawall that morning. The day looked and felt completely different. A steady north wind blew out over the ocean toward the hurricane. Occasional winds gusts to 30mph whitened the sea. Plenty of sea foam for all.

Though only cirrus hovered overhead, the clouds quickly darkened and lowered toward the southeast where I think I could make out precip in the distance.

The seawall was a big mess too, completely covered in trash coughed up from the Gulf. Seaweed, trash, wood planks and styrofoam chunks littered the area. And the wind alone made seawall walking a bad idea!

The ocean level rose two more feet overnight as large waves crashed higher and with more force. Splashing water and ocean spray filled the air with mist. Landfall is 17 hours away.

After some TV work I met another meteorologist, Don Harmon, from Kansas City's WDAF-TV. Don has an excellent reputation as a meteorologist and weather personality, and I was glad to see another guy from the Tornado Belt here in hurricane country.

Now for the day's agenda and weather forecast, I walked back to the hotel for final calculations.

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MY FORECAST:

Hurricane Rita has weakened some overnight, but the structure remains quite symmetrical. The storm doesn't have time to weaken much more before landfall and with surface pressure not rising proportionately to the wind speed dropping; the storm surge would be higher than typical for the wind speed. The worst winds wouldn't approach until the eye was about 6 hours away as I measured the thick area of precip and wind around the eye and plotted the data on a map. Landfall should occur somewhere from south of Beaumont to near Sabine Pass and Cameron. The first light rain bands would affect us around Noon with heavier bands toward 3-4pm. Sustained tropical storm winds arrive by 5-6pm and we would likely lose electricity by then...make sure my equipment is charged up! If John and I decided to get clever, we could probably venture out into the hurricane until the eye was just a few hours away. Hurricane force winds arrive from 10pm to midnight. Our weather would worsen rapidly from midnight to sunrise. If we were 30 miles inland and within 20 miles of the eye, sustained winds could be near 100mph in our location. We might see wind gusts maybe as high as 110-115mph. The structure we would ride out the storm needed to withstand near F2 tornado winds for a few hours. Our strongest winds would be from the north and west assuming the eye passes over and slightly east of Beaumont. However, if the center passed west, we would need to protect ourselves from a NE or E wind. As far as the storm surge, I wanted to be at least 25 feet above sea level with an escape path to a major non-floodable roadway. Obviously, tacky metal structures, large glass windows and other breakables would need to be avoided. Gasoline... We have enough gas for 150 miles of driving, not counting the extra tanks. That amount of fuel should be plenty to get us to Beaumont and Orange, but would need more fuel for later as after hurricane passage, electricity and gasoline would not be available... we needed one more fuel stop.

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The Comfort Inn was closing and no breakfast was provided, but I didn't have an appetite anyway: a hurricane is coming to kill my hometown...let's go get Mom!

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We had no news from our Tulsa bosses and the San Antonio crew disappeared, so John and I were loners. We left Galveston heading up I-45 toward Houston and observed minor coastal flooding already in progress. The interstate was nearly vacant. We saw only one other car.
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Editorial: After driving on the empty highways, I might recommend to my friends and family to leave as
late as possible when evacuating to avoid the traffic. It's sure easier than dealing with evacuation crowds. Even 12-24 hours before landfall, there's plenty of time to escape the storm-- it's like driving on a breezy day with occasional showers. But if you break down, you might be in trouble...

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Staying southeast of Houston on Highway 146 we spotted a car filling up at what appeared to be a closed gas station in Baytown...was it open? We stopped to investigate and found the gas station owner preparing his business for the hurricane. Though officially closed, he turned on the pumps for us. It turned out that he tried evacuating Houston but got tired of the traffic hassle and returned home.

We got our needed fuel stop! Now with a full tank and cruising range over 200 miles we jumped on Interstate 10 heading eastward for the Golden Triangle. Mom said I was "coming to rescue" her from Orange. Landfall is 16 hours away.

Driving toward Winnie and Beaumont the sky gradually darkened. Clouds thickened. Occasional wind gusts to 25mph gently nudged the Blazer. We kept the speedometer about 10 mph under the speed limit as fuel was more vital than time right now.

With a few sprinkles and occasional windshield wiper action, we arrived in Orange at Noon. The drive down 16th Street, the main drag in town, was awkward with everything closed and everyone gone. The weather looked more threatening too as we looked southward toward a more grayed up sky. Swifter moving clouds scooted by overhead. The wind picked up again with wind gusts of 35mph.

I didn't show my nerves. Riding out a hurricane is unsettling enough, but knowing your hometown will be wrecked doesn't help. After all these year and near misses a large hurricane is really coming. It's gonna happen this time. Landfall is 15 hours away.

What would Dad have thought?


CONTINUED==>
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4am Friday NHC Advisory. The center of the track shifts closer to the TX/LA state line. Click the map for larger image.
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The Gulf of Mexico as seen from the Galveston Seawall on Friday Morning. The water turned white overnight due to the salty waves. This picture would be my last full view of the Gulf for the trip.
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This is a video still looking straight down at the Seawall. Lots of trash washed up overnight making seawall walking a bad idea.
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Click for a larger image. The Friday Morning NHC update indicates little change in the forecast track. Southeast Texas will get the worst winds from the storm.
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Showing up in Beaumont, network anchor John Roberts is "relaxed" before the hurricane.
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Here's where I grew up. I took this picture of Mom's house less than 24 hours before the hurricane. Would it survive?
Mom's office:

We pulled up at my mother's insurance office on 16th street, and my Mother hugged me and squeezed me really hard! Mom didn't seem to mind that we didn't know exactly where we would ride out the hurricane, but she said she felt fine whereever we ended up!

I suggested for now that Mom stay behind and pack up. John and I needed to shoot a last hurricane package for the day's 5pm news, and agreed to meet and pick up Mom in 2 hours.

Our story would be the vacant landscape of coastal towns which required a venture toward Port Arthur.

On the drive toward Port Arthur, I asked John to stop off at my Mother's house in Orange... I hadn't see the home in a couple of years, not since my father had died in it.

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My house...Mom and Dad's house...We turned off 16th street and drove to the home. My old home is an aging 1940s, two story frame structure. I looked at it like it was going to disappear or something....a lot of memories here, the last memories aren't so good.

Mom had struggled to maintain the house after Dad died. The inside hadn't changed much since Dad died. It's creepy. The Christmas tree and decorations have been up for years as Dad died in December. Dad's clothes still abound. Time stopped in that house.

Looking back:

Years ago my father died on the living room floor carpet on a Sunday Morning. I didn't even know he was close to death.

I was nowhere around when he died and I found out of his death from a phone call. Mom told me she held him while he died.

Dad wasn't supposed to die yet as he had promised to tell me something first.

I drove 9 hours home after Mom called me that Sunday Morning....I've always wondered what Dad was supposed to tell me.

Mom even played the piano at church as usual that Sunday Morning.

Unrelated to my father's death, the chuch organist wasn't at that Sunday morning service. Unknown to us her husband died the same weekend!


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Before leaving the house I secured the glass door and picked up a few small things around the porch as if that might stop the 100mph winds on the way. Dad's front bushes needed trimming. Looking at the roof, a slate tile had already shifted out of place.

I was very concerned about the series of the near 200 foot tall pine trees towering over the east side of the property. I photographed the trees (bottom left) not knowing the damage they would later do.

This was still my home too.

I looked at the home and especially the trees one last time. Neither would look the same again. Landfall is 14 hours away.

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Port Arthur was completely vacant when we arrived. The police were patrolling, but the citizens were gone.  I laughed at a TV reporter who said: "Downtown Port Arthur is completely boarded up." Yeah, downtown Port Arthur has looked closed down for years!

The closest we allowed ourselves to the coast was a high span bridge (Texas Highway 82) south of Port Arthur, extending eastward across the Sabine River toward Cameron, La. Since wind speed increases with height, I of course wanted some height...let's go to the top. The police officer guarding the bridge let us by with a "good luck" smirk. A bird caught in the wind was actually flying backwards...

I don't remember much of the view from the 200 foot tall bridge. The wind was so strong I could barely open my eyes! A 55mph wind gust was noted on my handheld anemometer as the wind tried to rip it out of my hand.

John and I shouted to be heard. I recorded a "standup" for my news package, shielding the microphone with my body.   My skin felt ready like it would rip off my face due to the wind...that might hurt.

Let's remove ourselves from the bridge! (in hindsight, I wish I brought a second wind gauge which I could have strapped to the bridge in hopes of recovering later.) Winds likely would have peaked near 130mph in that location.

The hurricane landfall was still 13 hours away. 13 hours! What will the wind be like when the hurricane actually gets here? 70, 80, 100mph wind?

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As we left Port Arthur, Fox 23 News in Tulsa called me with orders that wouldn't do: they wanted us to drive all the way back to Galveston to ride out the hurricane. The ferry from Port Arthur to Galveston was closed, and the land route back though Houston would expend our fuel supply. We told our bosses "no."

Fox 23 called back with better orders more to our liking: meet up with the San Antonio crew in Beaumont and ride out the hurricane.

And besides, we didn't want to go back to Galveston anyway as Galveston would miss the storm. If we're gonna do this: drive nearly 2,000 miles in several days,  go hungry and tell the story, then we need to be near the eye of Hurricane Rita....let's go for it!

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At 2pm, we travelled 25 miles from Port Arthur back to Orange to retrieve Mom. We encountered light rain bands and tropical storm force wind gusts.

We took Mom with us as I drove her Toyota Camry from Orange to Beaumont. John following in the Fox 23 Blazer. The usually crowded Interstate 10 was nearly vacant.

Landfall now 12 hours away.

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This is it! Beaumont would be our home during landfall.

Most of the city was empty, but we found some life on the southwest side of town. Two hotels remained open for business. One of the hotels housed an interesting mix of media, police and SWAT units, and New Orleans hurricane refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

The hotel's restaurant was closed to no surprise, so I passed the 2 day mark without a regular meal. My total intake in the last 48 hours: 1 breakfast bar, 1 TV dinner, a bowl of cereal and two bananas. And I had a few more days to go.

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In the downstairs lobby, I met and befriended, Bernecia, a displaced New Orleans survivor from Hurricane Katrina. Bernecia was about 40 years old and separated from her family though she had her dog.

I talked with Bernecia for a half hour.

She escaped the New Orleans Convention Center by riding out of town in a stolen car. She didn't know where other family members were or if they were even still alive.

After riding out Katrina at her New Orleans's home, Bernecia became stranded in the flooding. She cursed overhead news helicopters for stirring up the water, shooting video and not helping. To try to get attention from rescuers, she pretended to be dead by floating in the water eventually reaching dry concrete. Her stranded aunt nearly drowned with water up to her neck for days. 

But Bernecia is starting over in Beaumont. She got $2,000 from FEMA, using it to purchase a used car and rent a small apartment that she now calls home.

Bernecia cried in the interview with me, making me teary. I felt guilty for contributing little to the Katrina relief efforts myself so I hugged her afterward and gave her a "bribe" handshake. She hugged me back and kissed my cheek goodbye. The hurricane is 11 hours away.

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National media folks arrived in Beaumont. Anderson Cooper from CNN parked next to my Mom's car. John Roberts, a Dan Rather type guy at CBS News walked into the hotel and I met him.  I've didn't know what my expectations were, but I didn't expect him to walk into a hotel lobby with two open bottles of Bud! He carried both beer bottles in the same hand with a finger inside each. After chatting inside with producers, he stepped outside the hotel's front door with a pack of smokes.

John Roberts and I made eye contact and he gave me a funny look as I was a quite a sight wearing chamo-green pants, a neon yellow rain parka, and Jim Cantore-like skin tight waterproof black shirt. A collection of weather gadgets completed my fine ensemble.

We chatted briefly, and he finished up poking fun at me, "That wind gauge you got there looks like a homemade unit!"
Like the true weather nerd that I am I dashed into the rain to measure a 45mph wind gust. He smiled and lit a cigarette. Landfall is 10 hours away.

The
next page continues through some of the most thrilling 12 hours of my life.
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Looking westward, some blue sky remains Friday Morning.
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Rain falls in the distance, and huge waves keep folks off the pier.
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John shot "stand ups" of me for today's 5pm news package. If I stepped too far back, I might get really wet.
Mom's insurance office has a low profile roof, but the property would flood in a 15 foot storm surge.
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The pines stand on the east side of the property 20-30 yards away from the house. The two tallest pines are nearly 150 feet tall. They even look foreboding in this picture.
Landfall is next. Click to continue...