|QuickTime Video Downloads: Inside Hurricane Rita|
|Landfall, Sept 23-24.
Lifetime Memories: riding out Hurricane Rita at a shredding building at night
|Pictures on this site are copyright George Flickinger. I have taken all pics unless otherwise noted, please email me for picture usage info.|
|Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts|
|Meteorologist George Flickinger's Storm Chasing Pictures and Southern Plains Forecasts|
|Hurricane Rita's landfall near Beaumont, Texas: For 11 hours, from 5pm Friday September 23 to 4am Saturday September 24, the weather worsened as the center of the hurricane passed within 15 miles of our location. The wind speed increase was gradual with constant tropical storm force winds by sunset and hurricane force winds by 11pm. Landfall occurred before 2am with the peak winds at our location near 4am.
I recorded a handheld wind gust of 85mph, though some gusts were closer to 100mph. We stayed outdoors the entire duration.
John Gibson called me "crazy" for running out into the height of the hurricane to measure and experience the wind and rain, but I prefer to phrase it, "taking advantage of the opportunity."
CNN contacted us for a live interview after sunrise. My grandmother was proud and surprised to see me on national TV, but she doesn't need to know everything happened:
|I only have a few still pictures of the hurricane passage due to darkness and a fogged up camera lenses. Several somewhat amusing video clips are below:
Free QuickTime Player Download
|Download I record and try to remain standing in 70+mph wind.|
|Friday Night/Saturday Early Morning:
Our crew rode out Hurricane Rita just outside of an office building on the southwest side of Beaumont, Texas. We set up "base camp" in the parking lot of the vacant ENT Global building. Russ, the head of the San Antonio crew staked out the building setting up cameras and the satellite truck, and our group of about 10 made the building our home. I wasn't tremendously thrilled with the idea of remaining outdoors during the hurricane, but the structure appeared sturdy. Several well-constructed hotels loomed nearby if our office building developed problems.
The weaker, west side of Hurricane Rita would impact Beaumont, so we probably wouldn't die.
The Global building is a large two story structure, spreading out about a half football field in size. Overhangs from the building extended into the parking lot providing overhead shelter. The wind currently blew from the north, so the south side of the structure provided immediate protection. We planned to rotate around the building during the night as the center of the hurricane approached-- we wanted to remain opposite the wind and blowing rain.
Our surroundings appeared mostly safe as a series of low-topped office buildings bordered us to the north with well-constructed upper class homes to the east. A harmless looking grove of medium size trees blocked our southward view.
With the laptop computer and air card, I checked the Internet for weather data. I measured the rain bands and progress of the storm from the images provided by the NWS Lake Charles Doppler radar.
My "short term forecast" for the crew was that Beaumont would receive 100mph wind by 3am....nine hours to go. Even if we lost Internet access, the wind direction would tell us what we needed.
Work duties...my assignment was to assist the San Antonio crew with a live broadcast. I was the "meteorologist in the field" and would be teamed with reporters from the San Antonio NBC station. Throughout the event other TV affiliates and network cable news could dial us in as needed.
Off camera duties... I had to help safely position our crew...no pressure on me if 10 people die!
And as I'd never experienced a full hurricane before, I planned to make the best of the opportunity: stand and face the hurricane then measure its intensity with my wind gauge.
Despite our preparations for live TV, the most disappointing aspect of the hurricane coverage was beyond our control: landfall and the worst winds would occur in the darkness of night. What city street lights we did have would fail soon. Our light kits would become our only light source and their useable distance lighting is limited.
Before camping out with the crew for the evening, I tucked Mom away at a nearby Courtyard Marriot Hotel one of the few businesses remaining open. Her second floor room featured a north facing window. Wind gusts of 40 to 50mph squeezed a puddle of rain through the window...oh good this feels safe. But Mom was safer staying in the hotel than in Orange, Texas. I left her with a flashlight and instructions to shelter in the bathroom or hallway if the windows broke. Mom was quite relaxed, and was more annoyed that the hurricane was cutting into her work time.
She should be just fine....The electricity flickered during the next 30 minutes as the wind howled, then went dark for good at 7pm.
5-8pm: darkness and rain
The weather didn't change a heck of a lot from 5 to 8pm though the rain steadied instead of getting occasional bands. Before 8pm the sun set and night settled in. Sustained winds increased from 35mph to 45mph from the north. Unless there was a huge shift in the hurricane's track we should miss the worst winds as the western eyewall moves over Beaumont. The highest wind speeds in a hurricane usually exist in the eastern eyewall bands.
8-10pm: tropical storm force winds
The group huddled under the SSE side of the building as heavy rain blew sideways across the parking lot. During the stronger bursts of wind, I was probably quite a sight dashing into the rain with my anemometer. I routinely measured wind gusts over 60mph after 8pm. Minor debris and trash occasionally blew past us, like we might see during a severe thunderstorm in Oklahoma.
My unscientific wind findings:
Winds over 40mph are usually overestimated by the public, especially in the rain. Much of the group thought the wind was closer to 60mph.
Standing in 50mph requires balancing and weight shifting to prevent from falling...get caught leaning the wrong way, I tumble. Verbal communication requires shouting.
During 60mph wind, I was pushed across the parking lot and would actually slide when standing still on a slippery surface. Plenty of trash and light weight objects zoom on by.
When wind reaches 70mph, safety is an issue as larger objects and sheet metal blew across the parking lot. Cracking sounds, glass breaking, limb snapping, the occasional crash of a small falling tree and other eerie noises dominate. Wind whooshing through trees drowns away the sound of rain hitting pavement.
At 80mph, serious injuries can occur. Wind stressed areas of weaker structures can fail, especially as the wind stays strong for hours. Those cable TV reporters are nowhere to be found.
After 9pm, I developed a wonderful idea: let's leave our shelter and drive out into Beaumont to film damage as the hurricane blows in. The rest of the crew stayed behind as John and I drove away in the Blazer.
Overall we didn't see anything too exciting. Cheap signs, a couple of traffic lights and some tree limbs were out of place. A few pieces of sheet metal blew down the street, but nothing too dramatic or unsafe. The worst winds were several hours.
The creepiest part of the journey was driving in the dark in an empty city: the usual busy areas like College Street, 11th Street and Washington Blvd were completely vacant. The darkened hospital buildings towered over wind blown tree tops. John and I parked and watched occasional beautiful flashes of blue-green light fill the sky as electricity blew out across the city. I later learned that we unknowingly drove past Dick Faurot of Tulsa's KOTV as his small crew sheltered at a hospital parking garage.
We returned to the Global building by 10pm as live TV duties were required. The San Antonio reporter took care of the 10 o'clock news live shots. After the news I even walked across the street to revisit Mom at the hotel. Emergency hotel lighting had kicked in, and I found my Mom asleep.
11pm-midnight: hurricane force winds arrive
Our live, continuous broadcast of Hurricane Rita hitting Southeast Texas commenced. Our bosses wanted us live until 6am Saturday Morning. This would be my second night of the trip with no sleep, and we had no food options. I'm nearing the 60 hour mark since my last regular meal, and my jeans felt looser. We had plenty of bottled water. And we had plenty of rain water too!
65mph wind ripped the rain around the building but our crew remained dry under the building overhangs. The reporter and I stood out from the building in the heavy rain. We were wearing hooded wet suits, and we hunched over in the stronger wind gusts.
But what about the rest of Beaumont? The city streets were calling us, and at 11pm, John and I took a break in the TV coverage to drive out into the near hurricane conditions...not a good idea anymore.
The storm was much worse now compared to our journey two hours before. Wow, the windshield view offered near zero visibility as we turned out of the parking lot facing the north wind. Driving a top speed of 10mph was all we could manage. Even when sitting still on the city street, the video we shot gave the impression of zooming through a blinding rainstorm. It looked and felt like the rain would puncture the glass. Winds were gusting 70-75mph, and the worst of the storm was 4 hours away.
John and I parked a few hundred feet away from the building. The rain and wind was so noisy we couldn't even hear each other speak. Proceeding slowly, larger tree limbs were downed in street in front of us and at the end of the street we noticed that a gas station's awning was having issues. We filmed the gas station using the Chevy Blazer's headlights as our light source.
It wasn't safe to be out, and we didn't venture very far away. We quickly returned to the office building...besides, we would have enough action back here anyway.
Broadcasting again at midnight, the San Antonio reporter and I tried to remain standing for the TV cameras in the wind and rain. John filmed me from a distance as he stood under the building's dry overhang. The reporter and I bobbed back and forth struggling to remain upright.
And some problems started.
Several chunks of pink insulation fell into the parking lot then becoming airborne while I reported live. More pink stuff flew out. We didn't know where the insulation came from, but noticing how quickly the bigger chunks glued themselves to the ground after they got wet, we knew it came from very nearby.
Off camera, I stepped over the wet insulation to peek around the building....oh yeah, the insulation is nearby-- it's from our shelter!
The north corner and north side of the building endured increasing wind for hours, and above me a hole was forming in the ceiling of the overhang. As wind got into the hole, the hole grew larger and insulation blew out. This might not be good.... the worst of the wind was still 2-4 hours away.
What about the rest of the building? Is anything else failing? Are we safe? I volunteered John to walk with me around to the north end of the building as I wanted to fully scope out the wind side. We left the building's protective canopy wearing full rain gear, thick boots and carrying waterproof flashlights. Walking face-first into the wind, we stepped out into Hurricane Rita to survey the damage.
Owww, this hurts. The rain felt like small bits of sand being pushed into my skin. Winds were sometimes gusting over 80mph. In one quick, violent motion, hurricane strength wind tore off my snap-on rain hood. It ripped off my jacket, quickly disappearing in the wet darkness. The wind made such a racket I didn't even notice at the time...I would be a wet-head the rest of the night.
John and I sloshed though the north side parking lot. A few wood boards and glass crunched underfoot though we couldn't hear the glass due to the wind roar. A large metal tent blew from somewhere joining us in the parking lot. We stayed away from the tent in case it decided to become airborne and chase us. My face hurt badly from the rain, so I turned my back to the wind. My eyes were mostly closed. Hopefully I wouldn't get nailed with a flying roof tile.
We stood 15 yards out from the building, scanning the structure with our flashlights. Something was discolored-- what was the non-reflective area on the white exterior wall?
Hmmm, that would be a hole in the building. There appeared to be a decent size crater forming in the facade. I could stuff a basketball into that hole...more rain and wind won't help...
Near 1am, John and I ventured out into the hurricane again to play building inspector. The north wind was much stronger now. The eyewall and worst wind were approaching.
Several more holes had formed in the exterior walls, with the holes noted much larger than basketballs. A large window was missing from the second floor. Wait, I see several windows missing allowing 80mph wind into the building. It's highly unlikely that the interior walls were engineered to withstand much wind, let alone hurricane force conditions...if the wind and rain is going in, somewhere it must come out...
2-4am: Western eyewall approaches; more problems.
The wind began taking a more westward turn, probably blowing from 340-350 degrees at 2am. The western eyewall was approaching and moving over Beaumont, meaning the eye would pass to our east. I looked E and SE toward the center of the hurricane which I guessed to be about 20-30 miles away. I could make out occasional lightning flashes. Lightning is rare in hurricanes, and I probably saw less than a dozen lightning flashes the entire storm.
Under the building's canopy more holes developed in the ceiling and streams of large pink sheets were pulled out by the wind, whipping around the northeast corner of the building. For "fun", I picked up one of the pink chunks (video download above) and a large plastic sheet, threw it in the air, watching it accelerate away into the darkness. This probably generated the most smiles the group could handle for now. A few heavy wood and mortar slabs fell straight down from the second floor. Whatever this building was made out of wasn't working...
We also heard a loud popping noise...Checking the south side of the office, the wind inside the building was trying to exit. The bottom windows near the doors were made of plexiglass we discovered, and they were flexing. The large plastic windows loudly bubbled outward nearly shattering. The loud popping noises resembled Blackcat fireworks...very sudden and terrifying. We evacuated some of our crew from this area leaving us now the smaller but windowless east overhang.
Large crashing noises were also heard from the tree area on the south side. A tree fell info the parking lot crunching the rear glass window of a Ford Taurus.
Nearing 3-4am, the worst wind arrived as the eye passed 15 miles to our east across western Orange county. We would not see any reduction in wind for the next hour. As expected the height of the storm passed in the middle of the dark night. I tried not to think about what might be happening in Orange where the winds were much stronger.
During the deafening rain and wind, the most dramatic event of the night occurred just above the plexiglass windows. After listening to odd noises emanating from inside the building, all of the air rushing into the second floor decided to exit, and it exited in one huge chunk. The entire second floor facade on the south, southwest, west and northwest side of the building ejected or exploded off the top of the building. Piles of the building's material came crashing down into the parking lot. No one in our group was injured or worse as we were nestled under the eastside overhang. The east side was the only side of the building to remain undamaged as it stayed out of the wind.
Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of sheet rock, metal, glass and wood littered the area with additional falling glass and boards dropping from somewhere. Some of the lighter debris immediately became airborne. Office papers occasionally filled the air as large sections of the building became completely exposed to the hurricane
Our people and equipment were not injured as we were nestled under the east side of the building, away from the wind. We didn't know yet that the entire upper west side of the building had disintegrated.
Ok....the storm is at peak, so how strong is the wind? I wanted to adventure into the hurricane again but couldn't do so safely due to too much stuff flying by. After noting the wind really whipping around a parking lot pillar, I got a bad idea....The pillar was just large enough to offer protection to a 6 foot tall observer.
Shielding my face, I dashed out to the pillar as the rest of the crew watched. The group was only a short distance away but I shouted to be heard over the wind without much success. Standing sideways, the pillar was able to protect my importants. I stuck my arm out with my forearm exposed to the hurricane. My arm felt ready to rip off my body. I measured constant wind from the W and NW at 70+mph on the anemometer, and I recorded a top wind gust of 85mph. Occasional glass breaking noises and an assortment of goodies flew through the air. When I heard loud noises or sensed something coming, I quickly brought my arm into my body between observations.
I missed recording the highest gusts as too much debris was flying by, but I estimated the peak gusts were closer to 100mph. I later saw a recorded wind gust of 103mph at the Beaumont airport.
After recording the wind for about 10 minutes, I carefully ran back to the building's safe canopy, staying away from the failing parts of the building. While I was drying off, one of the San Antonio folks stepped out into the storm to experience the wind. But she stood under the facade and a chunk of sheetrock broke loose, hitting her in the shoulder, knocking her to the ground.
She wasn't hurt, mainly just shaken up, embarrased and tired. I felt awful as she had seen me out in the wind without harm, maybe giving a false feeling of "nothing bad could happen." The reporter curled in a chair and went to sleep. The news trucks were also moved to the northeast side of the building as the wind turned straight west.
Garbage and other debris flew by with slightly less intensity for the next hour. I leaned up against the building's east wall and could feel it moving and flexing. All of this wind and Beaumont experienced only Category 2 hurricane conditions. If the worst wind had hit Beaumont, we would have needed a better hidey hole.
At 5am, the wind shifted more southwest and slowly diminished, meaning the eye was passing to our northeast and the worst was over. Everyone was also getting really tired and most of the group napped wherever they found a dry spot.
I crawled into the Chevy Blazer, forgetting that I had not eaten all day. No regular meals in 66 hours. No sleep again tonight. My body was nearing shut down.
The wind rocked me to sleep for all of two hours of bed time. CNN would be providing a wake up call soon.
|Download I demonstrate how a meteorologist+wind can really get debris airborne.|
|Download John and I run for shelter and record wind of 85mph|
|Continue to Day 4 to see the damage|