Adventuresome Intercept of Dennis-the-Dud

July 16, 2005 by
Filed under: Summary 

SHORT: Interesting social encounters and preparation observations beforehand. Intercepted weakening west eyewall of Dennis as it moved ashore and inland, as well as the southerly flow sector near Navarre. Uploaded measured data continually throughout tropical cyclone event. Had fun and adventure. Trip was worthwhile and most entertaining despite the abject enfeebling of the storm itself before/during landfall.

LONG: Faced with the first extended shift break I’ve ever had that coincided with a Gulf coast landfall, I jumped at the opportunity. RJ Evans and I left AbNorman on Friday morning, 8 July, in his personal mobile mesonet vehicle. The journey down there was generally mundane except for two events:

1. Along I-49 near Alexandria, we stopped for a chat with a Bandito (biker gang) member, fully patched and obviously wired on *something*, an animated chap of about 48 with a Rutherford Hayes beard and a certain wild-eyed hyperactivity that bordered on manic. He asked us the story of our strange vehicle before telling us of a chain fight at the OKC Petro some years back that landed him in the jailhouse. This guy was a real piece of work, but for a little while at least, entertaining as can be.

2. Arguably, the quote of the trip came from a thickly accented Cajun trucker along I-10, who didn’t know we were listening to his CB frequency when he described us to another driver: “Dey from Oklahoma. Dey chasin’ dat ho-a-cane.” That came after a long, impromptu “Chaz and Beauregard” skit that RJ and I had ad-libbed to pass the time, and was a classic moment. If you have a CB radio and something that’s obviously a storm chase vehicle, listen to the descriptions you’ll hear sometimes. RJ has for years, and it’s hilarious.

Friday night we stayed in what once was the Hampton Inn, along I-10 near Pascagoula. Please don’t drink the water in Moss Point, Mississippi.

The next day we scouted out potential data collection locations along my initially predicted landfall zone between Ft. Walton Beach and Gulf Shores. Interestingly, the last open fuel station in Pensacola was selling “floaties” — hopefully not for use during the ho-a-cane…

Little did we know that we were across the street from our eventual setup site; though I noticed it at the time and took note. This shot, taken behind the gas station, looks out across the bay and bay bridge, with the first middle and high clouds approaching from the SE…

Notice the concrete-and-riprap structure at right, built out into the bay. It turns out to have been about 7-9 feet above sea level, a great place to be if the southerly fetch were *not* coming directly in and the eyewall winds were parallel to or off the bay shore (thereby repelling the surge).

Our primary intercept motivation was data collection and not videography of destruction; therefore we had to scout large open spaces that provided plenty of safe, unobstructed wind measurement opportunity, without trees, power lines and buildings all about, but also, away from the immediate beachfront and its storm surge and access problems. As you can imagine, this was not easy to do in the thickly forested and/or densely developed FL Panhandle. We found no such place between Pensacola and Navarre (the eventual crossing corridor of the “ah”). In fact, while we were at Navarre Beach, I recall telling RJ that I had a hunch it would come in there at Navarre, where we couldn’t find a suitable opening with an escape outlet.

Meanwhile, RJ was so upset at the malfunction of an electric window that he absolutely lost his head. Somehow, however, he was able to continue with temporary repairs despite this debilitating handicap. 🙂

The first squall was only indirectly related to the hurricane, and far removed from its circulation envelope. A SW_NE line of cumulonimbi formed over the Gulf, forward-propagating toward the NW at over 40 mph along its own outflow boundary. These storms formed along an arc-shaped boundary layer convergence zone located just outside the hurricane’s moat of subsidence. This shot looks E.

Note the patch of white light above the beach in the distance. This is an optical artifact resulting from the differential albedo of bright white beach and darker water, reflected sunlight in turn refracted to the eye (or lens) of the viewer by particulates in the boundary layer.

I shot about 20 minutes of tripodded video from the edge of the surf zone of the squall and associated arcus cloud rolling in. [No, that was *not* my video on TWC. I still don’t sell video for the same principle as always — its luring of a distinctly unstudious, greed motivated, thrillseeking element into storm chasing. Instead the very similar video on TWC was that of another chaser, who shot essentially the same time lapse from farther W at Pensacola Beach.]

The beach road actually was still closed W of Navarre Beach because of unrepaired washouts from Ivan. Believe it or not, this shot was not taken after Dennis, but one day beforehand! I easily could have passed this off as an after-Dennis shot and you likely would not have noticed.

The sand-washes across the road, the bent signs and poles, and other intermittent damage in the area were from Ivan in 2004. Mandatory evacuation orders had turned Navarre Beach into a veritable ghost town. Local law enforcement didn’t raise any objection to our presence, however, and they had no reason to. We were free to move about essentially at will.

We noted houses boarded up in preparation for Dennis, both inland, and on the beach, a stunning beach house that was *not* boarded up, and one (at left)that didn’t need extra protection!

That night we stayed at the Comfort Inn near the Pensacola naval base, one of the few open motels in Pensacola, and an edifice still sporting Ivan’s wind-prints.

The next day we loped westward to the Gulf Shores airport to set up, based on early morning guidance indicating a landfall near or just E of Mobile Bay. This was where RJ and Bob C intercepted Ivan last year! They remembered RJ (who wouldn’t?) and let us in without qualm, but we left to go back to our Pensacola open space when I noticed the radar trends of the eye lurching on a more NNW path.

Given its orientation, the Muscogee Wharf area was absolutely ideal for a direct strike, or one that would just miss us to the E (the two most likely scenarios by that time).

Here’s a dock that used to extend from the end of the man-made peninsula, until Ivan expunged it.

It had wide open, bayfront exposure; and we could relocate easily along the length of the platform to avoid having the few potential obstacles (such as those containers, some pallets or one beat up elm tree) upwind. We recorded steadily increasing sustained winds and gusts through landfall, with a peak gust of 78 mph as the eye passed only 4-5 miles to our E. Needless to say that was underwhelming, but still better than many things we could have chosen to do for the weekend. Best of all, we did get high resolution wind data uploaded for real-time and post-event use by NHC. I hear TWC also mentioned some of it on-air also.

Throughout our ~4 hours on Muscogee Wharf, the Pensacola police were curious about us, but never objected to our presence despite curfews and evac orders. In fact, we offered to give them real time wind reports any time they wanted to call us or drop by our location, and on several occasions we/they did just that. We also gave them well received advice on how to keep their cars pointed into the wind so as to not flip over if things got really intense. Law enforcement in Pensacola now has a good impression of storm chasers, I think. Lets hope it stays that way.

Several print and TV reporters came out to check us out and ask questions as well, including a particularly recognizable one during the time we were getting peak gusts in what was left of the W eyewall. You may have seen the Fox News screen capture from the other side on some storm chasing discussion boards, but this was my vantage.

Later, Geraldo called RJ to set up a stand-up interview, over which I was very reluctant at first. However, it was on the way out of town, and it did provide an hour or two of “get out and stretch” time before the long drive home. So we agreed to it. RJ warned the producer that I was a scientist who often is critical of the media, and that I would not put up with anything dumb or outlandish. It worked. Geraldo and crew were first-class professionals about it. He asked us a few reasonable questions, we gave him to-the-point answers, and the short spot seemed to go very well. That is, except for the fact that it was our ugly mugs on the air.

RJ did provide some of his video to Fox, over which I gave him some (mostly good natured) abuse. He did, however, let them use it for *free*; knowing fully well that any greed motivated video shooters who wanted to squeeze some coin from Fox that night would be SOL afterward. I thought that was funny, in an ironic way.

We saw Tim Marshall after the eyewall passed, while shooting video and stills of the westerly surge impinging upon the N side of the bay bridge area. Remember this, Tim?

Some other memorable scenes from during and after the storm include muddy breakers smashing a seawall off Santa Rosa Sound: Storm surge in the southerly-flow sector moves through the pines and into a Navarre neighborhood; an RV proves not to be seaworthy,One among many reasons I hate billboards; Cheaply assembled buildings with flimsy sheet metal facades have no place on hurricane prone coastlines.

Now you can see why we, as a mobile wind data sampling device, needed more open space than the actual eye location would provide. Too many buildings, trees, wires and other potential obstructions and hazards!

Someday, someone will get sliced and diced by the sheet metal flying off these horribly conceived and built petrol station canopies and win lots of litigation money from the architects and constructors of such garbage.

Maybe I still remain a tad jaded or too hard to impress after being royally reamed by Andrew 13 years ago in South Dade; but nothing about Dennis’ damage impressed me much — even between Navarre and Gulf Breeze where the “ah” passed. The non-vegetative damage I saw was wholly preventable, and entirely attributable to either poor preparation or lousy construction practices. Tim Marshall will be a busy man in coming months as he deals with the litigious aftermath of this one.

After the Geraldo interview we hit the road, making it back to Norman shortly after noon the next day and passing by the eventual site of Jeff Wear’s fatal crash only a few hours before it happened. My deepest condolences go to those who knew Jeff and to his family. More about that is on my BLOG

Finally, to answer a few offline questions: Yes, the quote below from my chase partner really was spoken!
“Hey Geraldo…is there a toilet over there? My pipes are backed up, man.” – storm chase partner, 2005


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