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Hunting Gustav: A Broadcast Meteorologist's Diary

gustavOur entire world extends only 10 feet in any direction and ends in an impenetrable gray wall of torrential tropical rain. It is Monday, September 1, 2008, at 3:15 p.m. CDT. We are driving near Jennings, Louisiana, through a thunderstorm feeder band close to the decaying eyewall of Hurricane Gustav, heading back to KPLC-TV in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We have with us video footage of exploding electric lines, trees bending in hurricane force winds, and roads that look more like rivers.

Every muscle from my fingertips to my lower back aches. I have clenched the steering wheel for what seems like hours, trying to compensate for the sustained, north-northwesterly, hurricane-force winds broadsiding our news van.
Occasionally, without warning, a gust of wind comes from out of the gloom beyond the gray wall and pushes the van across two lanes on the interstate and nearly into the muddy median. When Gustav gusts, he is in control.

 Our laptop showing the National Weather Service (NWS) NEXRAD radar out of Lake Charles indicates that we will soon outrun this thunderstorm band and find better visibility in light rain.

 How did I get into this situation? You can blame hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Saturday, August 30, 2008
Noon EDT
Parking Lot of WXIX-TV, Cincinnati, Ohio
Category 3, Winds at 125 mph

It is a hot, humid day in Cincinnati as we load our van with emergency rations, cases of bottled water, professional video cameras, radios, laptop computers, and personal luggage in preparation for for our plan to track down Hurricane Gustav and report on its effects for Raycom Media.

Five days earlier, on Monday, August 25, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued the first advisory for Tropical Depression Seven. By 2 p.m., number 7 had earned the name Tropical Storm Gustav, and 12 hours after that, a U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter mission penetrated the storm and reported that Gustav had become a hurricane. Over the following few days, Gustav had killed 78 people in the Caribbean, at least 59 people in Haiti, and 8 in the Dominican Republic.

Now the storm’s projected path puts it directly in line with the U.S. Gulf Coast. Emergency planners are warning communities along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Houston to batten down the hatches.

Natural disasters like hurricanes stretch the resources of even large-market television stations, and in small markets, additional equipment and experienced personnel are a must. Raycom Media, which owns 40 small-market stations in the United States, including WXIX, learned during Katrina and Rita in 2005 that having a plan and pooling corporate resources are crucial to staying on top of a developing natural disaster.

Phase I of Raycom’s Gustav plan dynamically allocates additional people and equipment to at-risk areas as a hurricane approaches and as it moves through a station’s broadcast area. Phase II does the same for the aftermath if necessary.

In this case, 14 of Raycom Media’s television stations are located in areas that could suffer from the direct effects of Gustav. Our plan sends us from our home station, WXIX in Cincinnati, to KPLC-TV in Lake Charles, Louisiana. WXIX is the designated first response station for that region.

Our mission has two secondary goals: if the situation and time permits, we are to provide extra coverage for our home station WXIX in Cincinnati, and, because large news vehicles like expensive satellite trucks do not interact well with hurricane-force winds, our live reports are to be broadcast via the Internet using wireless broadband access and laptop computers.

As WXIX news director Steve Ackerman quipped, “I would rather lose a laptop than a half-million dollar satellite truck.”

As chief meteorologist, I am to give my audience an up-to-the minute eyewitness perspective on the storm as it approaches, arrives, and departs. Any packaged stories we do will be available to all Raycom stations via the company’s video server.

With 31 years of TV weather under my belt, I have done programs in Antarctica, at Mayan ruins, and in caves hundreds of feet underground in Kentucky and Tennessee. I have broadcasted live in all types of weather. But this is my first hurricane.
Helping me in my mission is my boss, Steve; Mike, a videographer from WXIX; and Jeremy, a technical director and audio engineer from KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Arkansas, another Raycom station.

As soon as we hit I-75 south Mike breaks the silence in the van, “Are you concerned?” 

“Yes, it’s a hurricane,” I reply. “What about you, Mike?”

In his characteristic calm, understated tone he says,  “If my chief meteorologist is, then I am.”

“You’re a smart man, Mike,” I observe.

We are quiet for a while as we head for Louisville .

Sunday, August 31, 2008
2 a.m. CDT
Southbound, Interstate 55
The Boot Heel of Missouri
Category 4, Winds at 135 mph

Heading south on a dark, rural stretch of I-55 in the Boot Heel of Missouri, we work to establish Internet access. Wireless broadband Internet access has forever changed the storm chase. My laptop is a mobile weather center, a video editor, and a broadcast studio all in one. Any forecasting task I do in the office can be done in the backseat of a news van.

Gustav had made landfall in Cuba as a Category 4 hurricane while we were on the road the previous day. Cuban authorities declared that Gustav was the worst hurricane to hit the country in 50 years, and the 212-mph wind gusts registered in the city of Paso Real de San Diego were the highest in Cuba’s history.

The storm had weakened as it crossed Cuba, but meteorologists were worried that it could re-strengthen as it gained energy from the thousands of square miles of warm water—in spots as high as 90°F—in the Gulf of Mexico. The warm layer is quite deep, so when Gustav churns in the Gulf, it will be difficult to bring cooler water to the surface, an action that often limits hurricane growth. In meteorological terms, the total heat content ensures that Gustav will have a journey rich in energy for the taking.

In preparation for what could be a strong storm, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had ordered the mandatory evacuation of the whole of New Orleans beginning this morning, calling Gustav “the storm of the century...the mother of all storms.”

In Alabama, Governor Bob Riley called for the mandatory evacuation of Dauphin Island, Plash Island, Gulf Shores, and everything south of Fort Morgan Road, Gulf Shores.

4 a.m. CDT
Southwestbound, Interstate 40
East of Little Rock
Category 3, Winds at 125 mph

We’re in business!

My boss has succeeded in sending video and audio from the front seat of the van to me in the back seat via broadband wireless with only a one-second delay. We are now completely independent of the power grid, and as long as we can get gas to power the van and the hurricane does not take out cell service, we can broadcast live.
Just After Sunrise
Southbound, State Route 167
6 miles into Louisiana
Category 3, Winds at 120 mph

We are now sticking to state highways to avoid contraflow, the reversal of southbound interstate lanes for hurricane evacuation.
At dawn I am out of the van and jumping around with excitement because we have gotten our first sighting of Gustav. Gustav’s cirrus outflow shield is visible high in the sky to the southeast. At this time, Gustav’s eye is more than 700 miles away, north of Cuba, entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. My three non-meteorologist companions are not as impressed as I am. Maybe it is because of the fatigue they feel, or maybe the beautiful sunrise has masked the true nature of what we are seeing—the first signs of what could be a very dangerous storm.

Noon CDT
Southbound, State Route 165
Oakdale, Louisiana
Category 3, Winds at 115 mph
While we refuel, I walk past a man filling five-gallon containers to run generators for his tenants.
“Son, where ya from?” he asks. His Cajun accent is novel to me. I know I’m in Gustav’s reach now.
“Cincinnati!” I yell over the chaos of evacuees trying to stay ahead of the storm.
“Don’t ya know you’re goin’ the wrong way?” He says nothing else, but the look on the face of this seasoned hurricane veteran says it all.
The news director at KPLC in Lake Charles calls. He needs us right away; not only is his chief meteorologist, who has been out of town, having trouble getting back to Lake Charles, but his number two meteorologist collapsed and is in the hospital. We are half an hour away.

1 p.m. CDT
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Category 3, Winds at 115 mph
We arrive at our destination at KPLC in Lake Charles. KPLC’s chief meteorologist is finally in the air on his way to Houston. His arrival in Lake Charles is eight hours away. His second-in-command is at home after a hospital stay and will be able to work tomorrow morning. KPLC’s third meteorologist is on the way home for a rest after putting in a long shift. After 20 minutes at
KPLC, it appears that I am the entire weather staff and must provide hourly updates on Gustav.

I go on air and introduce myself to the public before warning them that local pronunciation is a mystery to me and I only know where the larger towns are. However, I add, “I know where the Louisiana coast is and I know where Gustav is, and for now that’s all we need.”

7:18 p.m. CDT
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Category 3, Winds at 115 mph

After reading the latest public advisory issued by the NHC, I cut in to KPLC’s programming to tell the audience that Gustav is still a Category 3 hurricane as it travels over the Gulf. NHC has forecasted some strengthening. However, given vertical wind shear, slightly cooler Gulf-water temperatures between the eye and the coast, and dry air being pulled into Gustav, I say I expect the storm to stay a Category 3 or weaken to a strong Category 2.

The dry air source looks to be air that rose through Gustav and is now subsiding around the periphery. The eye goes through several cycles of dissipating and reforming after dry air penetrates to the center. This is not conducive to strengthening.
Because I expect little change in Gustav’s strength and certainly no explosive re-development, I decide to adopt the mantra “What you see is what you get” for the next couple hours. I also inform the audience that as Gustav comes on shore tomorrow in the vicinity of New Iberia, Louisiana, they can expect little change in intensity. But I also advise them of “coastal wobble,” which occurs when a small, temporary change in direction at landfall results in a monumental difference in storm-surge conditions. Nearly all of coastal Louisiana is less than 10 feet above sea level.

As of that afternoon, 1.9 million people had evacuated southern Louisiana, including 200,000 residents of New Orleans alone, making it the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

Soon after I finish the broadcast, KPLC’s chief meteorologist arrives. We do a live shot for my home station WXIX in Cincinnati and then make plans for Gustav’s arrival tomorrow before retiring to get a few hours of sleep.

Monday, September 1, 2008
4:30 a.m. CDT
Parking Lot of Inn on the Bayou
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Category 3, Winds at 115 mph

We are up and ready to broadcast live using wireless technology. Our first hit is a walk through the nearly deserted hotel parking lot. It is dead calm, and the humidity hangs eerily in the warm air.

9:00 a.m. CDT
Various Small Rural Communities
Southwest Louisiana
Category 2, Winds at 110 mph, Landfall

A gentle northeasterly breeze stirs the sticky air. Gustav is closing in.

We have done seven live reports over the past four and a half hours, updating folks on the progress of the storm from different locations. Two of these reports we did while driving, one from Interstate 10 east of Lake Charles and another while driving through city streets.

10:00 a.m. CDT
Various Small Rural Communities
Southwest Louisiana
Category 2, Winds at 110 mph, Landfall

Gustav has made landfall as a Category 2 storm to the southeast of Lake Charles near Cocodrie, Louisiana.

It is now clear that the hurricane’s track will be north of Lake Charles, so we are confident that the worst of the storm will pass us by; in our vicinity, heavy rain and wind will be the story today. Tomorrow we will concentrate on tornadoes spawned in the storm’s aftermath and on returning evacuees.

2 p.m. CDT
KPLC Newsroom
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Category 1, Winds at 90 mph

Gustav has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm, but Lake Charles NEXRAD shows a strong feeder band and a huge area of heavy rain between the band and the decaying eyewall
of Gustav.

We have spent the last four hours driving around the southwest Louisiana countryside encountering these feeder bands. The gracefully curved tentacles of thunderstorm squalls spiral in toward the eyewall. These are created when large volumes of air move toward the hurricane’s core and surface air converges along curved lines and rises, setting into motion thunderstorm formation. When added to the velocity of the hurricane winds, the bands cause wind gusts that can be very destructive.

Most of the feeder bands we have encountered so far are surprisingly good-natured, causing only moderate downpours with few extreme wind gusts.

However, it looks like that is about to change. Throughout the morning my wrist barometer had continued to show that atmospheric pressure was  dropping, and the wind, which is now out of the north-northwest, has been backing, with gusts becoming more frequent.

Our direction now takes us toward Gustav’s core, which is just a few miles south of us. Our path will keep us south and west of the Category 1, 90-mph sustained winds. We have wireless connectivity to the Lake Charles radar, so we can alter our route if needed. Our goal is to report on the strength of the feeder band as it moves through small communities dotting the landscape between Lake Charles and Lafayette. We will drive back through the feeder band and get our video on the air before the worst conditions reach Lake Charles.

The farther east we travel the stronger the wind, the heavier the rain, and the lower the visibility. In addition, the wind becomes very gusty and rocks the news van, making driving a challenge.

Then, as quickly as the chaos starts, it stops. As we pass Jennings on State Route 90, we see scattered patches of blue sky and experience a gentle rain. However, radar tells us the real show is less than five minutes ahead. We will penetrate an intense feeder band close to but still west of where it merges with the decaying eyewall. 

Within minutes, objects outside our van begin disappearing into an ominous, blurry haze. Visibility is reduced to 10 feet as we are beseiged by torrents of rain driven by shrieking winds. I am impressed—in fact, amazed—and cannot imagine what being in a monster hurricane must be like. At this point, Gustav is only a Category 1 storm.

As we creep through the maelstrom, we see sugar cane fields lying low in the strong winds, tree limbs scattered about, and electric lines exploding as they snap and hit the ground. When we stop to shoot video, I feel like my face is being sandblasted as the hurricane force winds propel raindrops toward the southeast. Facing the wind, so much water is blown into my mouth that I cough and sputter as I try to speak.

However, we get the video—of the downed electric lines, trees bending nearly horizontal to the ground, and inundated roads—and head back to KPLC, rain and 80-mph winds buffeting our van.

7 p.m. CDT
KPLC Newsroom
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Category 1, Winds at 75 mph

After we make it back to the KPLC newsroom, we put the final touches on our live reports for Cincinnati at 10 p.m. EDT. By the time we retire for the night we will have done 19 segments for Lake Charles and Cincinnati combined. For our home audience we report that for where we are, Gustav was fairly meek as far as hurricanes go, but remnant feeder bands are expected to spawn tornadoes tomorrow.

10 p.m. CDT
KPLC Newsroom
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Tropical Storm, Winds at 60 mph
As we turn in for the night, NHC downgrades Gustav to a tropical storm.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008
11 a.m. CDT
Creole and Cameron, Louisiana
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Tropical Depression

Gustav has been a tropical depression for five hours. The Sun peaks through a chaotic sky, at times shining brightly, and the winds come out of the south and southwest. Thunderstorm bands threaten to spawn tornadoes. We are on our way south to the low coastal plain of Cameron Parish.

With the KPLC weather staff back at full strength, our plan for the day is to head south into the coastal marshes of Cameron Parish and talk to returning evacuees about their experiences during the storm. If we do not find a newsworthy Gustav item, we will do a historical piece that emphasizes how well Cameron Parish fared during Gustav compared to its deadly hurricane history.

3 p.m. CDT
En Route to Lake Charles, Louisiana
Tropical Depression

We have an hour until we go live with our stories for the day. We’ll be broadcasting a story comparing Gustav to the other, more deadly hurricanes in Cameron Parish’s history.

For example, in 1957, Hurricane Audrey killed 500 residents of Cameron Parish after the storm surge arrived 12 hours ahead of the forecast. Many people drowned in the storm surge.

We talked to Sing Falks, an 84-year-old Cameron Parish resident who stayed in the area during hurricanes Audrey and Rita. To him Rita was the worst; her storm surge lasted 18 hours. Deadly Audrey’s lasted only four. By comparison, Gustav is merely a nuisance.

We also talked to Todd Morales’s family, who live in Creole, Louisiana, and who are also returning to their home and are glad to be back. During Hurricane Rita they lost everything. Their trailer now sits on the concrete slab the house once
stood upon.

I write the story as we drive and record the voice tracks in the quiet news van as soon as we park at KPLC. Now it’s time to edit our pieces and get them on the air.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008
10 a.m. CDT
Inn on the Bayou
Lake Charles, Louisiana
Tropical Depression

Gustav’s remnants have already spawned a number of tornadoes, including one rated an EF-2 that killed 2 people near Mamou, Louisiana, during the early hours of the day. The KPLC news team is handling the coverage.
Our job is done. After packing up our gear we are headed home on a sunny, warm, humid
Louisiana morning.

Thursday, September 4, 2008
On September 4, after spawning some 50 tornadoes the day before, Gustav was absorbed by a cold front while over the Ozarks.
Although the area around Lake Charles did not sustain much damage, other areas of the Gulf Coast were not as fortunate. President Bush declared 34 Louisiana parishes disaster areas, and damage and significant power outages were reported as far north as northern Louisiana.

In New Orleans, more than 60 vessels broke loose in area waterways, as some in the Industrial Canal threatened to strike its levees and pump facilities. But the levees in the city held, and while high water splashed over the floodwalls onto new splash guards (designed to prevent foundation erosion), the walls were not breached.

Central Louisiana experienced many fallen trees and power lines, as well as damage to houses from wind and localized flooding. In addition, the community of Houma, Louisiana, and the surrounding area in south-central Louisiana sustained extensive wind damage.

In total, Gustav was responsible for up to $20 billion in damages and 138 deaths. By comparison, Katrina, the most costly hurricane in U.S. history, was responsible for an estimated $81 billion in damages and 1,500 fatalities.

Thursday, September 18, 2008
Hurricane Ike followed close on the heels of Gustav but we did not go to Louisiana to cover this storm. Instead, Ike came to us in Cincinnati; while we monitored his progress, he was stalking us.

After wreaking havoc along the Gulf Coast, Ike found an ally in a cold front advancing southeast from Canada. He re-strengthened and blitzed the Midwest with hurricane-force wind gusts. In Cincinnati the highest official gust was 74 mph. A NWS cooperative observer measured 84 mph. Four people died.

Hundreds of miles from the energy-rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico, millions across Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio were without power for almost a week, and for several nights, more than 90 percent of the region was dark. Dozens of relief utility crews scrambled to get back from the Gulf for
repairs here.

Ike’s path and effects are strangely reminiscent of The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Galveston’s gusty winds sank many ships on the Great Lakes. Like Ike, it merged with a cold front and was rejuvenated. 

Most hurricanes become extra-tropical as they head north, and many join forces with a front. This happened to Gustav, but he was well behaved in his final days. A few, like Ike and the Hurricane of 1900, unleash a newfound fury of damaging windy squalls. Why it happens is not clear and remains one of those mysteries meteorologists must solve.       
 Weatherwise Contributing Editor STEVE HORSTMEYER is chief meteorologist at WXIX-TV in Cincinnati.

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