Big, Bad Texan Cyclone
|Location||Texas City, Texas, USA|
|Date||13 Sep 2008|
|Intensity||Cat 2 (95 knots)|
It had been a long time—almost 30 years—since a really large hurricane threatened Texas. And then came Ike—one of the largest cyclones ever observed in the Gulf. When the eye crossed the coast at Galveston very early on 13 September 2008, iCyclone was documenting the storm in nearby Texas City—even as the wind tore off the hotel’s roof. While not as strong as Hurricane Carla in 1961, Ike’s enormous size and landfall in a populated region spelled devastation across a wide swath of the Upper Texas Coast.
I consider this chase to be a big success. While Ike never quite made it to major-hurricane status, it was a quality cyclone with a good core and a well-defined eye. If I could do it again, I would pick the same location—Texas City. The center of the eye passed just a few miles E of the town between 2 and 3 am CDT, so that we had a pronounced lull—bookended on either side by solid eyewall. And it was a new experience for me to be in a building as the roof got torn off!
Re: video footage... It's a bummer that this one came ashore at night because it produced very heavy conditions and would have been quite photogenic—more than Dolly or Gustav, which both came ashore by daylight. Even so, I did manage to capture the experience on video.
Here's a blow-by-blow account of the cyclone's passage:
1. Outer Bands
The first, outer rainbands started passing over Texas City late in the afternoon. The city was by this point a ghost town, and the surge was already engulfing trees and shrubbery along the waterfront in Bay Street Park. It was odd to see a few residents strolling down the park's main path as if it were any old Friday. Perhaps, like me, they were just curious.
The rain stopped around 6 pm for an hour, but the wind increased. It started making that ominous moaning sound—the kind that tells you a big cyclone is coming. It was warm, dry, and very grey outside.
0045Z 091308 0215Z 091308 0715Z 091308
Rain started up again after 7 pm, and by 8 pm the wind was really ripping along Galveston Bay—I'd say a sustained gale or whole gale that uprooted small trees and made it difficult to stand in Bay Street Park. Driving around Texas City at dusk, I could see signs and branches were down. Cops were everywhere, but they all left me alone. By the time one pulled me over to order me back to my hotel-- we were under curfew—I was ready to turn in anyway. Getting back to the Hampton Inn was treacherous because the roads were totally blacked out, and I got pulled over by another cop a few blocks from the hotel. (By the way, both cops couldn't have been mellower—not at all aggressive and weird like the cops we encountered during Gustav.)
I got back in a little before 9 pm, and there was another lull. The hotel manager remarked that he was disappointed with the storm. I told him the core was still offshore and it would get worse later. He nodded, but I'm not sure he believed me.
2. Inner Bands
By 10 pm conditions started to rapidly deteriorate and the wind was making a distinct howling sound—i.e., a notch up from the moaning sound earlier. I went out again to shoot some footage as harsh rainbands pelted the area. I'd say winds were a gale or whole gale, with gusts to hurricane force, and by this point I was seeing some downed trees and broken signs throughout the area. The American flag in front of the hotel was shredded to scraps and angrily flapping.
I went back inside to take a break and get ready for the eyewall, when, a little before midnight, I noticed the building began to vibrate. A minute later it shook more noticeably as the wind went up in pitch so that it sounded like a tea kettle—the sound of air forcing violently through a small space. There was a loud crashing sound in the parking lot—and a minute later alarm bells went off and bewildered guests streamed into the hallways. The wind had torn off a large portion of the roof and water was pouring into third-floor rooms. (I realized afterward that the crashing sound was probably pieces of the roof hitting the garbage dumpster across the parking lot.) Hotel staff frantically knocked on doors and ordered guests down to lower floors.
A little after 12 midnight, as guests were evacuating to safer parts of the building, we had another relative lull. But knowing from radar—and the advice of Michael Goss and a couple of others on the Eastern US Wx forum—that the eyewall was approaching, I hastily went back out and got in the car to find good vantage points to capture the action on video.
As expected, conditions dramatically worsened. The heaviest weather seemed to come in streaks. I saw (and shot) a restaurant next to the hotel losing roof shingles by the cartloads—like confetti spraying into the air. (By morning, the parking lot was almost covered with them.) The weather seemed to peak around 1:20 or 1:30 am or so, and I got a little nervous when heavy rain and wind reduced visibility to almost zero and gave the car a good shake.
But it started to lessen soon after that peak, and by 2 am we were experiencing the calm of the eye. And it was a decent eye—very sharply defined, very calm and quiet. I had gone back inside by this point, and even in my hotel room, I could hear a bird chirping in the distance through the open window. Hotel guests went outside and chatted in the parking lot. I went back out and walked around, and I could see pieces of the hotel's roof scattered all across the grounds. It seemed very warm to me—much more so than other eyes I've been in.
No matter how many times I've been in a hurricane's eye, there's always something a bit hypnotizing about it. Despite the fact that I know better, a side of me always doubts that the hurricane winds will start up again. It seems like nothing could disturb that dense, still calm. I was tired from days of no sleep and almost wanted to curl up in bed. It's hard to explain.
Of course, the calm did end.
At about 3:15 am, I could see the trees outside swaying again—just as hotel staff came frantically knocking on the doors telling us that the structural integrity of the building had been seriously compromised and we needed to relocate—fast—to the neighboring Fairfield Inn to ride out the backside. Like a little baby, I felt annoyed and thought silly thoughts: Yes, the building was falling apart—and the second side of a violent cyclone was rapidly approaching—but my room was still warm and cozy, so why did I have to leave?
I asked the woman if the other hotel had rooms and she said, "We're working on it" (which of course meant "no" ). (In retrospect, I feel annoyed with myself for even bugging her with such a question, given what was going on.) I of course complied and hastily packed my things as the moaning sound started up again.
Guests streamed out of the building and into the rapidly increasing wind and rain, schlepping their luggage, pillows, pets, and whatever else. I'm sure we made a sorry sight—like the most pathetic and beleaguered refugees.
(By the way, here's a cool article from the UK's Telegraph Re: our "Night of Terror" in Texas City's Hampton Inn: Hurricane Ike: Texas residents tell of their 'night of terror'. )
I drove to the parking lot of the neighboring hotel and decided, "Screw it—I'm not going in." The thought of spending the night in a hotel lobby with fifty other people wasn't appealing—and I was on a mission to document the cyclone's backside—so I stayed in the car.
A couple of posters in my chase thread on the Eastern US Wx forum warned me—based on satellite and radar obs—that the backside would be more severe.
In my estimation, they were right.
As mentioned above, the lull ended around 3:15 am. The storm took a little while to get up to fifth gear, but when it did at around 4 am, it really ripped—definitely the most severe hurricane conditions I've personally witnessed this year.
At this time, I was parked at what I think was a drive-thru ATM location, next to a Jack in the Box. I felt conditions picking up, and this particular area was still well-lit, so I got out of the car to try to catch the action on video. The wind and rain came in great, high-energy bursts that blasted through the parking lot with such force I wished I hadn't gotten out of the car. I pressed tight against a downwind pillar of the ATM kiosk and crouched low as I tried to shoot the action—I was no more than a couple of feet above the ground. (I haven't reviewed any of this footage yet, so I don't know what I captured.) Once I got back in the car, there were more of these great, blinding bursts, and the vehicle really rocked—to the point where I worried about it flipping in a localized disturbance (i.e., an eddy or tornado), or perhaps getting crushed under a falling lamppost.
The area finally blacked out completely—except for the occasional blue flashes of exploding transformers—and so I carefully drove back across the street to the hotel parking lot. It was still going strong after 5 am.
But then it started to lessen. Or was I just numb from it after all these hours? I'm not sure. But I was completely exhausted and wet, and the shrieking wind seemed to rock the car like a cradle. I felt my eyes getting heavy.
I awoke a couple of hours later. My neck was stiff and one of my arms was numb from leaning on it—and the camcorder had recorded to the end of the tape while I slept. What woke me? Did a strong gust shake the car? I'm not sure. Dawn was grey. Trees waving in the heavy rain. Back to sleep again...
I woke up for real a little after 9 am. Winds were still blowing at gale force, but the storm was fading—slowly.
Around Texas City
Curious how the downtown area had fared, I drove E. The parking lot of the Mall of the Mainland was largely flooded—although I'm not sure if it was rainwater or the Bay. As I got closer to downtown, I saw lots of blasted-out signs and downed trees, as well as occasional broken windows, a church with a toppled steeple, and a motel (the Economy Lodge) that had lost much of its roof. Older buildings in the industrial streets near the refinery seemed to have more damage.
There was more flooding as I got closer to the Bay, with some streets impassible. When I did finally get to Bay Street Park—taking a detour or two—I thought it looked pretty good, considering. It took a beating, but most of the trees were still up, and the catastrophic surge that had been feared had not occurred-- at least, not in this part of town. (Note: Texas City has several advantages when it comes to surge: 1) It's higher than other towns in the region, 2) it has a protective seawall, and 3) it has a pumping system to get rid of water when/if it comes over.)
Back at the Hampton Inn, I could see more pieces of roof scattered at the other end of the property—which suggests to me that more of it came off when the winds blew from the opposite direction during the backside. The manager said it was good we evacuated, because much of the third floor had collapsed. He estimates the hotel will be closed for at least six months.
The manager of the Fairfield Inn—a plucky, chatty woman from nearby Le Marque—offered me a room at her hotel, but the area had no power and I just wanted to be on my way N, so I thanked her and hit the road.
Damage to the roof of the Hampton Inn is covered with a blue tarp.
The undamaged Fairfiled Inn is on the left. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
Quest for Gas, Electricity, & a Warm Bed
And this was the start of an all-day odyssey—the unpleasant side of hurricane chasing—as Cory Van Pelt described it, "feeling the weight of post-adrenaline crash on top of the annoying discomforts of the situation".
Note: Only read this section if you're curious about what a pain in the azz life can be after a chase. Otherwise, skip ahead!
I had a hotel reservation in Kingwood—at the N reaches of the Houston Metroplex. Along the way, I saw some partially collapsed commercial buildings—i.e., a car dealership and industrial-type buildings—as well as broken windows, blown-out signs, etc. Freeways leading into the city center were diverted—they weren't letting anyone in—and I had to get creative in how I got to Kingwood. As I passed downtown, I could see the damage to the Chase Tower—it looked like at least half the windows had been smashed.
Beyond downtown, I felt my eyes closing and I worried about getting into an accident—so I pulled off the freeway, parked near a McDonald's, and slept for a couple of hours. I woke up feeling like complete sh*t and kept driving to Kingwood.
The hotel had gotten a little roughed up in the storm—a drainpipe was sitting in the shrubbery out front. Worse, it had no power. I begged them to let me check in and they did. But just as I went back to the car to get my stuff, the prospect of a night in this gloomy, dark hotel weighed on me—especially because I had no food except for crackers and snack bars. My inner J.A.P. cried out in agony and said no to any more abuse—so I called a nice hotel in Austin and made a reservation and decided I'd get there if it killed me. The receptionists at the Kingwood hotel were bewildered by my change of plans—but they were cool.
The next couple of hours were difficult as I navigated the N outskirts of the Houston Metroplex. Power was out and everything was closed—including gas stations. All intersections were four-way stops—and my gas was getting kind of low. (I had a 5-gallon backup tank in the trunk, but I hated the idea of having to resort to it.) Bayous had overflowed onto the 2920 in a few places (I think that's what road I was on), and I had a couple of tense moments driving through deep water.
I started to get concerned when I was getting close to an eighth of a tank of gas—and I was getting ready to pull over and use the emergency reserve in the trunk. But my fortunes changed when I hit the 290 junction: the gas station there was open—and of course very busy. I waited on line maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes to fill the tank, then hit the 290 toward Austin feeling great. Was it a coincidence that the sun had poked out by now, and the sky was a cheery orange? I had a headache-- probably because I hadn't eaten all day—but I felt great having gas and clearing Houston. I stopped for a cup of coffee in Brenham, and as I drove W, more places had electricity. Reassuring fast-food signs lined the sky as night fell.
I stopped again in Giddings—an hour outside of Austin—to clean out the car, which had gotten simply disgusting.
The front-page headlines of the Giddings Times & News read, "Football games moved up a day due to Hurricane Ike" and "Scam, motel damage, puppy theft, disorderly conduct reported by P.D." The latter article began, "Another scam—this time involving a possible fraudulent check—has been reported to police by a Giddings woman."
Getting back in the car, I floored it for the final hour to Austin, blasting hard rock all the way and feeling relieved as the city lights approached.
The hotel was swarming with hurricane evacuees and their pets—lots of screaming children and barking dogs. But otherwise, it was a relief to be in a nice, cozy room with electricity—and in a city with places to eat. I did some laundry—half the clothes in my suitcase were wet and gross—then hit my favorite taco stand and a bar afterward. Austin's like a home away from home now.
7. Unique Aspects of This Chase
A couple of things that made this chase unique for me:
- Severe Backside. This is now the second cyclone I've been in where the backside felt more severe than the front. (The other was Wilma 2005.) The hotel manager disagreed with me—felt the front side was more severe but that the backside lasted longer—however, he was inside the whole time and I think the roof coming off colored his perception of events.
- Well-defined eye. Ike's was perhaps the most sharply-defined eye I've been in. The wind and rain died down quickly leading into it at around 2 am, and also picked up quite quickly at the end of it (around 3:15 am). During that hour and a quarter, we had a long period of no rain and near-dead calm, and it was very quiet and warm. It was a quality eye-- very cool to witness.
- Location. I feel very good about where I rode this one out. After every chase—I mean every one—I always look at the wind analyses and think, "Man, if I had just been one town over..."—but I don't feel that way this time. Texas City did not get the highest winds, but it got raked by some of the best portions of the eyewall, we had a long lull, and I liked its proximity to the landfall point. It was a dramatic location.