SWAT began monitoring Hurricane Irene over a week before she impacted portions of the Southeastern and Eastern United States. It became apparent that Irene would impact portions of the United States and could be a fairly strong hurricane and because of that, SWAT began planning for our first ever hurricane chase!
By Wednesday, Hurricane Irene was a strong category 3 hurricane located over the Bahamas. Irene continued to move Northwest towards the Southeastern United States Coast. We began looking for a target area along the Eastern North Carolina coast.
After coordinating with friends of ours who are part of the Asheville Storm Chasers, it was decided we would chase/ride out Irene from Beaufort, North Carolina. One of the Asheville Storm Chasers, Zachary Hargrove, had connections and we were able to stay at a vacation rental right on the coast of a channel of the Atlantic Ocean!
As Irene began to speed up, it was decided that we could not wait until Friday morning to leave for North Carolina and that we would have to leave sooner so that we could get prepared and set-up before Irene began impacting the coast. The SWAT crew, consisting of Brandon, Brad and one of our colleagues from the Amateur Radio Community Frank, left Muncie, Indiana at about 12:30 AM on Friday Morning.
We traveled South throughout the day on Friday, traveling through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. By early afternoon (around 1:00 PM), we began arriving in the hurricane zones where evacuations were taking place in Eastern North Carolina. Just east of New Bern, NC we began to experience an increase in traffic going West away from the coast and saw several buildings and houses with protective plywood over windows.
By 2:30 PM, we arrived in the Morehead City and Beaufort, NC areas just in time to be greeted by Hurricane Irene with extremely heavy rain. Before hunkering down in Beaufort for the duration of the Hurricane, we picked up some pizza for everyone as a comical gesture for our “last meal.” Unfortunately, as you will find out later in this blog entry, we were without power in Beaufort from Friday Evening until we left on Sunday, so the pizza was indeed our last “hot” meal until Sunday afternoon.
In Beaufort we set up shop at the house on the coast and visited with the Asheville crew while eating the pizza and talking about the latest information on the hurricane. The house was extremely sturdy and was located on a small hill with a higher elevation even though we were right on the water. After setting up all of our computers, cameras and weather instruments, we took a stroll into downtown Beaufort where we esstentially found a ghost town. Nearly every business had been covered in protective plywood and sandbags and we saw very few people while venturing through the downtown area.
After we got back from our stroll through downtown, Hurricane Irene quickly showed her ugly face with heavy rain and very strong winds. By late Friday Evening, we began experiencing random short power outages as the winds continued to increase.
By 8:15 PM, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center had issued a Tornado Watch for all of Eastern North Carolina including the Beaufort, NC area as a line of embedded supercells was moving West towards the coast. Several tornadoes were reported just North of Beaufort and at least two of the tornadoes produced significant damage.
Hurricane Irene continued to get closer to the North Carolina coast and winds continued to increase. Heavy rain was falling and flooding was beginning to impact much of the Beaufort area. We strolled out during the storm to check on conditions across the area and severe flooding was occurring with several feet of water accumulating on several streets. Storm surge was also beginning to impact the coast with the yard of the house we were staying in being submerged in water as the surge swept in.
Winds by midnight were estimated to be gusting close to hurricane force (74 mph) with winds continuing to increase as the remnants of Hurricane Irene’s eyewall approached the coast. Just before midnight the power went out at the Beaufort house and power never returned for the duration of our trip.
With little to no sleep, both groups of chasers (SWAT & Asheville Storm Chasers) were dedicated to staying awake as Irene began picking up speed. By midnight it was evident that Irene would make landfall much sooner than anticipated, possibly as early as 6 AM.
As the outerbands associated with Hurricane Irene began to approach the Beaufort coast at 4:00 AM, both crews departed the Beaufort house to feel the full fury of the Hurricane. Wind blown rain made walking and seeing extremely difficult as winds were gusting to well over hurricane force. Both teams documented the storm with video and pictures as the winds pounded the shore. Damage was already becoming evident across the area with powerlines swaying back and forth in the wind, trees down across the area and complete darkness for as long as the eye could see thanks to widespread power outages.
After venturing back to the Beaufort house, it was decided that we would ride out the remainder of the eyewall/eye indoors due to the increasing dangers outside due to falling powerlines, trees, etc.
By 5:30 AM, fatigue continued to wear on both teams, we all decided that a couple of hours of sleep was necessary. Around 10:00 AM, I was awoken to extremely strong winds still battering against the side of the house. After walking upstairs and checking in with the Asheville Storm Chasers, I was informed that the Southern side of Irene’s eyewall was thrashing us with extremely strong winds yet again. Just prior to arriving upstairs, the Davis Mesonet recorded a 76 mph wind gust which was likely on the low side since the weather station was being sheltered in between two buildings. With no traditional forms of communication available, we utilized our amateur radio equipment to report the wind gust and our report to the National Weather Service!
The hurricane continued to produce tropical storm and hurricane force winds all day on Saturday. A reporting station in Beaufort recorded at least tropical storm force winds or higher for 23 consecutive hours!
As the rain began to lighten up Saturday Afternoon, both teams ventured out to survey the damage across the Beaufort area. On foot we discovered that the flooding situation was improving with water levels decreasing. We found lots of tree damage and noted a significant amount of debris from shrubbery and roofs lying all across the area. We also found some minor structural damage in the downtown area. As stated above, winds continued to be extremely gusty with sporadic heavy rain.
After walking across the area, we took a trip in the SWERV and found several light poles blown over in a shopping plaza, some structural damage on US 70 and more trees down across the city. Following our damage survey, we stopped at the Beaufort fire department where we were told that power outages could last for days as all three substations that powered Beaufort were completely offline.
By Saturday Night, Irene was moving away from Beaufort but the damage had already been done. We would be spending the night in the Beaufort house with limited power (only a generator running necessary equipment). After sleeping for 8 hours Saturday Night, both teams woke up Sunday Morning and began cleaning up after ourselves and packing for the trip home. We departed Beaufort and crossed into Morehead City where more extensive damage was found. Multiple large trees, powerpoles and billboards were down with more extensive structural and roof damage found.
Finally after driving for approximately an hour, we got far enough West in North Carolina to find areas with power and ate a very delicious and hot lunch at a Ruby Tuesday. Both teams departed Ruby Tuesday for home (SWAT to Indiana and the Asheville Storm Chasers to Asheville, NC).
Chasing Hurricane Irene was an exciting and once in a lifetime experience. I have no regrets, but I can tell you that I will be very thankful when I arrive home and can take a hot shower & shave for the first time in 4 days! Yes, very gross!
For more pictures we took during Hurricane Irene, please visit http://www.Facebook.com/SWATChasers. We also have several videos of Irene online at http://www.Youtube.com/SWATChasers.
On a separate note, we are monitoring a strong Tropical Wave just South of the Cape Verde Islands in the Eastern Atlantic. Some of our forecast models are developing this tropical wave into a tropical storm and eventually into a hurricane. We’ll be watching this tropical wave very closely to see if it does indeed develop and if it does develop, where it might go! Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading,
SWATTours.com – Book your 2012 Storm Chase Tour today!