Flying Debris Festival
|Location||Veracruz, Veracruz, MEXICO|
|Date||17 Sep 2010|
|Intensity||Cat 3 (100 knots)|
For iCyclone, 2010 was a year of rush-job, nail-biter chases. Like its early-season brother, Alex, Hurricane Karl was another tiny cyclone approaching the east coast of Mexico. But Karl was more serious—a severe hurricane threatening a major population center. And when it rammed ashore near Veracruz, it made history as the strongest landfalling hurricane in the Bay of Campeche. iCyclone got there just in the nick of time, clipping the edge of Karl’s eye as the storm’s violent core raked the northern outskirts of this old Mexican city.Chase Report
OK… I’m not going to lie: this chase was a complete and utter nightmare. I was frankly amazed that I got in the eye and it turned out so well!
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so discouraged or so close to completely screwing up as I did on this one. Even up until the final hours, I was having a terrible attitude and just hating it.
It was the usual combination of factors: A tiny cyclone. A foreign country. A hard-to-reach area. A manual-transmission car. No sleep. Endless logistical issues. And that sinking feeling, from the second that I decided to chase this one, that I was too late—and that if I made one mistake, I would completely bust.
Also—Scott Brownfield and I have discussed this a lot—there’s this weird thing that happens when you chase a hurricane. Starting several days before, you become this machine with one reason for existence: get in the core, get in the core. Nothing else matters. You stop eating, you stop sleeping. By the time you actually get in the cyclone, you’re in a zoned out, tunnel-vision state. And after the cyclone passes, you crash hard. You come down like a house of cards.
I get that every time, and I got it really bad with Karl. It’s unhealthy.
But enough of all that. The very harshness of it makes it fun to think about afterward—there’s that feeling of satisfaction for having squeezed a win out of a hairy situation. And it’s of course cool to have gotten in the core of the strongest known hurricane landfall in the Bay of Campeche.
So, here’s what happened. It’s kind of long, so it’s broken up into sections, so you can just read the parts that are interesting to you. And there are lots of nice images.
1. Navigating to Ground Zero
Getting the Car
I actually got to Veracruz with time to spare. The issue that morning was getting a rental car. It was early in the morning and I was frantically calling around—every rental agency—but no one was answering.
The wind was already moaning through the hotel lobby, and guests were excitedly watching the building storm through the glass doors.
I was begging the hotel receptionists to help me—and I started to feel like one of those pushy Americans who thinks the world revolves around him. I was probably acting that way, but I just needed that car. I started to feel frantic—ready to just throw money at the problem. Like, walk up to a random person and say, “Here’s a thousand pesos. Please drive me north now.”
Finally, the hotel travel agent came through and a car was delivered.
It was a cheap, crappy car—dirty, with preexisting dents, etc.—and they were charging me an arm and a leg—like, what you’d pay to rent a BMW in L.A. I didn’t care. It was a car. I took it, and at around 10 am CDT I threw my equipment on the three other seats—videocam, phone, laptop, two Kestrels, the BASTARD (the portable instrument mount invented by Cory Van Pelt), and various other gadgets—and started the car.
I felt vaguely sick when I realized the car was manual transmission, with roll windows. I never like driving stick, but it’s a serious problem when you’re chasing and already multitasking.
Clearing the City
I knew that I needed to go N, and that I needed to get on the coastal highway—the 180.
This seemed simple enough. My hotel was right on the beach in Boca del Rio, so I just needed to exit the hotel and get on the coastal road heading toward the Veracruz city center.
Since Veracruz and Boca del Rio were S of the cyclone’s center, the wind was blowing offshore. Even so, the waves were getting really big and crashing up against the seawall next to the highway—and it was already pouring.
As I neared the Veracruz city center, I hit a big snag in the plan: the city had blocked off the coastal road. I couldn’t get further N.
Time was running out. I just had to improvise.
I tried to head inland toward the airport, to get on another highway so I could cut back out toward the coast from a different angle. Conditions were getting really bad and I wasn’t sure where I was going. The city center was flooding badly and for some bizarre reason, the traffic was like an L.A. rush hour. Major streets had turned into lakes, and several times, I thought the car was going to stall out in deep water. This was a low point. On the phone with Scott, I told him this was it—I wouldn’t chase again this year blah blah blah.
I finally cleared the city. Even though I was heading inland, the rain and wind reduced visibility to zero and I drove really slowly. I still didn’t know where the heck I was. Finally, I found a highway heading toward Xalapa, which was to the N.
And that’s when I felt my fortunes start to change. I slowly started to feel my way N and E, back toward the coast N of the city.
Frantic Final Minutes on Highway 180
I finally spilled out onto Highway 180, somewhere between Veracruz and Jose Cardel, sometime around 11 am CDT.
By this time, I was on the phone almost nonstop with Scott. He was analyzing the radar and telling me where to go. I was at that point completely dependent on him. He navigated, I drove. A team.
While I love these microcanes—they’re my favorite type of cyclone—they’re dreadful to chase. The target is very small, the margin for error is zero, and the bust potential is high. Karl was no exception. The core was so narrow, a couple of miles would make the difference between a direct hit and totally missing it. It was like chasing a big tornado.
To add complexity, there were serious disconnects between 1) Google maps, 2) the printed maps I had, and 3) the signs I was seeing—and this created confusion. Scott and I had trouble reconciling what I was seeing on the road with what was on the maps, and I spent a good half hour driving up and down a 4-mi stretch of the 180, trying to find just the right spot. I would drive N, then Scott would say, “Too far! Turn around!” And then I would be too far S and need to turn around again. It was strange to be dealing with such small distances on a hurricane chase.
And I was running out of time. The cyclone was just about on top of me. A very large branch blew across the highway. Up ahead, very large pieces of a building—some of the roof, I think—lifted into the air.
Finally, I did run out of time.
Scott was like, “Dude—time’s up. You need to hunker down. Now.” I had to pick a spot.
I got off at the nearest exit and headed into what looked like a small, isolated town nestled next to the highway. It was 11:30 am CDT, and Karl’s center was just crossing the coast, maybe 7 mi away.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this small town was actually an isolated neighborhood of Veracruz—an extreme-NW piece of the city. Location: 19.216N 96.228W, approx. 4 mi NW of the city center. It was a simple grid of two-story apartment buildings, with a convenience store and a police station near the center.
The wind was already getting violent as I drove onto the main street, and debris was blowing through the air.
Frantically, I assembled the BASTARD—the only easy thing about this chase—and, between gusts, I affixed it to the roof of the car. I clicked on the Kestrel and fastened it in the cradle, then got back in the car, established the Bluetooth connection, and started collecting data on my laptop.
Finally, I turned the videocam on.
I was ready.
Well, not really.
2. Karl’s Assault on Veracruz
The differentiator for this chase was flying debris. I never saw so much of it nor felt so in danger from it.
I was parked on the side of a wide boulevard at the edge of town, quite far from any buildings. I wanted good exposure. So imagine my surprise when huge gusts blasted swarms of heavy ceramic roof tiles off of buildings and sent them flying across the boulevard, toward me.
Everywhere I looked, buildings were losing parts of their roofs. In the distance, the flying debris looked like clouds of confetti—but when it happened up close, you could see the chunks were hard and dangerous. The air was just filled with junk—and no matter where I moved, I was getting hammered.
At around 12 noon CDT, the sky to the NW brightened—like, almost sunny. And the wind started to calm. The exact center of the eye made its closest approach at this time, passing between 3 and 4 mi from my location. Since I caught the SE edge of eye, that suggests it was perhaps ~6-8 mi wide.
The Kestrel recorded a low pressure of 985.9 mb at around this time (11:50 am CDT). Given that this value is almost 10 mb higher than the cyclone’s central pressure at this time (976 mb), and given that the center of the eye was less than 4 mi away, the gradient must have been extremely sharp.
The sky overhead was menacing—a heavy, grey bank with low-level scuds blowing by rapidly—but it had stopped raining, and that silvery strip of sunshine on the NW horizon was mesmerizing. I wanted to really have a look.
I drove to the end of a long street that dead-ended at the edge of town. The ghostly white sunshine on the horizon was hypnotizing. I parked the car and got out. I thought a shot of the horizon would be pretty…
A terrific gust exploded, tearing off large pieces of a nearby building’s roof and sending them spraying. I fought my way back to the car—which was slowly rolling with the wind—and got back in. I had trouble shutting the door.
I was at this point a bit spooked—wanted to just get the heck out of this place. The sudden and unpredictable bursts of flying debris were making me paranoid.
That big gust happened at 12:09 pm CDT, and from there the relative lull continued for another ten minutes or so. While that gust seemed strange at the time, I realize now that it makes sense. I was right on the boundary between the eye and eyewall for a good twenty minutes. That boundary is not a clean, straight line—and some of the most violent weather in a ‘cane can be right on that boundary.
The cyclone started up again at just around 12:21 pm CDT. The sky darkened, it started to rain, and the wind picked up very suddenly and menacingly.
Pandemonium started. The NW horizon remained strangely silvery and bright while a wild wind kicked up and blew straight down the street toward it—carrying tree branches, a garbage can, a huge piece of aluminum siding, and everything else—all sucking toward that bright light. (There was something creepy about how bright the horizon remained while the destruction was happening—how the wind blew toward the light. It reminded me of Poltergeist—when the evil force in the closet sucks all the toys and furniture and the child into it.) Large pieces of the roofs of two houses tore off. More debris rained down behind me. Banging, crashing sounds everywhere. (Note: This is all caught on video—see above.)
Reviewing the barogram afterward, I noticed a very sharp 2-mb dip in the pressure over the space of less than 2 mins at exactly this time. These data make me wonder if this wind burst may have been caused by a localized disturbance or eddy—i.e., a mesovortex. (See Data, below.)
More gusts hammered and at some point a piece of debris knocked the Kestrel out. It landed on the windshield—lodged against the wiper. The wind was blowing too hard to get out of the car, so I drove to get further from any buildings. The burst subsided in a minute and I was able to open the door and retrieve the Kestrel and put it back in. (Cory’s BASTARD mounting device did not budge during all this—see below. )
Again I moved. The flying debris continued and the streets became difficult to navigate with all of the smashed red-tile roofing and the flooding.
But the cyclone passed quickly. The sky got darker again—the Satanic light on the horizon was gone—and the rain got heavier, but the wind died down. It was no longer destructive after 1 pm—it was just an ugly, messy rainstorm.
Karl really was very, very small. The core of destructive winds came and went in probably 2 hr or less.
Re: air pressure… Below is my barogram for the ~1.5 hours I was in basically one location. These values assume an altitude of 20 ft, which was my best guess at the time. Since the chase, my research suggests that value was closer to 68 ft—in which case, the values in my data may be a couple of millibars too low.
Either way, it illustrates how sharp Karl’s gradient was, that the pressure at my location was ~10 mb higher than it was at the center, a mere 3-4 mi away.
As mentioned above, the destructive wind burst at about 12:21 pm CDT was accompanied by a sharp, short-lived pressure dip. Also note that the destructive burst in the eye (at 12:09 pm CDT) was also marked by a sharp pressure dip. Interesting, indeed!
Wind data was the big disappointment on this chase. I doubt the integrity of the data for two reasons:
- Possible Equipment Malfunction. The data were not matching what I was seeing and experiencing. I’m extremely conservative with wind estimates, and the readings seemed too low even to me. For example, the data would show readings like 28 kt, 16 kt, 42 kt, 21 kt at around the time the car was rocking and heavy roof tiles were being propelled large distances. The instrument seemed to respond sluggishly, and there's a chance it may have been defective. (I have since replaced it with a new model.)
- Contamination. I realized that the wind data are “contaminated” whenever the car is moving, because the car’s motion adds to or subtracts from the wind speeds. So, even though I recorded values over 64 kt, I unfortunately don’t know for sure if the car was moving or fixed at that time—and therefore, I can’t use those data. I need to figure out some solution to this for future chases—some easy way to notate and flag the contaminated data.
This having been said, the BASTARD performed spectacularly. Even when it got hit by flying debris and the instrument got knocked out, the mount did not budge a millimeter. The thing is sturdy and well-engineered, and I am excited that we’ve now tested it in the field and seen that it’s solid. Big congrats to Cory.
Returning to the City Center
I spent mid-afternoon slowly navigating back into the city. After three solid days of going entirely on adrenaline—and not really eating or sleeping very much—I was fried.
Even after the rain stopped, the going was slow. There were plenty of downed trees, smashed signs, and the requisite mangled gas-station canopies. Many boulevards were badly flooded and impassible—and streets that weren’t flooded were blocked by fallen trees. The power was out across the city, so the traffic signals weren’t working.
I was in no hurry at this point and had all the patience in the world. It almost didn’t matter to me how long it took. Taking many detours and some creative shortcuts, I very slowly inched my way back to my hotel in Boca del Rio.
Impact & Damage
Veracruz took a beating but got through mostly OK.
The city was raked pretty squarely by the SE eyewall. Despite this, Dr. Jeff Masters said in his blog that most of the city except for the N portions did not get sustained hurricane winds, citing a rather lukewarm wind max of 40 kt gusting to 50 kt at the airport.
I'm not sure I agree with him. A solid reading of 57 kt (10-min) with a gust to 82 kt from an automated station in the harbor right in Veracruz suggests at least the waterfront portions of the city got sustained hurricane winds, since that 10-min value converts to a 1-min value of over 64 kt. And according to the HRD analysis (above), most of Veracruz metro got raked by Cat-1 winds. It’s important to note that the airport is several miles inland and further S than most of the city, so it was apparently just outside of Karl's small wind core.
Damage decreased as you went further S, and the "damage gradient" was quite sharp: N areas (like where I was for my chase) got raked pretty good, whereas where I was staying—less than 10 mi to the SE, in neighboring Boca del Rio—there was very little wind damage.
Walking around the next day, I found downed or stripped palm trees along the city’s waterfront, a few examples of smashed plate-glass windows, and lots of uprooted deciduous trees. All this aside, the beaches were a dreadful mess.
This all suggests to me that the Veracruz city center had a Cat-1 impact, with the heavier conditions just N of the city center. Veracruz was lucky this was a microcane.
A Little About Veracruz
I spent the next few days relaxing in Veracruz. It seemed to bounce back quickly from the ‘cane.
My quick impression: it’s not a tourist destination. I didn’t see a Starbucks or an iPhone the whole time I was there, nor did I even hear English spoken, unless it was someone struggling to speak it to me. And I only saw a couple of people who weren’t Mexican.
All of this made for a cool and interesting experience. Breaking free from the Starbucksified West—and being in a place where there aren’t English-speaking people catering to your every need—is exciting.
Wandering around the old, rundown historic center, through the mazes of outdoor markets, you feel like you’re on the edge of the earth. And it’s interesting how much Spanish comes back to you when you’re forced to use it. It’s cool. Me gusta.
OK, sorry to get all Travel Channel. Back to the chase.
With every chase, I try to come away with some learnings for next time. Karl produced a few:
- Chase with partner. I need to do this kind of chase with a partner. Of course, I did have a partner—Scott. He was an essential part of this. But I mean a partner who’s physically there with me. It is too much for one person to navigate, talk on the phone, drive, shoot video, and collect meteorological data at the same time. If I were an octopus, I wouldn’t have had enough hands. While I kind of managed to do it all, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well. For example, I got OK footage, but it would have been much better if I were more able to focus just on that.
- Get out of the car more. I need to get out of the car more when shooting video. I was very good about this in Wilma, Dolly, and Jimena, but in my last couple of chases, I’ve noticed a tendency to stay in the car. Part of this is related to the point above—I was stretched too thin—but it’s important to note this, as footage is better when you’re out of the car.
- Get waterfront footage. I need to do more waterfront shooting. I’m so focused on wind footage and getting into the wind core that I neglect the unfolding drama along the seashore. It’s too bad I didn’t get some dramatic waterfront shots when I was driving along the coast in Veracruz—but, again, this is related to the first point.
5. Big Thanks!
Three very special thanks are in order:
- Scott Brownfield. He really chased this with me and did a great job navigating me into the cyclone’s core—not just analyzing radar imagery and doing weather-dude stuff, but even negotiating transportation for me. It was incredible teamwork, and I feel so lucky to have him as my chase partner these last few years. I am looking forward to him being able to join me in the field for the next one.
- Cory Van Pelt. Cory's invention, the BASTARD, is a terrific piece of simple, sturdy engineering—something that is so tough and yet also lightweight, easy to assemble, and portable. The way it fits into a small computer case is perfect for someone like me, who chases over great distances. This invention has changed the way I chase, and I am very grateful for it.
- Jorge González. Although he wasn’t able to come on this chase, he was really helpful with advice Re: transportation and geography. I hope he’ll be joining me again on the next Mexican chase.
Also, thanks to my business partner, Michael, for making the Chase Map (above).