Not wanting to make the long drive from Pennsylvania to Florida, I held off making a decision to go until the last moment hoping that Jeanne would hug the coast and make a landfall somewhere in the Carolinas. By Thursday the 24th it had become apparent that central Florida would once again be the target of a major hurricane. A last minute phone call from my chase partner Bill Reid prompted me to get moving and meet him somewhere near Orlando Saturday afternoon.
SEP 25, 2004: Saturday - Melbourne Beach, FL:
I picked up Bill near Merritt Island around 4PM and we immediately headed south via highway AIA to the Indialantic/Melbourne Beach area. Our first film stop was from a beach entrance parking area in Melbourne Beach. We were recording wind gusts in the parking lot to around 50mph, but they were much stronger a short distance away at the beach overlook. I rushed to the beach entry excited to get my first footage of Jeanne only to find my video camera was hopelessly locked due to a moisture problem. I had foolishly forgotten to acclimate the camera prior to taking it out of its cold case into the tropical moisture, so I had no choice but to use my digital SLR camera for the first half hour. Much of the beach had been previously washed away by Frances, so we filmed from atop a 20 foot sand embankment that was being battered by the waves and rising storm surge.
We then located another place to film from a pavilion and staircase leading down to the beach. When we first arrived there were several people "celebrating" the arrival of Jeanne and one guy was actually goofing around and standing on the bottom of a staircase that was being battered by the waves! These folks left soon after we arrived as we continued to film the wind and wave action. I was filming from from the deck right next to the staircase when I heard a loud "crack"...the staircase had broken away and was being crushed by the waves! That guy doesn't know how lucky he was not to become part of the debris being tossed about by the waves. We then headed north after a tornado warned cell that was moving in from off shore.
With darkness approaching and a curfew about to go into effect, we opted to get off the barrier island and head inland to Orlando and get a few hours rest. We had both been up for nearly 24 hours and figured we could intercept the northern part of the eye as it moved inland somewhere south of Orlando as daylight approached. Had the eye been coming ashore during daylight, there is no question we would have headed further south for the intercept. In hindsight, I think we both wish we would have dropped 30 miles south in the darkness to experience the full brunt of the storm. Winds were gusting to near 60 MPH as they smashed waves over a park bench near the eastern base of the Rt 520 bridge which crosses the Indian River. On the west side of the river highway 1 was deserted except for the ubiquitous TV news crew doing a live feed from a hotel parking lot. We arrived back in Orlando by 11PM in order to get about four hours of sleep.
SEP 26, 2004: Sunday - Lake Wales, FL:
We got up at 4AM after getting some much needed rest and were immediately ready to blast south. I pulled up under the hotel's entrance canopy in a useless attempt to keep our gear dry. Ceiling tiles were beginning to dislodge from the Canopy and one nearly struck Bill as he shouted "debris"! Winds were now pretty steady in the 50 to 55 MPH range with higher gusts and our initial barometer reading stood at 29.11. As we headed south on highway 17 thru Kissimmee the barometer continued to fall a point every couple of miles or so as the winds steadily increased. We arrived in the Lake Wales area as dawn approached and the eye was just to our south. We recorded our lowest pressure here...28.45 inches (964mb). We drove around town and observed numerous power flashes and some light to moderate damage...some of which could have occurred during Frances.
I recorded my highest wind gust while briefly parked on a small bridge just outside of town...78MPH, but I'm certain there were stronger gusts to near 90MPH. We then headed east on highway 60 to meet up with Martin Lisius and Kurt Ugland who were filming in Lakeland. Winds were quite intense at times during our trek west, but Jeanne was beginning to weaken and we figured we had already experienced our strongest winds. Once again we had a hard time determining whether the damage we were seeing had been caused by Jeanne or Frances.
By mid day the eye of Jeanne was still intact and was centered just a few miles to our southeast near Bartow. Bill, Martin, Kurt, and I hung out in Bartow for awhile as the folks began to appear from their homes. The central pressure now measured 28.51, winds were calm, and a light drizzle fell from time to time beneath a solid cloud cover.
About five miles further east the winds quickly increased to 50 - 55 MPH with gusts to near hurricane force, but were now blowing across the highway from the opposite direction. We worked our way back to Orlando on traffic free highways and deserted toll booths around Disney World and Epcot Center. Orlando was still experiencing winds in excess of 60MPH and had no power. I dropped off Bill around 4PM near Merritt Island and began my trek north. No gas stations were open anywhere along I-95 and I needed to tap into one of my 3 stored five gallon containers while in New Smyrna Beach. I finished up the day just over the Florida border in Kingsland, GA after fighting heavy winds and rain thru the Jacksonville area. All the motels in Kingsland were filled with evacuees from as far away as Flagler Beach, FL.
SEP 27, 2004: Monday - Northeast South Carolina:
My plan for today was to intercept one of Jeanne's rain bands and possibly a mini-supercell with a tornado. By mid-morning a tornado watch was already in place along the coast from GA to NC. As I approached the SC border from the south I noticed that there had been a persistent rain band in place with storms moving almost due north within this band for the past couple of hours. Several tornado warnings had already been issued and it wasn't even Noon! I now wished I had left earlier, but I had a "Plains mentality" thinking that the best storms would hold off until later in the day. I made it to Florence by mid afternoon and immediately found myself trying to intercept a tornado warned storm just north of town. The first mistake I made was to enter the town, which soon put me in a horrible tangle of traffic. I gave up on this storm and headed a little northwest of town to between Darlington and Dillon. The storms were still coming in from the south and it appeared that every other one would prompt a tornado warning.
I was sitting on highway 38 between Blenheim and Brownsville watching radar and listening to NWS radio when a tornado warning was issued for a storm just to my north..."rotation has been detected and a possible tornado would be located just north of the highway 38 & 34 intersection..." which is exactly where I was. I couldn't see anything except a large rounded dark base moving rapidly off to my north which was quickly becoming rain obscured. This storm didn't look very tornadic visibly nor on radar. In fact, it looked pathetic, and no way did I want to become suckered into racing north after this bland looking storm. A somewhat better looking storm on radar was moving directly towards me from the south..."so I'll just wait". About 20 minutes later two local guys pulled up next to me and asked if I saw the tornadoes! Apparently, they heard the same NWS report and headed out to have a look. They said that they along with two park rangers observed two or three very brief tornado lowerings take off the tops of some pine trees and scatter them across the highway just a mile or two down the road from where I was sitting. They said it was very brief and there wasn't much to see, so that I didn't miss much. Oh yea, I'm sure I would have just hated to see that! So that is how it works, you have to get up close and personal and stay with that suspicious lowered area if you want to see a tornado drop from one of these TC rain band storms. I worked several more cells right up until dark in NE SC and SE NC, but no cigar.
SEP 28, 2004: Tuesday - DELMARVA Peninsula:
Today I would again make an attempt to intercept a tornadic storm associated with one of Jeanne's rain bands. I decided to get an earlier start and arrived on the eastern shore of VA by mid-morning. Once again a tornado watch was in effect, but most of the rain band storms were located off shore and were moving away to the NE. A couple of "weak looking" storms were heading my way from extreme NE NC so I decided to wait for their arrival in Kiptopeke S.P. which faces west overlooking the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The first storm passed by just to my west over the bay without incidence.
The next storm to my south prompted a tornado warning in Currituck County, NC and was blasting north towards me at 45 MPH. It died by the time it reached VA. This rain band appeared to be dissipating fast, so I opted to blast north towards what appeared to be a new rain band developing in MD & southern DE. I experienced nearly full sun as I blasted north, and the storms were definitely increasing in intensity well to my north.
By the time I reached southern Delaware the southern edge of the rain band storms was located about 50 miles to my north near Smyrna. There would be a lot of traffic and lights to contend with along highway 13 north, but if I could reach the Route 1 alternate bypass I might have a chance if the storms continued to hold together. Once on Route 1 I blasted north and steadily gained on the "tail-end" storm which was looking better and better with time. There was no other convective activity to the south of this storm, so I figured this might be the one to produce. As I was approaching Newark, DE a tornado warning was issued for this storm. As I was crossing a high bridge across the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal I had a good view to my northeast towards the town of Wilmington. On a clear day Wilmington can easily be seen from this point, but now all I had to view was a low dark cloud mass with a white haze below. Just then NWS reported that a tornado had been spotted on the ground doing damage near the New Castle Airport...which was located between me and Wilmington, but I couldn't see a thing even though the line of sight to the tornado was less than four miles from the bridge. But I still had a chance, if I could beat the northward moving storm and tornado to either I-95 or highway 40 east which both cut northeast in front of this storm. I failed to take into account that it was now 4:15 PM and I was about to hit the rush hour Wilmington and Philadelphia traffic which had just been hit with torrential downpours. Just before the I-95 exit I ran into a horrendous traffic jam and limped along at 5 MPH. Trees hid my view towards the tornado, so I made a U-turn and circumnavigated my way back to I-95 via flooded secondary roads. Once on I-95 I soon crossed an area covered with yellow insulation hanging from the trees and strewn across the highway. Soon after that my TV started showing damage scenes from the airport. I spent the next two hours stuck in Philadelphia traffic being doused with flooding rain. All in all my first full fledged hurricane intercept chase was a fun and learning experience, but after spending four days with Jeanne the excitement was beginning to wear off. A special thanks to my chase partners Bill Reid and Martin Lisius for helping make Jeanne a safe and successful chase experience.