Hurricane Wilma put on quite a show for myself and my chase partner Cheryl Chang this morning. My long-winded chase account follows.
I had not made a hurricane chase yet in 2005, so last Wednesday (Oct. 19) I decided to book a flight to Orlando. It appeared likely that Hurricane Wilma would impact the west coast of Florida around the weekend of October 22/23. Wilma was a Category 4 to 5 storm as it approached the Yucatan coast near Cancun, and had set a record with a minimum pressure of 882 mb! I didn’t really want to deal with a storm that strong, so, fortunately, Wilma was forecast to be weaker by the time it neared Florida.
My work shift on Friday, Oct. 21, ended at 10 p.m., and three hours later I was on my flight from Los Angeles to Orlando. The trip began in a somewhat inauspicious manner. I got into an elevator at LAX to move down a floor. This would be easier than lugging my suitcase and my two camera bags and my laptop and my tripod down the stairs. I pushed the button and the door closed. Hmmm….it doesn’t seem like we are moving. I pushed the button again, and again. No apparent movement. Fortunately, the elevator doors opened for me----I was on the same level. I dragged my equipment down the stairs. Upon my arrival at my Delta airplane seat, a middle-aged Black woman was standing. “Uh, I believe this is my seat,” I said. My statement triggered a moderately loud sequence of protests from the woman, directed to anyone in the main cabin with auditory capability. Apparently she had a ticket for the middle seat, and she wanted my aisle seat. The flight was full, so the stewardesses, er, flight attendants, were having problems finding a non-middle seat for her. Anyway, much to my relief, this lady wound up somewhere else on the plane.
The timetable for Wilma to make her move from the Yucatan area towards Florida had been pushed back about a day and a half since I made my flight reservations, so there was no time pressure to get into intercept position upon my arrival in Orlando midday on Saturday. My friend Cheryl was eager to join me for her first hurricane chase, so I caught up on sleep at her place in Rockledge, near Cocoa, Saturday night and Sunday morning. I was unable to get any sleep on the red-eye flight Saturday morning. By midday on Sunday Wilma was slowly accelerating northeastward towards southwest Florida, and landfall was forecast to be near Naples around sunrise on Monday. Her winds were near 100 mph, way down from the 175 mph speeds prior to landfall at Cozumel. But, the hurricane might strengthen a little over the warm Gulf waters before impacting Florida. I chased Isabel in 2003 and Jeanne in 2004, and had experienced winds of around 65 to 75 mph with slightly stronger gusts. It looked like Wilma was going to be more energetic than these for me, depending on where I placed myself in relation to her eye, of course. I had no qualms against seeing the most that Wilma could dish out, provided that I had decent shelter. My concerns as Cheryl and I headed southwest towards Naples were storm surge and timing. I didn’t want any part of storm surge. I didn’t want the main show to be at night. It appeared that Wilma’s center would pass over or close to Naples, which was good, as there would be plenty of places of shelter for us in town. The strongest winds and storm surge would likely be in the south eyewall, with southwest winds. But, if the eye came in over Naples, then Wilma’s “business end” would be primarily over very low and open country with dinky towns, such as Everglades City. I doubted that there would be places south of Naples to get the vehicle above any storm surge, and I didn’t have time to scout out the region south and southeast of Naples. Another area to consider was Marco Island, about 14 miles south of Naples, but again it was very low in elevation and storm surge problems were likely there (especially if the eye passed just to its north).
Cheryl and I spent Sunday’s final three hours of daylight becoming familiar with Naples, noting all of the well-constructed parking garages. We relaxed for a while at sunset on the beach and collected shells. Though the area was under an evacuation order (or was it an evacuation strong suggestion?), there were plenty of folks along the beach and in the 2-to-3-foot surf. There was occasional light rain, but winds were light. Some sporadic lightning well out over the Gulf was the only indication that nastier weather might lie ahead. There was a 10 p.m. curfew for the town, so we had some time to look for dinner. Fortunately, the IHOP on Pine Ridge Road near Interstate 75 was still open. Cheryl was glad that strawberry blintzes were available, and I had eggs and pancakes and sausage. The waitress had been on duty for 24 hours, and the service was great! The other restaurants in the area were boarded up. The gas stations were closed by dark, too, but we had no problems keeping the fuel tank full all the way to Naples, and were able to fill up in town before dark with no wait. That was nice, given the fuel problems and nightmares associated with Katrina and Rita and other storms. In addition, traffic was very light all of the way down into Naples in both directions. I think that everyone who had decided to get out had gotten out much earlier. The locals in town were weary and wanted to get it over with. Hurry up, Wilma! I checked the latest forecasts, and it still looked like a landfall very close to sunrise. I was worried that the strongest winds might be in very poor light. Slow down, Wilma!
As 10 p.m. and curfew approached we took up residence in a large shopping mall parking structure at Golden Gate Road and U.S. 41. (U.S. 41 is the main north-south drag through Naples.) This was perhaps a half mile or so inland, so I wasn’t too concerned about storm surge here, but if the water came up we had a second level available to drive up onto. Wilma, now a category 2 storm, could have storm surge higher than 12 feet, but that would likely be well south of Naples. I would have liked to have found a parking garage right next to the beach, but the cops weren’t going to allow that. We sat in the mostly empty mall parking garage for a few hours, with a decent view of weather conditions to our north. East winds were sporadic and pretty light. Finally, around midnight, some weak squalls blew some rain and mist through the structure. There were frequent drive-bys by police cars and a mall security guard. I don’t think that the Naples police noticed us, but the security guy did. He said that we weren’t supposed to be there, as the garage was closed. But, after we told him why we were there he conceded and said we could stay. An hour later the police saw me walking around in the garage. “What are you doing here? Where do you live? Get your hands out of your pockets. Why do you look so nervous? Show me your identification. We have a mandatory evacuation. What’s in your pockets? Where is your camera? Who’s that in the vehicle? What’s that say on your shirt? You’ll have to go to the shelter.” Gad---this is just what I needed---not. There were now three cop cars around and you would have thought that we were planning to blow up the mall. The cop said that this was private property and that we couldn’t stay here without permission. “Well,” I said, “the security guy said that we could stay here.” Anyway, to make a stupid story short, there was now a new security guy on patrol and he didn’t want us there. The cops let us drive away into the night.
It was about 1 a.m. and we needed to find a new safe place. Along Pine Ridge Road and a half mile east of U.S. 41 we found a well-constructed “self” car wash. The bays ran east-west, so we had excellent protection from north and south winds. Some thick vegetation offered protection from east winds. This was perfect! Nobody bothered us here, though we could see cops pass frequently on Pine Ridge Road. Wilma was accelerating towards Naples, and was now low-end Category 3, with winds of 115 mph and a pressure close to 956 mb. Our east winds increased rather unsteadily. We would get rainy squalls with gusts to about 50 mph, and then conditions would relax. By 4 a.m. or so, Wilma was only 40 miles southwest of Marco Island, and continuing to move northeast at about 20 mph. Her eye was very large, about 40 to 50 miles across. I lamented that it appeared that the main show would be before daylight. Sunrise would be at 7:30 a.m., and by that time the hurricane would be moving away from us to our east-southeast.
Towards 6 a.m. the northeastern eyewall was impacting Naples. We had surges of wind and heavy rain with gusts perhaps to hurricane strength. There were occasional bright power flashes in all directions. All we could see was the effect of the wind on a row of trees along the street right in front of us to our west. The lights at the car wash cut out several times before going out for good. For the next hour or so, the only light that we had was from the car’s headlights. The strong wind and rain were interesting for this California boy, but not really worth the long trip from California---so far. The Keys and areas to the south of Naples were getting blasted a lot more, based on the radio reports. As sunrise approached, the winds shifted from east to north, and increased in strength! The northern side of Wilma’s eye was scraping south portions of Naples, and we were on the north side of town, barely outside of the large eye. If Wilma had been wearing a contact lens, then the lens would have been over us. Northerly blasts of wind were now becoming very impressive, with sustained speeds close to hurricane strength. Finally, there was enough light to see the surroundings and to see what was flying around. I decided to head to U.S. 41 to shoot some video.
Trees were toppled onto Pine Ridge Road, and a large boat had smashed into a canal bridge right behind the car wash. Palm fronds blew wildly, some becoming airborne. Conditions continued to deteriorate/impress as we turned south onto U.S. 41 through town! I was perplexed---why are winds getting stronger as the hurricane is moving away from town? I thought that, perhaps, as the winds were from the NW to NNW, that there was less friction and greater speed as these winds were coming off of the Gulf as opposed to the east winds off of land. A better reason may have been the nearby interaction with the strong high pressure and associated cold front not too far behind the hurricane. In any event, we were heading south down U.S. 41 in Naples with an extremely strong tailwind and heavy rain. We were apparently still in the hurricane’s eyewall, and stuff was really starting to hit the fan! Large trees and branches blocked portions of the street. The huge gusts made it seemed like a firehose was aimed at us from behind. The lot of a Publix grocery store on the west side of the road was under water, and white caps and spray raged southward. It looked like a scene on the high seas, except that someone was out there collecting carts. Just joking. In addition to the frequent vegetative hazards, occasionally in motion, water covered large parts of U.S. 41 and forced me to cross into the north-bound lanes on the other side of the medium. There were a few other vehicles out and about: primarily media and storm chasers. There were no cops now ---- they get off of the streets once the sustained winds are above tropical storm force strength (40 mph-plus), apparently. Navigating the road was kind of like playing a video game, what with trying to dodge all of the hazards and flying debris crossing from right to left on the northwest blasts. I drove right over what I thought was a soccer ball, but it caused a loud “clunk” beneath the Ford Taurus. Dang coconuts. At least none came through the windshield.
I stopped on occasion to roll the side window down and to video the conditions. These were by far the strongest hurricane winds I had yet to observe. Naples was a town fully in motion! Transformers blew, one falling not too far behind us. Sheets of metal took flight from construction areas and wrapped around poles. Traffic signals dangled wildly, if they weren’t already on the ground. It was also, admittedly, not very safe to be out and about in a vehicle. On two occasions I had to take refuge behind a large brick building. We continued south to about 5th Avenue, on the north side of downtown Naples, and the water on the road became too deep for our sedan. We turned around, and now had to head into the wind. It was video-game time again----swerve left, swerve right----watch out for that tree! Poster board and signs and twigs blew past, and I literally had to maneuver continuously in order to keep the vehicle from becoming impacted, and to make sure that trees and signals wouldn’t smack the vehicle in case they fell. This was nuts---shelter was required! We lingered behind our brick building for 10 more minutes, and the wind came down slightly. Our local radio stations, with eyewall-to-eyewall coverage of Wilma, said that a gust of 121 mph had been recorded at the emergency management office in Naples. After 9 a.m., as conditions improved slightly, Cheryl and I elected to begin the four-hour drive home. I was exhausted, and the adrenaline rush was wearing off. It was the second night in the last three without any sleep for me. We navigated around several more downed trees before getting to I-75, which was, for the most part, free of debris (and traffic!).
By the time we reached the Fort Myers area the strong winds turned rather cool, as the cold front had pushed just to our east. Wilma was still a beast, and was blasting the Miami area with 100 mph gusts! It had made landfall just south of Marco Island as a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds of 125 mph. I was glad that I had made the trip, as those first two hours of daylight in Naples on Monday morning were priceless! Besides, how many chasers can say that they were in the eyewall of a W-named storm…a storm that holds the record for lowest barometric pressure on record for the Atlantic Basin?! Not many. Not many Californians, at least.
Westlake Village, CA
p.s….thanks to Brian Morganti for posting this on his web site.