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Hurricane observing in 2010?
If there was one aspect of storm observing that life and practicality (and probably a little bit of the economy) has claimed from me, sadly it's been that of hurricanes and tropical systems. I have been in four US landfalling hurricanes (Isabel, Frances, Ivan and Rita) and two tropical storms (Ernesto and Gabrielle). From 2003 to 2007, my efforts to cover hurricane landfalls were partly for the expedition experience, and partly for the archive footage.
All of my hurricane trips were a lot of fun and definitely adventurous, and I hope to someday work out being able to justify more in the future. But since I started my stock footage business in 2003, hurricanes and tropical storms - to this day - remain my all-time worst sellers. Not just the worst, but incredibly only two small sales over those years have involved hurricane video. On top of that, these days the ENG market for hurricane coverage by freelancers is at its worst ever. All that means that hurricane trips are completely out-of-pocket ventures right now. Since I have some higher-priority lightning goals for the Midwest this summer, and after an active spring tornado season has crunched chase operating funds, I have to make a choice to cut something from my annual travel agendas. Unfortunately now (as with the past few years), it has to be hurricanes.
Factoring into that choice is two main things. One, covering a hurricane is the riskiest type of chase endeavor, in terms of the threat of vehicle/equipment damage and the overall probability of any number of crisis situtations developing. I feel that I was blessed to escape all six of my career intercepts without major incidents that could have been very costly and/or high on the scale of inconvenience/suffering. Unlike a tornado storm observing expedition, a hurricane expedition can inflict real damage to your vehicle, destroy camera equipment, involve unpleasant confrontations with law enforcement and/or strand you in an area devoid of power, food, water or shelter for days. The preparations for a hurricane trip are like planning for a self-sufficient venture into a war zone.
The second major strike against hurricanes is travel costs. From West Virginia, an Atlantic hurricane intercept was a fairly easy endeavor travel-cost wise - five hours to a 'base' in Raleigh, then another 2-3 hours or less to the coast. Now that I live in St. Louis, getting to either the Gulf or Atlantic coasts is a 12 to 15 hour trip one-way - and a mid-Florida target is over 1,000 miles and 18 hours away! While long drives have never been much of an obstacle for me in terms of the effort/endurance involved (I always love a good road trip), their cost is and always has been a formidable barrier. With no way to even partially recover costs on such a major venture - particularly when considering the risk to my equipment and my truck - a hurricane trip seems much less appealing to me these days.
So, hurricane observing for me has become a thing of the past, at least temporarily. Unless I can find ways to minimize/manage the risks and costs of intercepts, this season I will be watching US tropical activity from here at home. One consolation is that hurricanes, once well inland, frequently pose a tornado threat. As a tropical system decays after landfall, dry air often wraps in and allows for sunlight to destabilize the low levels. That introduces instability in an environment of extreme wind shear - which has historically been a prolific tornado producer when it happens. So, a landfalling Gulf hurricane that makes its way toward the Midwest may provide something worthwhile to go after without the long, expensive drive and attendant risks.