Threading the Needle in the Dark
|Location||Guadalupe Victoria, Tamaulipas, MEXICO|
|Date||30 Jun - 01 Jul 2010|
|Intensity||Cat 2 (95 knots)|
Some chases are easy. Some are hard. And some are perfectly concocted to provoke nightmares. The Alex expedition had all the ingredients for a total bust. Take a small hurricane, on an erratic path, pushing ashore in a remote corner of Mexico in the middle of the night. Add rough roads, flooding, and near-zero visibility. Take away phone and Internet service.... And there you have a gourmet bust recipe! But against all odds, iCyclone found the needle in the haystack—getting inside the angry cyclone’s tiny, 4-mile-wide eye as it passed over a secluded village 150 miles south of the Texas border.Chase Report
What made this chase distinct for me was the sheer difficulty of it. It seemed designed for hardship: a tiny cyclone on a super-wobbly path, heading for a completely remote and difficult-to-reach section of the Mexican coastline. Add to this the conflicting computer models, spotty Internet access, rough roads, and a latenight landfall, and you had all the ingredients for a spectacular bust.
This makes the success of the chase all the more satisfying. When Alex’s eye passed over us in Guadalupe Victoria about half past 12 midnight on 01 July, it was only 3 or 4 mi wide based on my calculations—and I therefore feel lucky and grateful that Jorge and I were able to intercept such a small moving target. The assistance of folks here was a big part of it. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful we found the nowcasting and radar analysis in this thread—especially as our data access got so weak we could no longer load radar loops.
So, here’s what happened…
1. Navigating to Ground Zero
Arrival in Monterrey
It all started smoothly enough. I landed in MTY Tuesday evening, where my partner for this chase, Jorge González, met me. We sat down in the airport lobby, opened the maps, and had a quick strategy/pep session, deciding our course of action and getting ourselves energized for what we assumed was going to be a complicated chase. All reliable indicators pointed to a landfall on the sparsely-populated coast of NE Tamaulipas.
Then we picked up the rental car. It was manual transmission, which I hate, and which is not ideal for chasing—but Jorge was cool with it, so we took it. After a quick dinner at a yummy Mexican place near the airport, we hit the road. Destination: Tampico.
We knew Tampico was way S of the target area, but it’s also a decent-sized city with good infrastructure and widespread data coverage—so we figured it would be a good staging area. Jorge drove through the night while I catnapped. (I’d stayed up all through the previous night, getting work done so I could come on this chase, so I was fried.) We arrived in Tampico at morning rush hour, checked into the hotel, and had a big breakfast.
The Fateful Nap in Tampico
After doing some errands, we decided to take a nap. We both needed it. Chasing when you’re completely exhausted is not only unpleasant—it’s dangerous. Adrenalin is not magic—it can’t keep you going when the gas tank is totally empty. So I consider sleep essential on these chases. The hurricane was still well offshore and it seemed to be in no hurry.
We decided we would take a five-hour nap and wake up early-afternoon—no later. Jorge seemed a bit nervous about sleeping that much, but I insisted. We both fell asleep within minutes.
Wakeup to Code Red
Five hours later, the alarm went off. Like kids running downstairs to see what’s under the Christmas tree, we rushed to my iPad to get the latest on Alex. Imagine our complete delight to see that it had strengthened significantly (to 80 kt). On infrared imagery, it now had a beautiful pinhole eye. I could barely contain my excitement.
This delight turned to near-panic when we noted the cyclone’s position and movement: it had jogged to the right and sped up significantly while we slept, and was suddenly nearing the coast—way N of us. The Brownsville radar showed the most beautifully formed eyewall I’d seen in years—startlingly close to the coast. It looked like the core was just a few hours offshore. Jorge and I looked at each other like, “Oh, sh*t!”
The idea of missing such a beautiful landfall because of a miscalculation made me feel almost sick inside. These opportunities don’t come around that often—you can’t blow them. And, as the experienced chaser on this expedition, I felt guilty—like I’d let Jorge down by insisting on that nap. He seemed concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t help to act panicky, so I played it as cool as I could and was like, “It’ll be fine—we have time. We just need to leave right now. It’s cool.”
Without wasting a moment, we packed our stuff and checked out of the hotel. We were in the car and on the road within fifteen minutes.
Mad Dash North
After some quick discussion, we decided to head N via the inland route—the 80/180 heading toward Ciudad Victoria—as it’s a better highway, and we figured conditions would be better further inland. Except for some occasional light rain, the weather that afternoon wasn’t too bad as we sped NW, and we made good time. Monitoring the cyclone’s movement via this chase thread, we noticed that it had once again slowed down, and—to our delight—had started to show a S-of-W tendency—both trends in our favor.
And slowly we started to feel back in control of the situation. By the time we stopped at a gas station in Ciudad Victoria to decide next steps and wolf down some junk food, we were once again masters of our fate.
The big decision in Ciudad Victoria: whether to head 1) NE on the 101 toward San Fernando or 2) E on the 70 toward Soto la Marina.
This had been a topic of discussion for the whole drive from Tampico, and also in this thread, since the cyclone’s landfall point would be between these two cities. The San Fernando route would get us up N faster, but the Soto la Marina route would get us much closer to the coast. Given the cyclone’s S wobbles late that afternoon, Soto la Marina was looking like the better option. Some folks in this thread felt that Soto la Marina was too far S, but we noted that it was possible to head N from Soto la Marina, if necessary—whereas the San Fernando route would not allow us to adjust S and therefore seemed the less flexible solution.
Jorge seemed resolute and confident in the Soto la Marina option—felt it didn’t even require discussion by the time we hit Ciudad Victoria. I was impressed with his confidence—especially since this was his first chase—and decided to go along with this plan without further discussion. It ended up being the right choice. (+1 for Jorge. )
We headed E on the 70, and despite the increasing darkness and occasional heavy rain, we made good time, reaching Soto la Marina a little after nightfall.
It was clear by this point that we needed to get further N, and so from there, we hit the 180 heading N. Destination: Guadalupe Victoria, a small village ~30 mi from the open coast.
Our Internet and mobile service had been getting increasingly spotty, and just after 9 pm—as we approached our final destination—we finally lost all connection with the outside world. That was it. From there, we’d be feeling around in the dark.
We found out later that Alex’s center crossed the coast at this time—about 30 mi to our ENE, with an intensity of 947 mb/90 kt.
2. Alex’s Assault on Guadalupe Victoria
At about 9:20 pm CDT, we finally hit the sign for Guadalupe Victoria and turned off the main highway onto a ghostly, twisting, one-lane road that seemed to go on forever. There were no lights, no signs—just hairpin turns, darkness, and heavy rain. It felt like the setup for a cheap horror flick.
I have to say, I was disappointed when we reached the town at 9:40 pm, because there wasn’t much to it—just a handful of crisscrossing streets lined with small houses and rickety old businesses. The town was 100% blacked out—not even a candle in a window—and not a creature stirred. I wondered if perhaps it was a ghost town. I didn’t like it.
Whatever my feelings about the town, this was it—this was where we would ride out Hurricane Alex. And so we drove down the main street to the other end of town, parked with the headlights pointing at some houses and trees, and waited.
By this time (10 pm), we had no real idea what was going on—just that the hurricane’s center was probably heading in our general direction.
Over the next two hours, the rain and wind increased. The cyclone had a pulsing quality—with the bursts of rain and wind became more frequent and more severe as time went on. The wind started to get that howling sound, and we could occasionally hear banging and clanking as something broke or fell in the darkness. By 12 midnight or so, gusts were shaking the car and we were hearing that “airplane sound” that you get in hurricane eyewalls.
But where was the cyclone’s center? Was it coming—or would we miss it? We noted that the direction of the wind remained constant during these two hours—Jorge guessed it was from the N—so we knew the center hadn’t passed us by yet. We had another big burst—a particularly violent gust that really shook the car—and then...
We hit a calm. At 12:25 am. Like, dead calm. At first, I thought it was another pause between convective bursts—but the lull was so pronounced and so sharp, that there was no mistaking it. We were in the eye.
I saw a person or two come poking out from their houses—faceless figures way down the street. A couple of dogs barked in the distance.
Jorge and I got out of the car and looked up at the sky. We could see the curving wallcloud that marked the inner edge of the eyewall, passing overhead. I’d never been in such a small, sharp eye like this, so I’d never seen that before. (Too bad it was too dark to capture this on video.)
We found out later that the exact center of the eye passed over Guadalupe Victoria. Given this, and that 1) the lull lasted almost exactly 20 mins and 2) the storm was moving at 10 mph, this means the eye was only 3 or 4 mi wide!
By 12:45 am, the backside of the cyclone moved in, and conditions very rapidly deteriorated.
(Technical Note: The NHC’s 1 am CDT advisory has the center at 24.1N 98.2W, which is right over Guadalupe Victoria. However, by 1 am the center was actually well past us—we were getting hammered by hurricane winds on the backside at that time. I brought this up with Jack Beven, and he says based on these obs they’ll probably adjust the position WSW for that time. )
0515Z 070110 0526Z 070110
Within a couple of minutes, the storm was once again blasting the town at full force. A tilted telephone pole swayed dangerously just ahead of us on a flooded street, while the trees waved furiously. I heard loud clanking to my right as the wind lifted the tin roofing off of a porch. A trampoline—Lord knows where it came from—danced atop the pickets of a fence, ready to take off like a jet plane.
Jorge and I agreed that the backside seemed more severe than the front—which was odd, given that the radar shots we’d seen prior to losing Internet suggested the leading (W) eyewall had the real goods. We estimated sustained surface winds in the Cat-1 range.
The back eyewall didn’t last for long. Within about 40 mins (by about 1:25 am), it was easing, suggesting that the band of severest conditions was quite narrow—no more than 6 or 7 mi wide.
As the rain eased and the winds dropped to a gale, we surveyed the town. Most houses seemed fine—we didn’t see any real structural damage, suggesting that the winds did not exceed Cat 1. However, most streets were completely flooded and littered with debris, and there were downed trees and large toppled power poles—one of which had crushed a car and draped an entire block in wires. Twice the car got so entangled in wires—wrapping like tentacles around the mirrors and under the hood—that we had to get out of the car to release them.
But that was just the beginning of our problems.
3. Clawing Our Way Home
Limping to Soto la Marina
The cyclone’s worst passed fairly quickly, and in the wee hours of the morning, we found the road out of town—which took some time, as we were completely disoriented—and got back onto the main highway. Our goal was to get to Ciudad Victoria and find a warm hotel room. Ha!
A mile or so down the 70, Jorge (who’d been doing all the driving), noticed the car was driving funny. We pulled over and got out to find not one, but two flat tires—both on the driver’s side! (All of the streets in Guadalupe Victoria were flooded, and several times we’d run over submerged wreckage.) We were still in tropical-storm conditions—heavy rain and gale winds—so it made the idea of changing a tire rather unpleasant. It was hard to even open the driver door of the car, let alone change a tire. Stripping down to our shorts—so the rest of our clothes wouldn’t get wet—we tried to change the front one, but the conditions were so dreadful we aborted that plan and instead drove very slowly—at only 20 km/hr—down the highway on the flats. The new goal was to just to get to Soto la Marina and find a hotel.
Within a couple of miles of Soto la Marina, however, the tires were in such bad shape that we had to pull over again, and Jorge felt we needed to change the front tire—which we did. (Yes, Jorge led the effort—but before any of you make assumptions, please note that I did help—for example, by pulling off the hubcap and helping to jack up the car.) By now, the rain had almost stopped, although the wind was still sweeping the desolate highway at a stiff 30 or 35 kt.
With a new front tire, the car was well enough to drive again, and we made it to Soto la Marina.
Unfortunately, the town was completely blacked out, and when we knocked on the door of a hotel, no one answered. Not having any other options, we pulled over on a sidestreet, parked the car, reclined the seats, and—shivering and wet—we went to sleep. It was 4 am.
I awoke a few hours later to the sound of pounding rain. Alex wasn’t done. I felt stiff and cold and just… yuck. The crappy part of storm chasing—the part I forget about.
Jorge woke up soon and we hauled the car back onto the main highway, looking for hot food and/or a person to fix the tire. Big fail on both counts. Breakfast was cheap, nasty donuts and chips.
But, like magic, our fortunes changed. Passing a ramshackle old tire repair shop, we noticed a little old man standing in the doorway—as if he were expecting us. And, like the pro that he was, he fixed the bad tire with deft hands in a matter of minutes. It was so ridiculously cheap and we were so grateful that we paid him extra, and—thrilled at having four good wheels again—we got back on the highway and headed toward Ciudad Victoria.
The Trip North
What we noticed as he headed NW was that, while Alex’s core had been tiny, the system as a whole was quite large, so that a wide swath of NE Mexico extending well inland had light-to-moderate wind damage and power outages. In fact, we didn’t see electricity again until we reached Linares.
And the problem with that was: no electricity = no gas. And we were getting low on gas—so low that we stopped in a small town called Magueyes and Jorge knocked on an old man’s door because we’d heard a rumor that he sold gas in tanks out of his house. He actually did—but he was out. He said that Linares should have power, so if we could get there, we’d be OK. But the needle was already on empty.
Ugh. I’d always prided myself on being really super-careful about the gasoline thing. I’ve never run out of gas on a chase, or even come close. On most chases, I’ve actually had too much—to the point where I sometimes end up giving a five-gallon tank to the rental-car people as a gift. But this time, in the mad rush to get in Alex’s core, we just hadn’t planned well enough.
Getting back on the road, we headed toward Linares, and at Jorge’s suggestion, I drove a steady 80 km/hr to conserve gas. I started thinking creatively about the problem—said to Jorge that we’ll just need to pay someone to siphon gas out of their car, and “I’m sure someone somewhere would like to make money today,” etc. etc.
Imagine our delight when we came upon Linares and found a fully-powered gasoline station in all of its sparkly, fluorescent glory. Filling up the tank, getting a hot cup of coffee, and downing a couple of cheap ham sandwiches, I was as happy as a clam. We were finally safe. Kind of.
Flooding in Monterrey
As we approached the outskirts of Monterrey, we noticed the street flooding was getting increasingly serious. For some reason, it was more on the other side—so the lanes facing in the opposite direction were totally flooded in places, while ours were passable. As we got closer to the city center, it got worse, and we were seeing huge washouts, lots of stalled cars, and terrible traffic jams.
When we got into the city, we saw an awesome site: the Santa Catarina River, usually just a tiny brook weaving through golf courses, had grown into a monster flood—a tremendous river of violent brown waves eating away at the landscape and blasting through the city. We had to take several detours to get to my hotel near the airport.
Even so, I don’t think we were fully aware of the devastation at that time.
Despite all of the above, I checked into a cozy hotel, and then Jorge and I went out for a farewell lunch and retuned the rental car. Saying our goodbyes, we joked that we’ll be meeting again soon on the Yucatan.
Returning to my hotel room was a treat. I hadn’t bathed or even brushed my teeth in a couple of days. Eww, gross! It was time to rejoin the human race.
4. Final Thoughts
I’ll remember Hurricane Alex for its small size, and the challenges of chasing a microcane in a remote region. Getting inside that tiny core and that 3- or 4-mi-wide eye was threading the needle—and I’m excited that Jorge and I were able to do it.
I’ll also remember it for its deceptively beautiful appearance. Alex had a satellite and radar presentation befitting a Cat 4—however, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t quite that powerful. The NHC’s estimate of 90 kt at landfall seems correct to me, based on our experience of the core 30 mi inland. It just goes to show the limitations of satellite intensity estimates. Nothing can replace actual recon. (Note: In seasonal postanalysis, the NHC upgraded the landfall intensity slightly—to 95 kt.)
5. Big Thanks!
Once again, I want to thank the team who helped us navigate in the final hours—particularly Scott Brownfield, Michael Goss, Bob Schafer, Mike Ekster, and Zach Gruskin. Your radar analyses and opinions were really helpful, and our forum discussion was a convenient, one-stop information source as our Internet connection started to fail in the Mexican wilderness.