The Thing That Went Bump in the Night
|Location||Chetumal, Quintana Roo, MEXICO|
|Date||21 Aug 2007|
|Intensity||Cat 5 (150 knots)|
Category-5 Hurricane Dean—one of the century’s fiercest storms—smashed Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. As this Caribbean monster approached Quintana Roo’s small capital city, catastrophe seemed certain, and only a last-second shift in the track spared the city complete destruction. Still, Dean hammered Chetumal hard as the storm’s extreme inner core passed just north of the city at dawn. iCyclone was there—holed up in a downtown hotel with forty refugees—documenting events as this old Mexican city withstood Dean’s ferocious onslaught.
This was my scariest chase—hands down.
Being in a small, rudnown Mexican city with an intensifying Category 5 coming directly at you—in the middle of the night, to make it even scarier—is bone-chilling. Being a chaser is about constantly living on the edge and pushing the limits, and I embrace that—but this felt like a direct and obnoxious taunting of fate.
Chetumal has a long and bitter history with hurricanes—including complete obliteration at the hands of Hurricane Janet in 1955. Dean looked to be a repeat of Janet, when at the very last moment, the cyclone's center wobbled a tad to the north—so that the nuclear-grade eyewall missed the downtown area by a few miles. Even so, the city got pounded hard.
I rode out the cyclone in a large hotel in downtown Chetumal. Here's my account of that harrowing night.
1. First Hints
One of the strangest things about Dean was the tightness of the wind field. Damaging winds did not extend very far from the center.
That was my first significant observation of the cyclone as it approached Chetumal Monday night—that there was so little to observe even when the center was only 6 hours from landfall and ~150 mi from the city. Up to that point, we’d been in a dead, sticky calm. I had trouble believing that a severe, deepening cyclone was just offshore.
The first drizzle started at ~9:45 pm CDT, and a breeze kicked up with it—but it was really nothing much. Between 11:20 pm and 12:25 am CDT, there was no rain at all—just a stiffening breeze under fast-moving clouds.
The first real rainband—with heavy rain and strong winds—didn’t pass over downtown until half past midnight. It was sometime around 1 am CDT—with the center only 100 mi E of Chetumal—that the wind developed an ominous tug. Trees were in constant motion and the flags atop the building across the street were fully extended and the masts seemed ready to break off.
At 1:40 am CDT another lull started and the rain stopped for the better part of an hour.
These fluctuations in wind and precip patterns are typical of the outer rainbands of a ‘cane—it’s never a steady buildup.
The storm started to blast downtown Chetumal for real at ~2:30 am CDT, with heavy rain and frequent gusts to gale force. At this time, the center was only ~75 mi from the city.
Conditions rapidly deteriorated. The power went out at 3 am CDT. The hotel plunged into a thick darkness that heightened my awareness of the wind’s sound—a steady moaning noise with lots of clanking sounds.
The wind increased in violence and was soon making an intense, constant howling sound that you could hear from everywhere in the building. A large tree in front of the hotel went down, and the flags atop the building across the street were tearing off. I kept hearing the “airplane sound” that you hear in major hurricanes just before severe gusts.
The hotel receptionist and I were watching from the front entrance when a large window above us smashed and glass came raining down all over the sidewalk.
We retreated inside, and the staff bolted the front doors shut for the remainder of the storm. We were on full lockdown.
In the lobby, a group sat stoically in a circle, near a single candle, next to boarded up windows. I wandered the halls of the huge hotel, using my mobile phone and camcorder for light. The rest of the building was pitch black except for ghostly pools of light where guests calmly walked the halls in small groups holding candles or flashlights.
The wind continued to increase. The sound was awful—very unnatural—and it got more ferocious on the upper floors. Above the howl I could hear a wailing—almost human sounding—and above that a shrill whistling made by the wind ripping through small spaces between the window panes. There were occasional loud thuds or crashing sounds from things hitting the outside of the building.
The windows that weren’t boarded were pulsing constantly, allowing rain to get in and flood the hallways. I hustled quickly past them whenever I needed to get by, expecting them to break any time. On the top floor, the lights in the suspension ceiling were bobbing up and down—like a psychedelic funhouse—and I wondered if that meant the roof was coming off.
It was around 5:15 am CDT that the storm seemed to hit a peak that lasted until maybe 6:45 am—and it’s interesting to note in retrospect that the center was making its closest approach to downtown Chetumal at this time. The heaviest rain and some of the highest gusts happened then, with the wind rapidly shifting direction.
The peak gusts had a particular roar to them—an angry quality. I watched a large palm get yanked to the ground—one of the last remaining trees in front of the hotel. A deciduous tree next to the hotel—constantly bent at 45 degrees and waving madly—had by this time lost most of its foliage, so that the wind ripped through its branches unimpeded.
Dawn revealed a wild spectacle—complete urban pandemonium. Dynamite gusts blasted the spent shells of ragged trees. Clanking and smashing sounds cut through the wind’s shriek as windows broke and building wreckage fell onto the sidewalk. The street flooded and dirty water overflowed into the hotel lobby. Debris—including a huge water tank that had fallen from the hotel roof—floated down the street.
It was around 7 am CDT that it all seemed less menacing. The wind was still ripping good, but it was light out, everyone was up and about, and we all knew it would get no worse. I’m not sure the wind was even easing up at this point—it might have been psychological. It might be that I was simply numb to it after so many hours. But the adrenaline of days and days of anticipation was wearing off and I was just spent—like coming down from an intense drug.
I went to my room—soaked through and exhausted. I undressed, dried off as best I could, and crawled into bed—with harsh winds still howling and banging outside.
I woke up late in the morning. It was cloudy and a bit breezy. The storm had passed. I threw on some clothes and walked around the city.
Our street—Avenida Lazaro Cardenas—had taken a beating. Most of the trees along the traffic island in the middle had been blown down. A bank right across the street had been completely trashed—every window had blown out and many of the window panes torn off. The ceilings inside had collapsed and the sidewalk and street were covered with broken glass and twisted window panes. Another hotel next door had lost most of the letters on its sign as well as some roofing. My hotel—which had been mostly boarded up—got through the best, with just a couple of broken windows, a fallen water tank, and a flooded lobby and hallways.
The rest of the downtown area was a tremendous mess. Every street was blocked by large uprooted trees, felled signs and street lamps, building wreckage, and flood waters. The grounds of the Museo De La Cultura Maya were particularly hard hit. In an awesome display, every single tree on the grounds—large and small—was felled. The blowdown in this part of the city was so spectacular it made me wonder if perhaps a localized disturbance or eddy passed through the area.
All over the city, deciduous trees that had withstood the winds had been largely defoliated so they had a burnt, wintry look. Tree blowdown was even worse down near the bay, with promenades almost buried in fallen vegetation.
While storm surge flooded the waterfront areas, it seems the massive inundation we’d feared never materialized—not surprising, since the eye passed to our N and the flow was offshore.
I did not see the airport until this morning, and it took a good beating. Hangars had lost parts of roofs and walls, with the wreckage scattered around the adjacent fields. Near the main terminal building, signs had been bent and lots of trees felled. I saw aluminum roofing wrapped around a truck.
But, in the end, Chetumal was lucky. The city was smashed up but not devastated. There were very few building failures. My estimate, based on the damage I saw, was that sustained winds in the city reached ~85 kt, with much higher gusts—Cat 2. (Please note that my estimates are based on Saffir-Simpson scale descriptions and tend to be very conservative compared with other chasers.)
The city’s response was efficient. Soldiers and police were quickly stationed at main intersections, and city workers worked quickly to clear blocked streets. And the residents took it all in stride. The mood in the city was relaxed and mellow as people cleaned up.
Hunt for Food
Almost all restaurants were closed—a bummer because I was craving a hot meal. I’d been subsisting on multigrain bars and sugar corn pops for the last 36 hours and couldn’t do it anymore—I needed real food.
A grocery store that had lost much of its roof was open for business, and I bought some canned tuna and vegetables which I planned to eat cold. It was a dismal prospect but I’m used to this sort of thing after a big ‘cane.
Imagine my delight when I came across an open hamburger stand. The front door was smashed but they were running on a generator. I waited on line for about a half hour, watching through the window like a hungry dog while two chicks wearing hairnets slaved over a hot grill cranking out elaborate hamburguesas con todo. Do you know what butter melting on a grill smells like to someone who hasn’t had a hot meal in three days? Needless to say, it was the best burger I’d had in a very long time.
I made my way back to the hotel after dark—having trouble seeing where I was going because of the blackout—and, after chatting in the dark on the telephone with my friend, Keith Nugent (who posted my blog updates once I lost Internet during the storm), I went to bed. There was nothing else to do.
7. Additional Thoughts
OK, that’s the account. Following are some additional comments which I’ve put at the end, for those that are especially interested:
I will fully admit that this one freaked me out. There—I said it.
I’ve been chasing for years, and this was the first time I got spooked waiting for the storm to come in. I’ve experienced fear during chases in the past—most recently when I was surrounded by storm surge during Wilma in Florida—but never beforehand.
During Wilma’s approach to Florida, for example, I couldn’t have been more delighted when it started strengthening. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive—like a child waiting for Christmas presents. But Wilma was minor-league chasing.
Dean was the big leagues—an industrial-strength, deep-tropical bomb. And I wasn’t in Florida this time—I was in a provincial jungle city from another era, in a foreign land, without many sturdy buildings.
So, I had a very special feeling of dread during the final hours as it approached Chetumal—like, “OMG, get me the heck out of here!” The lowering pressure, tightening eyewall, spectacular satellite presentation, due-W heading, and unique vulnerability of Chetumal... All conspired to make me feel like I was looking over the edge of a cliff. And I didn’t mention to y’all that, during my "stress-reducing" run down to the shoreline that evening, I discovered that the hotel was not as high above the bay as I’d thought.
Just a few hours before landfall, it got to the point where I almost couldn’t look at the satellite imagery—it looked too good and was freaking me out. I think what sent me over the edge was when someone—I forgot who—described Chetumal as the next Atlantis.
So this was a unique experience for me—to feel dread at something that I normally think is so beautiful. A beautiful satellite presentation didn’t look beautiful—it looked scary. I’ve never before felt that about a hurricane. I’ll never forget that feeling.
Chetumal’s Near Miss
Quintana Roo’s capital city was hammered very hard and it’s a tremendous mess. In the downtown area immediately following the storm, every street was blocked by fallen trees, pieces of buildings, fallen signs, and water. Broken glass and wires littered the sidewalks.
But in the end, Chetumal got off easy.
As y’all know, the city was on the edge of the storm’s core. While the S edge of the eyewall’s backside apparently nicked the city, we didn’t get the worst of it.
Chetumal is still here—a smashed-up mess, but very much OK.
It’s a testament to Dean’s ferocity that this city of 140,000 was so banged up by just a glancing blow.
I’m still wondering what would have happened to Chetumal—in terms of both wind and storm surge—if the center had jogged a little WSW—not WNW—just before landfall. Comparisons with Atlantis might have panned out.
Heartbreak: Mission Unaccomplished
I’m a tad heartbroken to have been so close but not squarely in the eyewall of a legendary ‘cane like Dean—one of the all-time most-intense Atlantic landfalls. So, from that perspective, my Dean chase is “mission unaccomplished”. <sigh>
But I have zero regrets.
Given the intensity of the storm and the exposed flimsiness of the towns along the Yucatan coast, I did the best I could with the available options. I’m as hardcore as they come, but I’m not suicidal—and I stand by my decision to ride out the storm in Chetumal. If I could do it again, I would do the same.
Obligatory Public Service Statement
To the young ones who feel I should have gone further N or ridden this out in Mahahual:
It’s not wise to ride out the inner core of a Cat 5 in a hut with a thatched roof, a Third World shantytown, or a beachside resort. Just because it’s a named dot on the map does not mean it has the things we assume towns have—steel-reinforced concrete structures, Internet, mobile coverage, or a police force.
I trust if one of y’all had been chasing with me—especially those of you who’ve experienced major hurricanes before—you would have agreed with my decision and would have been happy to stay in Chetumal.
Please remember this when y’all come of age and go on your own chases. Don’t do stupid things. You’ll get killed. (Going to Chetumal was stupid enough—OK? )
Remainder of the Season
Zach Gruskin asked me yesterday if that’s it for me this season. The answer is no—definitely not. Like a true addict, my passion for hurricanes remains strong—in fact, it’s even stronger now.
The stomach-turning fear I had just 36 hours ago has morphed into a harsh craving for my next fix. Hurricanes are my drug and I can’t get enough.
Should another big one threaten the USA or Mexico next week, I’ll jump on it.