IRENE 2011

Thin Slice of 1950s Nostalgia

Location Marshallberg, North Carolina, USA (& New York)
Date 27-28 Aug 2011
Intensity Cat 1 (75 knots)
Partner Keith Nugent

Like most hurricanes approaching America’s East Coast, Irene was preceded by a near-cataclysmic media meltdown. Not since Gloria of 1985 had the major, I-95 cities been put on such dire alert. In the end, Irene was more bark than bite—a pale imitation of its 1950s predecessors. But that didn’t stop iCyclone from welcoming Miss Irene upon her arrival in North Carolina—or graciously escorting her on her tour up to New York!

OK, let’s be honest. Irene was not what we expected it to be.

But this isn't meant as criticism.  Perhaps the media did overreact to it—but one can just as easily argue that a large hurricane threatening to sweep up the populated East Coast of the USA automatically justifies a shrill response.

And to be sure, Irene did have significant impact. The large, loose circulation couldn't generate extreme winds, but the storm-surge flooding in E North Carolina was tremendous, not to mention the freshwater flooding in New Jersey and parts of New England (where Irene hit as a tropical storm).

Irene took a path similar to the devastating cyclones that raked the USA’s East Coast in the mid-1950s. But Irene was no Carol or Hazel. It was pale, watery nostalgia.

Even so, the chase was an interesting one—and it was a chase in the truest sense: after meeting Irene at its landfall point in North Carolina, we literally raced it up the East Coast to reunite with it again in New York just 24 hr later!

Irene Track

Here’s what happened…

1. Creeping East—a Step at a Time

Keith Nugent and I drove from New York City down to North Carolina during the wee hours of the morning on 26 August.  Our initial plan was to ride out Irene in Morehead City—a small, low-lying port city.

But Irene was slowly losing longitude as it wobbled N—shifting E a little at a time.  An adjustment to the E seemed prudent.  So we popped over the bridge into Beaufort—a beautiful town that's a little further out, a little more exposed, and a little lower in elevation. We found a quiet inn tucked away at the end of a tree-lined street, and in quick negotiation, we paid the owner cash for a second-story room with a balcony facing the water, as well as access to the rooftop. It was an awesome setup, and we decided this is where we’d station ourselves to ride out the cyclone’s landfall.

Irene Beaufort Room View 2    Irene Beaufort Room View 1

Late in the afternoon, we went back into Morehead City to get last-minute supplies—just as an intense outer rainband swept the region.  The torrential downpour thundered ominously on the roof of the Walmart as we roamed the aisles. The gas station canopy whistled in the wind as we topped off the tank.  Ragged, low clouds raced across the sky. 

We returned to the inn in Beaufort by around nightfall, and after some last-minute futzing with equipment, we went to sleep for a few hours.  The barometer had just dipped below 1000 mb.

 Irene 0826 IR

We awoke just after 3 am EDT to a whistling, howling sound that seemed to be coming from the S—from offshore.  Each hurricane has its own, unique sound, and this one was like dogs growling.

Irene was coming.

The wind was already ripping shingles off of the hotel’s roof—they were flying past our windows and raining onto the street below.  One shingle flew onto the balcony and smashed into the French doors—Keith said it just missed my neck.  The lights flickered and went out—then came back on.  The boats out in the harbor were getting tossed around—dancing wildly.   By 3:40 am, the pressure was below 980 mb and rapidly falling.

We quickly packed the car and ventured out. The roof of the inn seemed to be losing its entire surface in the gale—shingles littered the shrubbery, the lawn, the streets, and the nearby pier.  The E edge of the town—with its large, fancy old houses—seemed ominously deserted in the increasing gale.  Although it was dark, we could see that Front Street—the main waterfront road—was starting to flood, so we had to head inland a block.

By 5 am, we realized that Irene’s center was nudging E, and to hit it squarely, we’d need to adjust our position—so we hit Highway 70 heading N.  Trees and branches were blocking the road and it was tough going in the darkness.  We almost had to turn back more than once.

The road bent E as we crossed a bridge, then headed S into the thick, turbulent darkness.

2. Ground Zero

Just a little before 6 am, we reached out destination:  Marshallberg, a tiny, exposed town, just N of Cape Lookout.  We wanted to meet Irene head on—no compromises.

Marshallberg has very few places higher than 5 ft above sea level—making it an essentially risky location for riding out a large hurricane.  In the blackness, we noticed many cars parked at one intersection—probably because it was a few feet higher than the surrounding terrain.

We took Marshallberg Road S, to the very end, where we found ourselves at the tip of a peninsula (34.7194N 76.5197W).  It was pitch black still, but we could hear the waves breaking very nearby, above the howl of the wind.

The car wobbled a bit as we checked radar and spotted the remnants of an inner eyewall approaching us from the S.  The outlines of the trees were just starting to become visible against the navy-blue sky.

Irene Radar - Approaching NC 1    Irene Radar - Approaching NC 2

We had a relative lull around 6:20 am, and then the storm picked up to full throttle as dawn arrived.  The large trees swayed majestically as a solid gale scoured the shoreline.  It wasn’t the most potent hurricane core I’ve been in—but there’s always something a little magical about it.

3. The Eye

At just about 7 am, it started to calm.  At first, the lull was interrupted by short bursts of turbulence as the morning sun struggled to shine through the dull haze—but by 7:40 am, it evened out to a dead calm that lasted for more than an hour.

The NHC’s 8 am EDT advisory confirmed what we’d suspected:  that we’d perfectly nailed the center of Irene’s eye.

Irene Radar - NC Landfall

The visibility had improved enough that we could see Browns Island (Harkers Island’s little brother) across the grey, choppy Straits.  And in the eerie calm, the ocean started to rise—up over the beach, across the grass, and onto the road, submerging the picnic tables and surrounding the car.  

The dead calm lasted a long while—long enough for us to take a leisurely tour of Marshallberg.  Wind damage was limited, but much of the town was flooded, with water invading the lower stories of houses—and it continued to slowly rise, despite being glassy still.  Keith remarked that the town was turning into one big swamp.

The locals were milling about in the grey morning, assessing the situation.  Several people asked us how high the winds had been or even how low the pressure went!  Folks in this region are friendly and hospitable—and they know their hurricanes.

Marshallberg Road—the main artery in and out of town—was completely flooded.  We were trapped—but hardly concerned.  We had snacks, water, and plenty of gas.

We'd live.

4. Backside

Just before 9 am, we were at the end of Moore Lane, looking across the Straits to Browns Island, when the wind suddenly picked up.  The surge was still rising—washing onto the lawns of oceanfront homes and sweeping pieces of smashed pier into the street.

At about 9:45 am, the wind kicked up a notch—not hurricane force, but a good gale.  It was drizzling and the surge seemed to push a little further into the town. We chatted with a couple who'd been flooded out of their home.  With a big smile—and genuine pride—the husband said, "I live at the lowest point in Marshallberg.”

We drove back to the end of Marshallberg Road—where we’d ridden out the cyclone’s front side—and parked the car.  The wind was blowing good, but we were just exhausted.  I sensed the worst had passed, and I could feel myself relaxing… Our conversation trailed off… And the howling wind lulled us both to sleep…

We were awoken when the car jolted angrily.

Irene Radar - NC Backside

It was 10:30 am and the storm was suddenly much fiercer!  And it didn’t stop there.  The wind rapidly cranked up and hit full throttle by 11 am, emitting something between a howl and a full-on scream.  These were the highest winds we'd seen in the entire cyclone—a complete surprise, as we’d not expected such a vigorous backside.  The car rocked like a child’s cradle.  Through the heavy rain and fog, we could see large trees across the street bending ominously, like they might topple at any time.

But by about 11:25 am, it seemed to ease…

And in a little while, the water receded—just enough to let us get back on Highway 70.  We slowly made our way back to Beaufort and then Morehead City in the grey, windswept morning. 

5. Return to Morehead City

Back in Beaufort, I retrieved the barometer we’d left in the hotel room and checked the data.  It performed beautifully—recording a low pressure of 953.0 mb at 8:58 am. That value corroborates nicely with the recon values, although the timing seems later than I would’ve expected, given that the center was near the area around 8 am. But it's worth noting that the pressure was below 954 mb for a long time—from 7:56 to 9:21 am. This suggests that even the cyclone's core had a rather flat gradient.

I asked the hotel manager and her coworker if they experienced the lull—I was curious if the eye extended that far W. They did have the lull—and furthermore, both women remarked that the backside seemed much more severe.

From there, we slowly made our way through flooded roads and downed trees, back to Morehead City—then slept all day in our blackened hotel room.  Irene's backside pounded the area all afternoon with heavy rain, and I'd occasionally wake up to the sound of our third-floor window shaking.

Irene IR - Passing NC

6. Round 2

Six hours of sleep and a cup of coffee later, we were wide-awake and ready for Round 2—chasing Irene up to New York!  The storm was well N of us by this point—so we had no time to lose.

We were somehow able to navigate out of Carteret County, NC—which was blacked out, under curfew, and swarming with cops. (Thank God we didn't get pulled over.) 

From there, we blasted up the I-95 overnight, overtaking Irene’s latitude around 2 am as we neared Fredericksburg, VA. 

Irene IR - Off NJ

The rain became increasingly heavy rain—and the going got rough—as we crossed the Delaware Bridge into New Jersey around 4:45 am.  But the dreaded road closures never materialized:  we made it onto Staten Island, NY, around daybreak, and by about 6:40 am we were crossing the Verrazano Bridge and edging down Belt Parkway in Brooklyn.   Majestic waves were crashing up against the seawall, submerging the waterfront park.   

Brighton Beach was a windswept ghost town at 7 am as the center of now downgraded Tropical Storm Irene approached.  Blowing clouds of sand stung our faces as we trudged along the boardwalk.  A few blocks inland, the wind howled between the brick buildings and street signs.

Irene Radar - Approaching NY

We drove E into Queens and then Nassau County, arriving in Island Park a little before 9 am to find serious, widespread storm-surge flooding, with large areas inaccessible.  At this time, the tropical storm’s center was making landfall to our W, in Brooklyn—but the winds and rain weren’t much, and we had the impression that Irene was a decaying cyclone.

Irene IR - Approaching NY

7. After

The overall impact on W Long Island was fairly light—basically, downed trees here and there. Except for houses hit by falling trees, we saw no wind damage to structures—not even missing shingles.  There were plenty of power outages, however, with large portions of the Island without electricity for days.

Re: the storm surge... Late in the afternoon, after the cyclone had passed, we drove to Long Beach—inaccessible during the storm—to try and piece together what had happened there. Long Beach is a collection of modest cottages and a few main business drags on a barrier island just a couple of feet above sea level. Needless to say, it's highly vulnerable.  

By the time we got there, it was a sunny, cool afternoon—still very, very windy.  From what we could gather—looking at watermarks and debris traces—surge had washed over the beach and onto the streets in a couple of places.  But the water did not wash over the elevated boardwalk—rather, it washed underneath, breaking the wooden barrier, submerging cars parked nearby, and washing across W Broadway.  A nasty, jiggly brown foam coated much of the street and sidewalks.

We noticed a few other small breaches, mud-covered streets, debris lines, and flooded basements, and we talked with one resident near the N shore of the island who had a foot or two of water in his home—he said others on his street had similar flooding. But overall, Long Beach seemed to have escaped widespread destruction—and, in fact, the impact was less than what I expected based on some of the reports we'd been hearing.

In the end, Irene proved merciful in New York.