ISAAC 2012

Swamp Marathon

Location Galliano, Louisiana, USA
Date 28-29 Aug 2012
Intensity Cat 1 (70 knots)
Partner Solo

Isaac taught us that a hurricane is a hurricane—whatever the category. This is the lesson you learn when a huge, slow-moving Category-1 cyclone stalls over the Louisiana bayous for 24 hours. You see its epic size, you feel its vast power, you witness its destruction. You come away exhausted—and promising to never again say “just a Cat 1.”

Chase Report

For our team, this was the most frustrating chase ever.

Hurricane Isaac was not an obvious, “clean” chase subject. It took forever to develop, crossing the Gulf of Mexico with little intensification until just before reaching Louisiana. And the computer models were all over the place with the track. We weren’t sure where it was going and whether it would even arrive as a hurricane. Isaac made us cranky.

And when the chase took me deep into Louisiana bayou country, that presented a whole new set of challenges. The bayous make for dangerous, high-risk chase turf. We’re talking remote, hard-to-reach swamp towns and very low elevations. You feel cut off from the rest of the world during a cyclone down there. This was my second chase in bayou country—but this time I went much deeper in.

So this was a tough chase from every angle—and Isaac kept us guessing until the end.

Given all this, it’s almost surprising what a success this chase turned out to be: we nailed the eye!

Isaac Track

1. Deep Into the Bayous

As Tropical Storm Isaac crossed the Gulf and approached the mouth of the Mississippi River on 27 August, I had a tough choice to make: either ride it out on the mainland (near Slidell, LA, or on the W Mississippi coast) or down in the bayou country S of New Orleans.

It was going to be one or the other—no compromise option, and no looking back once the choice was made.

After extensive discussions with Scott Brownfield, I opted for the second option and headed down to Houma the day before the storm. It was a tough call, but we decided the cyclone was more likely to come ashore in SE Louisiana than veer E into Mississippi.

But even after we made the big decision, constant track wobbles and model shifts caused us to second-guess ourselves. We were frustrated with the mixed signals, and I'm sure the rest of the team (Adam Moyer and Jorge González) were weary of being constantly put on the spot as I begged for clarity when they had none to give.

The night before the storm was strangely calm and peaceful—even while residents scurried to prepare for the approaching storm.

Isaac Houma Sunset

At this point, Isaac still wasn’t even a hurricane—it was a strong tropical storm that couldn’t get to the next level. The system remained stuck just below hurricane intensity overnight and into the next morning (28 August), as visible satellite imagery revealed a huge, loosely-organized circulation.

Isaac Vis 0828 1045 CDT

But finally, the structure started to tighten up, and Isaac was officially upgraded to a hurricane late that morning. The cyclone’s core was already nearing Plaquemines Parish and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Back in Houma, it was warm and muggy at 12 noon CDT. The sun occasionally tried to poke through the clouds. Something told me that Houma was the “safe option”—that if I wanted to really see this storm, I’d need to go for it.

So at the last minute, I decided to head deeper into the swamplands—to face Isaac head-on. Almost without thinking, I threw my stuff in the car and drove E on Highway 24, then S on Highway 1 as the rain started to come down hard. Just offshore, Isaac’s core was slowly tightening and strengthening.

Isaac Radar 0828 1410 CDT
Radar image at 1410 CDT 28 Aug, showing Isaac nearing SE Louisiana.

Louisiana’s bayou country is an exotic corner of the USA. Isolated towns, swampy landscapes, and odd dialects give you the feeling you're at the edge of the earth. Another cool thing about this place: the folks know their hurricanes. The average person down here can have a surprisingly technical discussion about central pressure and computer models.

I drove deep into the swamplands. My final destination: a small bayou town called Galliano, about 25 n mi ESE of Houma, and just 2 or 3 ft above sea level. This turned out to be an ideal location, as Isaac’s large center would slowly dance near and around the town over the next 24 hours.

iCyclone - Isaac Chase Map - Far

I stationed the car in the large parking lot of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Highway 1. (Location: 29.434N 90.298W.)

And that's where I rode out Hurricane Isaac's front side.

iCyclone - Isaac Chase Location 1 (Church)

2. Front Side

The storm built slowly during the afternoon as squalls lashed the town.

At 5 pm CDT, heavy downpours and frequent gusts over 30 kt (measured at ~3 m) passed through. At first I thought it was the eyewall—but checking the radar, I saw it was actually an inner band, not the core.

iCyclone - Isaac Flag Blowing

At 7 pm, radar showed a particularly intense rainband sweeping toward me—and sure enough, winds soon increased dramatically.

Isaac Radar 0828 1901 CDT
Radar image at 1901 CDT 28 Aug, showing an intense rainband nearing Galliano.

The cyclone's core moved in with the evening darkness—and that beautiful hurricane howl started up as the storm kicked into high gear.

Around 9 pm, there was a jerky, start/stop rhythm to it—but by 10 pm, the nearby airport (KGAO) was reporting hurricane-force gusts, and powerful winds blasted the town unabated for the next couple of hours.

At one point in all the chaos, a Louisiana state trooper—obviously curious about what I was doing out—pulled up alongside my car and told me it was best to stay put until the cyclone passed. He said the levees would hold and Galliano wouldn’t flood, but he told me to absolutely avoid going down to Golden Meadow.

The winds seemed to peak between 11 pm and 12:30 am, as the NW eyewall passed over the town. The airport was reporting sustained winds of 50 kt—with frequent gusts to hurricane force—at this time. Big, gnarly bursts rocked the car.

Isaac Radar 0828 2255 CDT
Radar image at 2255 CDT 28 Aug, showing Isaac's inner core nearing Galliano.

The wind shifted noticeably at about 11:30 pm. I took that as a positive sign—that the cyclone was moving and I might soon catch a break in the eye.

But the storm wasn’t done. The winds just got stronger and stronger. The car bobbed like an exercise ball as I kept myself low in the seat. I was worried about flying debris, so I pulled the car up against the downwind side of the church.

By 12 midnight I was numb. The cyclone had been pounding Galliano hard for four solid hours with no sign of a letup. The airport was reporting its highest winds of the night…

But radar showed signs of hope.

The eye was very close to my location. If it would just move a few miles WNW, I'd get in the eye and catch a break…

3. Skating on the Edge of the Eye

Around 12:30 am CDT, I could tell I was on the very inner edge of the eyewall. There were big bursts of energy, but the wind seemed to flirt with a calm. I was almost in the eye… I could taste it.

By 1 am, the town was skating along the N boundary between the eye and the eyewall. The back-and-forth between bursts and calms continued—but the calms were getting longer.

Isaac Radar 0829 0101 CDT
Radar image at 0101 CDT 29 Aug, with the N edge of Isaac's eye near Galliano.

The wind lowered to maybe 15 kt, and I took advantage of the lull to find a safer location. I was concerned about storm surge and was keen to head N, out of town and deeper inland.

But I’d only driven N up the highway a mile or two when the punishing winds and rain returned around 1:20 am: the N eyewall was again moving over the town. (Or it’s possible that I actually drove back into it—ironic, given that I was looking for safety.)

After driving a circle around town, I realized there was no way to get out. Conditions were treacherous. Visibility was near zero and I almost drove over a fallen power pole.

About a mile or so up the road from the church was a big building on a slight hill—the Lady of the Sea General Hospital. (Location: 29.457N 90.311W, ~1.5 n mi NNW of the church.)

I drove up and parked in the lot a little before 2 am as conditions remained erratic. I noticed many other parked cars—probably because the hospital grounds were slightly elevated. Furthermore, the driveway of the emergency reception area had another 5 ft. Since there was so little elevation anywhere in this region, every extra foot seemed valuable.

Galliano wasn’t 100% in the eye at this point, and when the hurricane wobbled S, the eyewall again moved over the town. At 2:30 am, fierce winds were blasting the N-facing hospital entrance as workers struggled to fasten metal cyclone shutters over the glass doors. The metal bannisters trembled and the car shook like crazy.

Isaac Hospital Workers 1

Isaac Hospital Workers 2   Isaac Hospital Workers 3

The moaning of the wind through the acres of trees surrounding us—the howl—was incredible. It was as if the whole landscape had come to life with wailing zombies. Video doesn't capture it. I was amazed by the grand, epic nature of this cyclone that was just a tropical storm 24 hours before.

But around 2:45 am, I noticed it starting to calm...

Isaac Radar 0829 0243 CDT
Radar image at 0243 CDT 29 Aug, showing Galliano just entering the eye for the last time.

4. Eye

By 3 am, Hurricane Isaac had jogged N, putting Galliano back in the eye again.

But this time things really calmed.

I was enjoying it. I’d started to feel shell-shocked from so many hours of howling winds, so the stillness was a treat. I had the car windows open—listening to the crickets chirp and the ducks quack. And I decided I’d chill there until the cyclone passed. I felt safe. I’d just sleep in the car—I’d done that before on chases. No big deal.

Isaac Radar 0829 0302 CDT
Radar image at 0302 CDT 29 Aug, showing Galliano finally in Isaac's eye.

But then a nurse—a black-haired young Cajun guy with that distinct accent—came out to the parking lot and asked me to come inside. I protested—I really didn’t want to impose—but he was insistent. So I followed him in.

The workers who’d struggled to fasten the metal cyclone shutters during the height of the storm took advantage of the calm to get them securely on. The entire hospital entrance was now sealed like a vault, except for a small utility door.

Hurricane Isaac had a very large eye. This and the storm’s slow, erratic movement kept us in a lull for a long time—about 7 hours! That’s the longest calm I’ve experienced in any hurricane eye—a record for me. During his time we had some periods of dead calm, and other periods when the wind blew at 15-20 kt. Isaac’s eye was not the fancy stadium kind with visible walls and a pretty dab of blue sky at the top—it was the grey, murky, messy kind. The sky remained cloudy—we never saw the moon or sun—and there was occasional drizzle.

Isaac Radar 0829 0412 CDT

Isaac Radar 0829 0521 CDT   Isaac Radar 0829 0722 CDT
Series of radar images at 0412, 0521, and 0722 CDT 29 Aug, showing Isaac's large eye lingering over Galliano.

The eye took so long to pass, I almost forgot I was in a hurricane. While a hurricane eye is typically a time for fast decisions, emergency relocations, and quick equipment adjustments, I spent Isaac's eye killing time—having coffee, eating vending-machine food, and chatting with hospital staff. They took great interest in the radar loop on my iPad, and an elderly man with a heavy Cajun accent—a dude who’d been in many hurricanes—surprised and delighted me when he started talking about the Euro computer model.

Outside, the sky slowly brightened with dawn.

As per NHC advisory positions, the exact center of the eye made its closest approach to Galliano between 6 and 8 am CDT, when it passed ~10 n mi to the W. Given this, it makes perfect sense that my barometer hit a low of 970.0 mb at 7:04 am.

iCyclone - Isaac Chase Map - Close

iCyclone - Isaac Barogram

By 7:30 am I noticed the pressure was slowly rising, and a wind sock on the hospital’s grounds suggested that the winds—though still very light—had shifted to the S. These clues told me we’d crossed over to the other side of the circulation and Isaac’s center was now moving away from us.

Isaac Morning Eye

By 9:30 am, light rain began as a breeze picked up.

5. Backside

It wasn't until around 10 am that the hurricane’s backside moved in—a full 7 hours after we’d entered the eye—bringing gusty winds and moderate-to-heavy rain.

Isaac Radar 0829 1045 CDT
Radar image at 1045 CDT 29 Aug, showing Galliano out of Isaac's eye and in the SE eyewall.

But by that time, Isaac had lost strength over land. Winds after the eye were much weaker—barely gale force and never destructive—and the cyclone seemed to slowly unravel into a big, messy rainstorm throughout the day and into the evening.

Galliano had been clobbered by Isaac, but got through it pretty well overall. Despite fallen trees and power poles, damaged roofs, torn siding, and broken signs, the levees held and the town didn't flood too badly.

Isaac Wind Damage 1    Isaac Wind Damage 2
Typical examples of the moderate wind damage that occurred around Galliano during Isaac.

But when I tried to head back to Houma, the cops turned me back: the town was on strict lockdown and no one was allowed leave. So I spent the day killing time, sleeping in the car, shooting some video, and eating lunch in the hospital cafeteria.

6. Trek Back to Houma

At dusk, conditions had improved a little and I was desperate to get back to Houma. I didn't want to sleep in the car again. I drove back to the highway checkpoint. It was no longer being enforced, so I slipped N into the rainy gloom.

The drive back was not easy—it involved a big detour due to fallen trees, navigating a long stretch of downed power poles, punishing rainbands, and conversations with five different cops—but I did finally get back to Houma.

And I was delighted to find my hotel had electricity!

Isaac Fallen Power Poles

7. Big Thanks!

I want to give a big thanks to Adam Moyer, Jorge González, Cory Van Pelt, and Bob Schafer for their assistance behind the scenes—and also thanks to Kennethb (from AmericanWx) for his insider's knowledge regarding Louisiana geography and emergency ops, which was extremely helpful as I charted my course.

And of course I want to give an especially big and special thanks to my right-hand man, Scott Brownfield.