Violent Midnight Microcane
|Emiliano Zapata, Jalisco, MEXICO
|11-12 Oct 2011
|Cat 2 (85 knots)
Jova was a weakening, late-season hurricane limping toward Mexico's mountainous Pacific coast—not exactly a setup for a memorable impact. But as the center neared land, the cyclone suddenly reignited—and when its small, violent inner core screamed ashore in the dead of night, its ferocity was completely unexpected.Chase Report
This was a good chase—one of my best. I’ll start by saying that.
After several disappointments in a row—Karl, Don, Irene—Jova looked to be another underperformer. The deterioration on the IR and MW imagery, the Euro insisting on rapid weakening, the mountainous Mexican terrain… all of it made me think, “Ugh, another piece of crap!”
So when Jova’s violent little wind core passed over us in the midnight darkness, imagine how surprised I was to find myself pressed up against the back of a carport, covering my head, flinching with each crashing sound. I remember thinking, “OK, this is the scariest cyclone I’ve been in.” I can’t remember feeling so physically threatened by a hurricane before.
I consider this chase a huge success. It’s become my tradition to punch the eye. This time I didn’t get the eye, but what I got was better: the maximum winds (or close to it). It was awesome to hit the sweet spot of the right eyewall.
The best chases are the ones that freak you out—that push you to that edge. I don’t quite understand it—why moments of fear seem to sweeten and become treasured memories just hours later, after the danger has passed. Strange the way the brain works—or the way a chaser’s brain works.
Jova was one of those cyclones. Haven’t felt that way in a long while.
1. Cozy Night in La Manzanilla
Jim Edds and I were hanging in a hotel in La Manzanilla—a small fishing town on Bahia Tenacatita—as Jova approached the Jalisco coast Tuesday evening. I’d been driving up and down the coast all day, scouting locations in the landfall zone. I was tired and was liking being back in town—especially now that it was raining hard.
La Manzanilla is literally right on the water, and the sound of the waves breaking on the beach literally thundered through the streets. Just before it was too dark, we hit the beach to shoot the surf. It wasn’t terribly windy and I was starting to feel skeptical that a hurricane was coming.
I was of two minds Re: where to locate. It seemed Jova’s center was aiming for a landfall 10 or 20 mi up the coast. But…Did I really want to drive up north, into that dark tropical wilderness, for such unpleasantness? It seemed so foreboding. The lazy voices in my head were taking over: “I think we might get some good action here in town… and it’ll be so dark, anyway… and this system is looking like such crap… Stay in town… Stay...”
I chatted with Scott Brownfield (via phone), and we agreed to make the final decision with the NHC’s 8 pm PDT (10 pm CDT) update. And when it came, the decision was clear: head N. Jova’s motion had shifted from 30 degrees to 20. The trend was N, and we needed to head up the coast to punch the core. Simple as that.
In a few minutes, Jim and I hastily packed our equipment and hopped in his car. The deal was Jim would drive up, I would drive back.
2. The Trek North
By 10 pm CDT, we had eased out of La Manzanilla and were crawling slowly N up Highway 200.
It was raining hard, but it still wasn’t very windy, and I had a really hard time believing a significant hurricane was coming.
In fact, it seemed inconceivable to me. And I started to feel cranky and bored by the whole thing. The cyclone was probably disintegrating—“pulling a Don”—as it approached the mountainous terrain of SW Mexico. The highlight of the chase would be taking a pressure reading in a deformed eye.
Anyhoo, our target was Emiliano Zapata, a town I’d scouted earlier in the day. The place had a shabby, rundown quality—except for the highway, it had no paved roads, and it seemed overrun with stray dogs and chickens—but there wasn’t much else in the projected landfall region.
When we got to the town it was dark—completely blacked out. We decided to keep heading N, toward Careyes, as I figured that would be closer to (if not in) the eye. Also, while Careyes doesn’t have a town, it’s closer to the ocean.
That plan was nixed when we encountered a large tree completely blocking the highway. We could get no further N. We would need to ride out the storm in Emiliano Zapata. The decision was made for us.
We turned the car around and headed back to the town.
3. The Approach
We were just pulling back into Emiliano Zapata when I first started noticing the wind—saw the trees were waving a bit. It was around 11 pm.
After we made a couple of U-turns, Jim had the good idea to pull into what seemed to be a covered carport. (Note: When I returned later on, I discovered this was not a carport/garage, but a small market.) He backed the car in so the back was almost touching the metal garage door at the back. Given the direction of the wind, the car was totally protected and—with the car’s headlights shining—we had a good view of the buildings and trees right across the highway. (Location: 19.386N 104.965W.)
The storm seemed to start in earnest as soon as we got into position.
The wind picked up, and it came in pulsing gusts. These gusts made a peculiar, low howl—the first indication that a real cyclone was coming. The gusts got stronger, and a particularly harsh one blew down a tree across the street. (See video.)
I was like, “Oh, wow—Jova’s got some punch.” Little did I know what was coming.
The wind shifted rather abruptly—it literally seemed to almost reverse. The tree had fallen toward the S, but then suddenly the wind was blowing from the S. Both Jim and I noticed this shift, and I'm not sure I understand it—but that's what we saw. (Maybe local topography played a role?)
It was after this directional shift that the wind really started to crank.
Throughout the next half hour or so, we would get "gust chains". Each chain was a series of pulses lasting maybe a minute, with each pulse building on the previous. These chains were separated by relative lulls.
At this point, we had no connection with the outside world—no phones, no data—but the barometer was falling fast and Jova was obviously coming.
4. The Peak
The gust chains increased in frequency and violence around 12 midnight and beyond as the cyclone's center closed in on us. As each chain revved up, it was like, “Uh oh... uh oh…” And each burst seemed to get rougher and meaner. We could hear crashing and banging—the sound of destruction—coming from the nearby darkness. The trees were waving like crazy. I noticed one across the street was bending—not just the top but the trunk. Heavy rain accompanied these bursts.
I was kneeling in the carport, shooting the action while Jim stayed in the car with the instruments, and I kept shouting to him, “What's the pressure? What's the pressure?” It was falling fast through the upper 980s... But then it leveled off and hovered in the mid 980s around half past midnight. Knowing Jova’s central pressure was in the low 970s, at first I was like, “Huh?” But then I realized why: we weren't going to get in the center. Instead, we were getting raked by the right eyewall!
The wind hammered harder—just raking the town. The crashing, banging sounds got louder as things hit the structure we were in.
The wind bent the thick steel post of a large Corona sign in front of us, and it came crashing down on the roof of the carport. (See video.) A large sheet of metal-- one that would have taken a person's head off—flew by, just a few feet away. (See video.)
Everything was blowing left-to-right, from the S, past the opening of the carport. So we had a great vantage point. But a couple of things started concerning me. First, debris was blowing by really fast. Secondly, the turbulence was so great that stuff started shooting into the carport and hitting the floor and walls—a large branch, pieces of heavy ceramic roof tile, etc. (Jim remarked afterward that he experienced such turbulence eddies in Charley.)
I kept the camera going, but I backed up, deep into the carport, until my back was against the metal garage door. Starting around 12:45 am, the gusts hammered even more violently. There was a wild, angry energy to it. My ears were popping with some of the fiercest gusts. The carport started trembling.
The last straw was when the metal door behind me—the one I was pressed up against—started rattling and clanking, knocking against my back. At that point, I was like, "OK, that is not cool." Nowhere felt safe and I remember thinking, “This is the scariest f*cking 'cane I've been in." I was very close to getting down low in the small space between the car and the garage door. But I wanted to capture it on video-- felt compelled.
The mangled sign that crashed down onto the roof of our carport during the cyclone (photographed the next day).
It really pounded for a while... Then it started raining harder and the wind seemed to shift a little more, causing a near whiteout and spraying into the carport.
By 1:30 am, it was still blowing hard, but compared to the pounding we had, it didn't seem quite as harsh—it lost that edge. Or perhaps I was a bit numb at that point?
It seemed the storm had peaked.
I stopped shooting video quite as obsessively, and Jim and I started comparing notes. We both agreed it had been surprisingly severe, and that we'd had gusts over 100 kt. Jim said 110 kt—and he said moments of it were “Charley-like”. While we had no idea—since we had no access to any information—we suspected Jova must have cranked up again before it came ashore, because it felt like a strengthening cyclone. The eyewall felt really vigorous—the energy, the convection.
It was maybe a little before 2 am when Jim and I decided it was safe enough to pull out of the carport and get back on the road. The worst had clearly passed. Jova’s assault had been harsh but brief.
Little did we realize that the big Act II of this drama was just starting.
6. The Odyssey
We eased S on Highway 200. Make no mistake, we expected the road to be a mess—and it was.
We came to a tree blocking the road. Having no tools with us—not even work gloves—we got out in the rain, and with our bare hands, broke off each branch until there was enough space for the car to squeeze through.
We drove through the space we’d created and celebrated our victory. We came upon more fallen trees as well as families of boulders that had collapsed down from the hills. One way or another, we always managed to claw our way through. Each fallen tree required a new, creative solution. After a few rounds of this, our hands and legs were scratched up badly and punctured with thorns, and we were soaked and shivering—but we were excited by our progress.
But a little less than halfway to La Manzanilla our hopes were crushed: there was an enormous tree blocking the highway—one that we simply couldn’t handle without a chainsaw or an axe.
Having no other choice, we shut the car off—right in the middle of the highway—and tried to get some sleep. It was 2:45 am and still raining.
You’d think I’d be miserable at this point, but I wasn’t. I was as happy as a clam—experiencing a euphoric afterglow from having experienced such an unexpectedly violent hurricane and getting (what I hope is) cool footage. I think I was almost smiling. Nothing could have upset me at that point.
Slowly, we dozed off.
I woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of torrential rain pounding on the car. It was still dark—and we didn’t have daylight until about 7:30 am, when the blackness changed to blue and I could start to make out the shapes of coconut trees along the road.
Soon a woman, a man, and their son walked up to the car—locals form the nearby hills. She was very bold and friendly—had a big smile. She spoke some English, and I think the very first thing she said was that the cyclone had scared her—that she couldn’t remember ever being in something like it. We chatted for a while and it was a nice way to pass the time. Unfortunately, they had no machete-- and in a while they said goodbye and walked back up into the hills.
Maybe an hour later, two more locals appeared on a four-wheel motorbike, and when we asked if they had a machete, one of them disappeared and came back with one. With remarkable skill, he hacked a passageway for the car within maybe 10 minutes while Jim and I cleared the branches.
We were euphoric and thanked him heartily.
But then we came to another set of fallen trees, and we were alone again. And this time, we couldn’t get the car through, no matter how hard we tried, because we just didn’t have the physical strength to break the branches enough.
It was midmorning, and Jim and I were facing the reality that we might be stuck in the wilderness for a day or more. We got into survival mode, carefully rationing the drinking water. We brainstormed solutions. Perhaps we could walk the 10 miles to La Manzanilla? No, we couldn’t just leave the car. Perhaps I could run to La Manzanilla and find a machete? No, I would be too exhausted to run all the way back with it. (Twenty miles on no sleep is too much—even for me.)
Jim and me—at our most discouraged moment. (Photo courtesy of Jim Edds.)
Then, our fortunes changed.
Two local dudes pulled up in trucks. One of them had a wrench, and we used that to break branches. The other one parked and disappeared for a while on foot, and came back a half hour later with a machete. We were now a team—the four of us and the machete. Working hard we made slow progress, toughing our way through the various roadblocks. By this point, Jim and I were covered in mud.
The local dudes and me—trying to clear the highway before the real work crews
arrived. (Photos courtesy of Jim Edds.)
And then it was like magic happened.
More trucks pulled up, and suddenly, out of nowhere, there was this army of machete-wielding dudes, local government workers, and federal soldiers! We all moved together like a huge caravan down the highway. Each time we got to an obstacle, the machete dudes would hack the trees up, and the rest of us would clear the branches—and then the caravan would move to the next obstacle.
The final hurdle was a spectacular mudslide. A hill had literally collapsed onto the highway—mud, boulders, trees, and all. It took the locals, the government workers, the federal army, and two cyclone-chasing gringos the better part of an hour to clear that one.
But when we got through that, it was home free. Jim and I got to La Manzanilla around 1:30 pm and walked into the hotel lobby looking like haggard beasts. I was walking with a limp—I had hurt my knee, but I didn’t remember how. The hotel manager and his wife were happy to see us—they’d been worried.
The power was out, but the hotel still had hot water. It was the best shower I think I ever took.
Jim and me—tired but happy to be back safe in La Manzanilla. (Photo courtesy of Jim Edds.)
7. Damage Survey & Interviews
Some quick findings:
The town was more than 20 mi from the center and probably did not have sustained hurricane winds—and this supposition is supported by the fairly light wind damage. The storm surge created a big mess on the beach, but it apparently didn’t inundate much of the town. This surprised me, give that the town was right of the center and the flow was onshore—but perhaps this modest surge is additional evidence of the small size of the storm. This having been said, the storm impressed the locals, who described it as fuerte (strong) and much worse than Beatriz earlier this year. One woman said she found it scary and would absolutely leave the next time a Cat 2 approached.
Cuitzmala to San Mateo
This seemed to be the zone of heaviest wind damage, with the most uprooted trees. A federal policeman in Cuitzmala said the storm was very strong and many homes had lost roofs. He also said the damage lessened beyond San Mateo (which is a little N of Chamela). This makes sense, since areas beyond there were left of the center. My own observations matched well with his when I drove up to those areas on the way back to Puerto Vallarta. (The discussion with the policeman was in Spanish, so I had trouble understanding all of the details.)
The day after the storm, I returned to where we rode it out. Given the violence of the storm, the town looked surprisingly OK. I realized that although it’s not a pretty town, a lot of the houses and buildings are made of solid concrete or brick—including the roofs. So these types of structures did fine. Tile roofs were extensively damaged, and thatched or tin ones were in some instances completely destroyed.
Trees that were not blown down had lost branches and were partially defoliated and “burnt” looking.
I also visited the carport—which actually wasn’t a carport, but rather, the entrance to a small market. The Corona sign was laying on the dirt, and people were sitting in lawn chairs enjoying the day. The owner—who spoke English—recognized me. He had seen us riding out the storm on his property. He couldn’t have been nicer-- inviting me up on the roof to get a bird’s-eye look at the town.
Re: Jova, he said that at first he thought it was kind of fun, and then it got scary. He especially remembered “that sound”—it made a strong impression on him. He also noticed his ears were popping a lot. I took his eMail address and will send him a link to the video when it’s online.
On the left is the carport/market where we rode out the cyclone. To the right is the unroofed building next door.
Various shots of the town of Emiliano Zapata after the hurricane—not so much for the damage, but just to give a feel for the setting.
8. Meteorological Discussion
Optimal Location in Right Eyewall
I believe we were located about as optimally as possible to see the highest winds. I plotted Jova’s center positions before, during, and after landfall, as well as our position. (See diagram, above.) The shortest distance from our location (19.386N 104.965W) to the vector connecting the 10-pm-CDT position (19.0N 105.2W) and the 1-am position (19.5N 105.1W) is ~9 nmi. However, Jova’s track between those two points would have been more of a curve, so my buddy, meteorologist Adam Moyer, mapped that curve mathematically—and it suggests we were ~8 nmi E of the center. This put us well inside the 64-kt radius (15 nmi) and probably either in (or very close to) the RMW. So I feel we pretty-much hit the bull’s eye with Jova.
A small hurricane like this usually has an eye diameter in the 5-8-nmi range, meaning an eye radius of ~3-4 nmi. This suggests we were probably ~4-5 nmi from the E edge of the eye. I don't recall any pronounced calming or lessening during the peak.
The Center’s Closest Approach
Based on all evidence, it’s clear Jova’s center passed just to our W at about half past midnight:
The Kestrel’s lowest pressure was 985.2 mb at 12:33 am CDT, with the pressure essentially below 986 mb from 12:26 to 12:39. (The barometer was calibrated using an altitude of 73 ft, which is what the car’s GPS system indicated.)
The wind was blowing from the S and pretty-much maxed out between this time and about 1 am. This corroborates perfectly with the NHC’s advisory positions, which suggest the center was just W of us at this time.
Clearly, Jova cranked up in the final hours. Who knows why? But these images are so revealing: look at that closed eyewall just before landfall. It explains why conditions at the surface were so severe. It’s something for me to remember on future chases: significant intensity/structural fluctuations may occur between the time we lose communication and landfall.
Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know how strong Jova was at landfall, with almost no surface obs from the landfall region (except for mine and Jim’s), no recon data, no radar, and no high-res microwave imagery, even. And without any hard evidence, I think it would be impossible for the NHC justify a post-season upgrade to Cat 3. Oh, well.
Unlike other canes I've been in recently (i.e., Karl, Irene), heavy rain accompanied the highest winds in Jova. Watching those terrific eyewall gusts, you could almost feel that heavy precip mixing those high winds down to the surface. I felt like I was really seeing an illustration of how convection brings high winds.
Elevation & Terrain
Jim suggested—and I think it’s possible—that our elevation (~73 ft) and the nearby mountainous terrain might have played some role in augmenting the winds we experienced. This is certainly possible. That having been said, let’s not overstate it. Emiliano Zapata is not Blue Hill Observatory (at 635 ft). The town is located within ~2 nmi of the ocean and was in the right eyewall, and it’s not like 73 ft is that high. Given this, the conditions we experienced were a good—although obviously not perfect—indicator of the cyclone’s intensity.
Jova’s wind core felt very tight. We experienced minimal winds in La Manzanilla and as we drove up Highway 200 toward Emiliano Zapata. In fact, the cyclone felt like nothing until it was practically on top of us—and really strong winds lasted maybe 2-3 hours in total. A real microcane—very unlike Ike, where we had 12 solid hours of gales.
Large Rain Shield
The wind field was small, but the rain shield wasn't—it rained very hard many hours before the center arrived and for many more hours after the winds had died.
9. Big Thanks!
I want to give a big thanks to Scott Brownfield (my right-hand man) for being such an awesome chase partner from afar. Next year he’s coming back on the road with me!
And I also want to thank Adam Moyer and Jorge González for being such talented forecasters, and for putting up with my constant, neurotic pecking for information in the days leading up to Jova’s landfall. I’m sure I tested the limits of these friendships. Thanks to Cory Van Pelt for lending me his Kestrel while mine is in the shop. And thanks to Steve Ayers for his encouragement.
Finally, I want to thank Jim Edds. He’s one of the very best weather videographers out there, and he’s also a great chase partner-- a real team player. We didn’t plan to chase Jova together—it just kind of happened—and it worked out well.