I had pretty much laughed at the Tropical Depression as it was barely three thunderstorm clusters the day prior and that night plots barely made soon to be a border line category 1 hurricane. There was no way I was blowing off my vacation for that. While some models (such as the NAM) were bullish (or so it appeared at the time) about a Major hurricane landfall I called its bluff. Arriving at my Rest Area for the night I was in a pretty salty mood as 00z model runs of the GFS and Euro both rapidly developed Harvey into at least a category 2 hurricane. But, I still wasn't convinced. So, I fell asleep only to randomly wake up around 5am Pacific Time and not be able to fall back asleep (thanks time change.) So, I grabbed my phone out of curiosity and checked the morning model runs and satellite and what I saw made me about crap myself. Those three thunderhead clusters were now one solid mass in the Gulf and plots sky rocketed to a category 3 even a border line category 4 landfall such as the NAM was suggesting. I quickly called my friend Brett Adair, scrambling to find a ride from the airport. After several failed attempts at reaching out to others my great friend Brennan Jontz who I had discussed the system with a couple days prior offered to pick me up in Dallas since it was on his way down there and he was flying solo. Super excited, I finally found a flight but it left in two hours and I was an hour from Seattle so I had to hustle. I didn't care about the price of flights or parking. The first potential major hurricane landfall in over a decade there was no way I was missing it. Day or night.
After setting probably a speed record for consuming my morning drive thru breakfast and gas fillup I arrived at the airport with 45 minutes to spare. Quickly throwing my cameras and an extra set of clothes in my bag I jogged to the checkin desk. Only to realize the stupid ass I booked through booked it out of Washington D.C. and not Washington state and in my hurry up mode I didn't even see it. I felt so defeated. I made this effort and it could slip out of my hands. But, I refused to accept this outcome so I hurried and logged onto the American Airlines website and found one flight leaving soon around the sametime as my other flight. I ran (nearly tripping over myself) to the front desk and urgently asked if I could please get a ticket for this flight and I'd figure out the other ticket later. Sucked having to pay a 35 dollar additional fee for the last minute booking but I didn't care.
I sent this photo to a couple group chats I was in and the reactions were priceless. Ranging from "I told you so"...."I knew you couldn't resist".....to "you crazy bastard". Butterflies in my stomach I finally got through security which seemed to take an eternity. Running to my gate with about 5 minutes before boarding time I get there just in time to hear that the flight doesn't look good and had been delayed. 15 minute delay turned into 30 minutes, then 45 minutes with the talks of it being cancelled. Are you kidding me?!?! I felt like the Falcons who thought that won the super bowl only to lose in overtime.
I snuck over to the desk before they officially cancelled it and hoards of people came over and border line begged to get on another flight to Dallas. The gentlemen found me a flight that left at 130pm. It was later than I wanted but it was a flight and was even kept on hold in case my original flight took off. 15 minutes later it was cancelled due to the fuel problem not being figured out. I called Brennan to let him know the situation and am forever grateful for how patient he was with it and still agreed to pick me up.
One hour prior to my boarding on the next flight I noticed I didn't get a boarding pass. So, I walked up to the lady who had been getting everyone taken care of and asked if I could get one. Only to have her tell me she saw my reservation but I didn't have a seat. Despite me expressing to her three times that the gentlemen earlier said that I was 100% sure on the flight I tried to remain nice and friendly. But I was quickly getting frustrated. She printed me off a pass and told me they'd get me taken care of at my next gate. I was so anxious I kept tapping my foot, pacing back and forth, and checking the clock about every 2 minutes still not knowing if I had a seat. Finally, just prior to boarding time I went up to the desk and a few intense minutes went by before my boarding pass with seat number printed.
Finally landing in Dallas I filled my belly with In N Out burger, visiting our friend Austin, and supplying up with food, water, and gas and we were on our way to intercept Harvey. Ominous signs came across our path on the way down however. As lines of charter buses made their way South to evacuate folks along the coast. Followed by lines of polices cars and power trucks. It was like an arm fleet driving down the interstate as thousands of cars even at 2am were driving in the Northbound lanes.
We arrived at the hotel our fellow chasers were staying at in Corpus Christi around 430am to sleep and assess the now category 2 hurricane in the morning. At the moment it appeared the hurricane was heading right for the city. However, there was concern the night before about it going South of our location into unchaseable terrain. After a couple hours of cruddy sleep we all woke up and it was becoming clear the hurricane was actually going to pass North of Corpus Christi near the town of Rockport. However, there was much less shelter for not only us but our vehicles and was only 15 feet above sea level. If big time storm surge came in our vehicles would be in trouble as there weren't any parking garages in that area. Many ideas were tossed around including parking at a church and riding out in the vehicle which I was dead set against. We finally came across a Marriott hotel that was just recently built, about a half mile from the ocean, built on a small hill and a few places to hide our vehicles in the parking lot that was going to remain open during the hurricane. The decision was made. Rockport, Texas bound we were as we packed up our gear out of the hotel.
Satellite throughout the day continued to impress as now category 3 Harvey rapidly intensified and a pin hole type eye was becoming more visible (blue circle is location of our hotel.) Unlike Matthew and Hermine intense winds were already being felt just in the outerbands of the hurricane.
Pictured is Stephen Jones and David Hegner watching the intense waves and surge begin to come out of its banks. Looking at radar and satellite I almost thought this thing was going to make landfall right around sunset as it appeared to be moving faster than predicted and by around dinner time winds were already gusting well up to 80mph. After shooting this photo and some B-Roll of the intense winds I looked at satellite again and my jaw about hit he floor.
Harvey officially reached the "pissed off" status and was now upgraded to a category 4 hurricane and still rapidly gaining strength. Around this time as well an extreme wind warning came out noting 145mph winds essentially coming right to our location. After shooting some more B-Roll Brennan and I headed back to the hotel to seek shelter and brace for impact.
Many other chasers were now converging on our hotel including the legendary Josh Morgerman from iCyclone. A chaser who'm I've looked up to for many years and the most humble chaser I have come across since Tim Samaras in 2013. At least with him here we know we are in the right spot. Sitting in our room having one last meal before landfall we receive a phone call on the hotel phone from the manager in a slight panic voice saying "everyone needs to report to the lobby for a meeting right now." The following meeting would send a shiver down my spine. The mayor of Rockport told folks staying behind to write their social security number on their arm. For obvious reasons I do not need to explain and further went on about the game plan for the worst case scenario. After the meeting I signed my life away on the waiver and the grasp of what was going on was finally starting to set in. We are actually here. We are doing this with a variety of emotions going through my head. I made a couple final phone calls to the parents just in case as Harvey continued to intensify.
Like in a haunted house on Halloween the lights in the hotel flicker on and off as if strobe lights were installed and after about 30 minutes "lights out" and it was time to brace for impact as Harvey's eye wall inched closer and closer.
As dusk fell, winds began to really ramp up. While outside the hotel filming we heard what sounded like a whistling noise and I turned to the right to see a large sign flying through the sky like a bullet. Crashing along the road, sparking and barely missing several vehicles. No idea where it came from, or where it went but it definitely had our guard up. Piece by piece, debris flew passed us. Like someone shooting objects out of an air cannon. One second you'd see it, the next its gone. Josh at one point even described a particular noise and if we heard it duck for cover because debris was inbound.
Darkness now took over and we began to get battered with winds around 100mph with gusts up to 110mph. Cars shaking back and forth in the parking lot like toys, power flashes going off looking like strobes of lightning, Harvey was making his presence known and we still weren't even in the eye wall yet. Flood waters beginning to be driven into the side doors disaster struck. While filming the water creep up to the hotel and the fence being demolished by the pool I smelled smoke and my heart dropped. I quickly alerted the hotel manager after making sure Brennan smelled it as well. The smell was coming from behind the door beside us and no way of knowing if we opened that door if flames would be burning. I had a brief moment of panic because the eye wall hadn't even arrived and we had no where else to go except our vehicles if this place went up in flames. Carefully, the manager opened up the door and the problem was obvious. Water had creeped into this room from outside and was getting into the electrical boxed located in this area. The manager sat by the door for a solid 30 minutes to make sure flames didn't ignite and as a precaution braved the winds and cut the power to this grid. This had me far from at ease though as smoke still smelled throughout the hotel, especially near the elevator shaft. But, at this point there was no time to worry. We were stuck here and whatever happens, happens.
Disaster struck as I received a snapchat from a fellow chaser back home in Oklahoma of a tweet from veteran storm chaser Mike Theis that he had wrecked his vehicle and was desperately trying to get ahold of Reed Timmer who was also at our same hotel. I quickly bolted down the hallway and tracked down Reed and told him what was going on. The timing was absolutely horrible as winds were now sustained well over 100mph and the eyewall was less an hour away from our location. Finding a logistically way for this rescue mission was a task in itself so none of us killed trying to save Mike. Tensions were high as a panic mode set in to get this mission underway but we all came together and fellow chasers Brett Adair, Stephen Johnson, and Bart Comstock braved the elements and came to Mike's rescue with not a moment to spare. When they arrived the eye wall was hammering us with winds now over 130mph gusting up to 144mph! I cringed as they parked. Their vehicle nearly flipping over I scream "get in here now!!!" as they scrambled up the handicap ramp.
Finally inside and us still out filming we all heard a loud "CRASH!" followed by pieces of glass flying all over the place and our ears all suddenly popped. Josh goes "I've never heard that sound before." As we were all unaware as to what just happened. Because that was loud.
Back inside, I noticed one of the panels on the roof had fallen down and Josh told us "okay, that means windows are gone some where. Because wind is getting in here now." All of this coming as our hotel sounded like it was growning in pain as the wind whipped through. I walked back to our room on the second floor to grab a piece of gear only to see multiple locals who were taking shelter rushing downstairs telling me we need to get out of here and the upstairs had been compromised. Confused, I walked back downstairs and the manager ordered everyone to stay on the first floor and said the stairwell was now cracking and was going to go any minute. Now, I wasn't aware of the other stairway and I had just walked down and didn't notice anything abnormal so I was a bit confused. That is, until I saw water begin flowing through the ceiling of the first floor like a waterfall. Turns out the loud crashing noise we heard earlier was the entire 4th, 3rd, and 2nd floor wall caving in and now all three floors were exposed. The wall was no longer there and piece of the roof were coming apart and the 3rd and 4th floor were being gutted from the inside. I can't lie, at this time I was becoming very unsettled. Harvey's eye wall did not want to leave as we continued to get battered. I wasn't sure how much more this hotel could take. I snuck back upstairs quickly and grabbed our electronics and moved them down stairs in case the top floors collapsed in on itself.
Walking back outside one last time before we were ordered to stay in the lobby winds were so strong they picked up and scooted Brett's SUV about 3 inches to the left. How, it did not flip is beyond me as it was basically being bent, and pinned down on the left shocks.
Scrambling up to my room to grab a flashlight and get video multiple being came out of their rooms holding a bunch of their personal items and told me we were all being evacuated to the nearby High School and this structure was ready to cave any minute. I had a brief surge of panic because we had so much gear, so much food, and so little time to throw all of this stuff into our cars with the other eye wall approaching. I came here to document a hurricane however and I wasn't going out without some video. The following photo is a video grab from a video that would go viral after being posted is from a quick video update when I darted upstairs to asses the damage from the collapsed wall. No power, I used the flashlight we brought to navigate my way down the heavily damaged hallway. No air conditioning was also making things brutally hot and humid inside. Drenched in sweat and out of breathe I give a video tour of the third floor, fire alarm sounding and pieces of the roof clanking together like the barn scene from twister I make my way down the hallway and show all the insulation and debris thrown throughout the hallways. I could now understand why Niagara Falls was coming through the roof so that explained that.
Making my wI've never been in a structure while it was hit by a tornado. But, what I saw I imagine what it would be like getting hit by a tornado and walking out from the storm shelter after it had passed. Trees laying all over the parking lot, the hotel across the street roof caved in, power poles down as far as we could see, debris littering every inch of the hotel yard, and after dodging all of this debris we came around to the other side of the hotel and the damage was even worse than it appeared from the inside. The stairwell was now....well completely open, several rooms were gutted, and the wall on the 3rd an 4th floor was gone while the 2nd floor was being peeled away and part of the roof being torn apart. However, while outside Stephen and I both looked up and we could see stars!!! Not only could we see stars we were seeing a full on stadium affect where you could see what hurricane hunters typically see while flying and that was all the corners of the eye wall!!! To top it off the eyes wall was being illuminated by lightning flashes all while there were stars shining above! Our small group jumped for joy in awe of the site! This was such an incredibly rare site and I have yelled at Josh who was charging his phone in his car to look up and this was a site even the legend hadn't seen! This alone made all of that traveling and fear worth going through. Just incredible.
My good friend Simon Brewer captured this incredible site better than I could on my camera. Just let that scene settle in for a second. Just unreal.
Our good vibes were short lived though as tensions escalated between everyone and a heated argument even broke out between several people in the parking lot trying to decide whether to stay or go to the school. The decision wasn't exactly easy as tweets were coming out that the Elementary School had been heavily damaged and nearly leveled. Fellow chasers/friends Mike Scantlin and Connor McCrorey told us they were headed that way to scope it out but were likely coming back and would let us know what it was like. One thing we all had to figure is if we did go to the school our chase was over. There was no way going there they'd let us out to film let alone let us out the following day. Since power was out I used this meeting time to plug in my phone to the car and let it charge for a bit before the second eye wall hit.
I think we changed our mind about 10 times before finally making a decision. Josh (iCyclone) was staying and assured us that he felt safe here and with his experience we trusted him so our decision was finally made to finish off Harvey in this hotel. But first, we moved our vehicles to a different location as this time winds were going to be coming from a different direction. Several chasers including Brett's SUV lost windows in their vehicles and used trash bags and tape in attempts to prevent water damage to the inside of their vehicles. To our surprise neither Stephen's or Brennan's vehicle sustained damage (yet anyway.)
Settled back into the hotel, the last update I had posted was that video and was just about to post our plans when my 4G went completely out and all my signal vanished. Harvey had now taken out the cell towers and we were flying dark now. Hoping not everyone was thinking I was dead now I closed my phone as winds begin to pickup rapidly again. Everyone in their cars moved inside and we would leave the front doors open as long as we could before having to close them. It didn't take long for winds to ramp back up to over 100mph and our cars to start shaking back and forth. I was secretly hoping that this second eye wall wasn't as strong as the first. Because if the other wall of the hotel did the same as the first we were at risk of the entire structure caving in. It was also at this time there was only media and storm chasers left in the building besides the manager. Everyone else had evacuated.
Didn't take long either for things to get dicey again. Pieces of the canopy now were beginning to tear away and you could see the canopy trying to be lifted up. If this fell not only would all of our vehicles be taken out, but one of the main items supporting the building would be gone. We would be absolutely screwed this this gave way. But, if it was going to happen we were getting it on video. I think we all had the same looks on our faces but just didn't want to say anything as we were all getting very nervous.
Winds began to really ramp back up well over 100mph again. Loud crashing sounds could be heard as a bone chilling whistle echoed throughout the severely damaged hotel and water began to rain down from the second floor again. This whole time we are blind as cell service is cut off so we couldn't really monitor what was going on with Harvey or anywhere around us. The manager was nice enough however to open up the food area to us and we chowed down on ice cream, chips, soda, and canned food. However, after about an hour it became apparent that the second eye wall was not nearly as intense as the first. Which was a breathe of fresh air. Because now that the winds shifted and were beating down on the only sturdy part of the hotel I'm not so sure we would have been safe if the other wall did the same as the last. Around 2am I became so exhausted I passed out on the couch and woke up about an hour later in a panic because I hadn't realized I fell asleep and wasn't sure what was going on or had happened since I slept. A quick look around showed that multiple other people had called it a night as well so I walked up to my hotel room, and despite water coming in from the roof fell asleep.
The following morning we all awoke, checked ourselves and realized we had made it. But, we were far from out of danger as Harvey stalls over Texas bringing with it catastrophic flooding. Walking to the window I confusingly say to Brennan "I don't remember being able to see out this far before" and realized all the trees outside the hotel had been stripped of their green. Pictured above I snapped this image of Brennan observing the heavy damage taken from the 4th floor of the hotel and outside looked like a war zone or like a 10 mile wide EF2 tornado had just went through.
Yep. That was our stairwell. Just behind us was a similar scene except it was a room. Downstairs and outside had similar scenes as we observed the extent of the damage to Rockport. We still didn't have cell service to let people know we were okay or where the flooding was setting up.
More damage to the hotel (this used to be the pool area)
No caption needed for the image above as Rockport was devastated by Harvey.
Some of these views were tear jerkers as a lot of folks live out of their campers down here and every campground we came across looked like this. Not only flipped over, but flooded from storm surge and flooding. Around this time we found one bar of 4G and our phones absolutely exploded. I hadn't known my video of the hotel had gone viral yet and was flooded with friend requests and messages asking if we were safe. Seeing strangers and friends checking up on you really warms your heart. Even if its friends you aren't super close with. It shows people actually care about your safety in the middle of disasters. Not having much service to post a big long status I simply said "Hi" to let everyone know we made it out okay and checked radar to see that Harvey had set up its heaviest rain bands right over Houston Texas. While good for us to not be stranded for days this was an absolute worst case scenario due to how populated Houston is. But, our battle wasn't over. Corpus Christi was a total ghost town with some overall minor damage observed but the entire city was shut down. Which was okay for us because we had more than enough fuel, food, and water to get us through the week. Coming down the interstate though out of Corpus there was a large police presence blocking the entire highway in both directions. Our stomachs sank because we thought our escape route was closed and we would be stuck just when we thought we'd be okay. An overpass sign had caved onto the highway due to extreme winds but thankfully next to an exit ramp where we could take and get around it and back onto the interstate. After all that madness, for now, we were home free. Arriving at a gas station to get some real food finally we ran into fellow chasers and good friends Simon Brewer and Juston Drake who got absolutely insane video from inside a car wash as a section of it collapsed around them causing some fairly significant damage to Simon's car. Simon even lost his back window due to the extreme winds throwing pieces of rocks. I'm never one to really like McDonalds but man, that McDonald's tasted as good as when I hiked 26 miles and chowed down on 10 dollars worth of food off the dollar menu to myself on the PCT.
Brennan and I were both physically and mentally exhausted and needed some sleep bad. We arrived in Austin, Texas and after getting some food headed back to the hotel where we would finish off some interviews for the day. We may or may not have shamelessly watch the Mayweather/McGregor fight as well. Along the way we were still seeing the affects as far inland as Austin where trees were uprooted due to high winds and excessive rainfall.
The following morning I woke up and saw what was occurring in Houston. Didn't even need to log into social media to know what was going on. Radarscope told the story. Sadly, I didn't get much in the way of sleep thanks to my anxiety randomly flaring up. But, it was time to get the day underway. Communicating with a station back home WSYX 6 I gave them our game plan and while we originally weren't going to cover the flooding in Houston we decided we are here and might as well do what we came here for. Except we set our course from some of the other smaller towns that would likely be just as damaged but covered less. However, the severe flooding appeared to be congested into one area and that was Houston. Because observing several towns about 30 minutes outside Houston, while flooding they were well above the river level and were in no danger of massive flooding. We sat in a small town after being shown around by a local older gentleman who was nice enough to take us on his property and shoot some B-Roll we tossed around the idea of going to Houston. But, with my flight being the next afternoon I was a bit worried we'd get stuck and I'd have no way back or fork over another chunk of change for another ticket. But, I've always been a person to worry less and just go with the flow so we set course for Houston.
Just outside of Houston in the town of Richmond, Texas not only was there damage being done by the flood waters like this caved in road pictured above there was also multiple tornado warnings on going. One of which had a confirmed tornado on it as we approached town. We chased it for a few minutes and saw some very strong rotation but could never confirm a tornado. Based on velocities it looked like the tornado had lifted just prior to our location (of course) but throughout the entire day this little town was in more than 5 tornado warnings. Just to add insult to injury.
We spent several hours on the outskirts of Houston covering the floods as much as we could gain access to and opted out of going into downtown Houston based on the traffic map. So, we booked a hotel in Waco, Texas and set course for home. However, Harvey would not at all make that easy on us. On our way to the main interstate that runs from Austin to Waco we had to take some flatlands in rural Texas near multiple rivers and our interstate had several areas that were in jeopardy of being overrun but we made it through. But, man we might be in trouble if we have to turn around and come back. Then, about 10 miles up the road our hearts sank. The interstate was shutdown as a foot of water was roaring over both the West and Eastbound lands. I zoomed way in on maps and saw several ways around this that would link back up to the interstate. First detour flooded by swift moving water at an unknown depth. Second detour. flooded. Third detour, flooded. We were running out of options before we were stuck on the highway until the waters lowered. We reached our fourth and final detour and on maps, if we could just make it passed this one road near the river we were home free and into the higher elevation again. About five areas along this route had water either over the road (that was still passable) or had deep water in one of the lanes. If we had to turn around we were done for. But, finally. After 4 hours of driving and detouring with many butt puckering moments we finally made it to the main interstate of I-35. I have never been so happy to be on I-35 in my life and onward to Waco we went.
Despite the destruction left behind in Southeast, Texas when nature showed her teeth she also reminded us that she can be quite beautiful. Treating us to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. It was a breathe of fresh air being park along side that road watching the sun fade into the horizon after three days of adrenaline pumping madness.
But, just when we thought this chapter of our chase was over......think again.
Now, normally I'd rather sleep in my car than stay in a Motel 6. But, with both of us with wet clothing, smelly, and needing to charge gear we wanted a room and a bed. Arriving in our room the first thing we noticed was the smoke detector beeping indicating low batteries. Called the front desk and the old cranky lady told us they didn't have anymore and to just take out those batteries. Because that's not a massive fire hazard at all. But, okay. We can look passed this since we are super tired. Peaking out the window we noticed a truck parked in front of Brennan's vehicle. We were already willing to accept that the gas cans wouldn't be there the next morning as it didn't take a genius to know we weren't in a very good area of Waco (if there even is a good area in that city.) Even with our valuables inside we were still left unsettled because we simply didn't want someone breaking into the car and sifting through everything. We observed the truck that was obviously scoping out Brennan's vehicle for several more minutes before it backed up into the space next to his. Here we freaking go. But we waited a few more minutes before going outside. Then, out of one of the rooms comes out a girl in skimpy shorts and tank top walked out of one of the rooms, got into the passenger seat of the truck after taking money from the driver and well.....you can put together those pieces and they left.
After that, Brennan went to go to the bathroom and noticed that door was nearly broken off of the hinge. But that wasn't even the best part. We also noticed the wires to the lamp were bare open and only being covered by electrical type and the wires were wires off of an old radio. What in the actual crap is going on?! 30 more minutes go by and we see another vehicle (this time a white truck) pull in and do the same as the last. Sit in front of Brennan's vehicle, back into the spot, and out of one of the rooms comes another girl in similar clothing, take money, get in the truck, and leave. Okay, its time to leave. We packed all of our stuff quickly, and went inside to get a refund only to have the old lady rudely tell us we had been there too long and couldn't get a refund. We asked what is the cut off limit? She told us she didn't know we exchanged back and forth with her for a bit saying if you didn't know then how can you sit there and say we are passed the limit when its been barely over an hour? Not to mention the smoke detector being a massive fire hazard. As if this couldn't get crazier she looked at us and said that she would keep watching in case there was a fire and asked if we planned to set one or something? I looked with my mouth open shocked at what I had just heard. A bit more of arguing went on before we walked out and just cut our losses. But not before emailing the Motel 6 headquarters about this lady and our experience. Finally, we found a nicer hotel and didn't care about the price in what seemed like a nicer, and at least well lit area and finally passed out almost as soon as we laid down.
Morning came, and Brennan, myself, and Austin grabbed a bite to eat before taking me to the DFW airport to catch my flight to Seattle. Not going to lie, being 3 hours from home and getting on a flight to be 30 hours from home and still having to drive back sucked. Not to mention my 12 hour layover in Denver. But, after that experience I'd do it all over again in a heart beat.
Harvey will go down as one of the most devastating Natural Disasters in U.S history and would drop a new world record of 62 inches of rain over Houston causing billions of dollars in damage overall. Winds topped out at 145mph (at least measured) and the damage sustained to Rockport and surrounding areas was absolutely devastating. But, I have no doubts seeing everyone come together like they did these areas will rebuild.