Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Galveston Island and Hurricane Ike...

Early on Wednesday September 10th I started to notice a northward trend with Ike… By the afternoon I had a bad feeling that Galveston Island was in trouble…. After posting in my blog I talked to Jared Allen and Michael Haynes about leaving that night around 8pm for Galveston Island, TX… We packed all our supplies and food and left Starkville, MS at 8:03pm… Driving non-stop all night (650miles) we arrived at Galveston around dawn… A little over 5 years ago I went to Galveston with one of my good friends named Chris Bell... I remember we did all the tourist stuff like going to the hurricane museum, eating at fishtails(across from the flagship hotel), and exploring the seawall... For some weird reason I told Chris I'm going to come back one day to chase a hurricane here... It's weird how things in life come around full circle but 5 years later I was back in Galveston sitting and waiting for Hurricane Ike to strike...

By the stroke of luck we decided to go to a Holiday Inn on 18th and Seawall... Honestly thinking there is probably no way they would let us stay at the hotel we decided to at least give it a try and talk to them about the situation... I first talked to a man named Sam... He was a former military service man that served in Vietnam and helped build the hotel 3 years ago... I told him why we were here and what was about to happen with Ike... We was very nice to us and actually called the general manager on our behalf asking if we could stay and ride it out with them... Another very nice man named Abe talked to us about the situation and was very supportive as well... Abe was one of the main managers there and was nothing but nice to us... A few hours later the general manager (Eric) showed up and talked to us about our options... He said he had no problem with us staying there as long as we stay out of there way, give some them some weather updates on Ike, and sign a liability waiver for them... We gladly agreed and thanked everyone for their hospitality and kindness... On a side note I truly from the bottom of my heart want to thank everyone at the Holiday Inn on Seawall and 18th, especially Abe and Sam... Without them this chase would have been very difficult at the very least!!! It always amazes me how peoples generosity and kindness comes out when things get bad... We are very lucky to have run into people like them!

We each got our own rooms (406,407,408) free of charge... Again very very nice of the Holiday Inn!!! Jared, Michael, and I were all exhausted but because of the anticipation of the event we really weren't able to sleep much... I just looked at weather data which only verified in my mind that we were in the right spot... Everyone else at the Holiday Inn was very busy trying to protect the building... Around the island people didn't really seem that concerned about Hurricane Ike... I can't tell you how many times I had people tell me that it's just a Category-2 and how hurricanes always miss Galveston, just look at Rita... I tired my absolute best to convey the seriousness of the situation but I don't think it was getting through to most of the people staying on the island... I keep saying Galveston has been hit before, remember 1900??? Throughout the afternoon I had a lot of phone calls and text messages with mixed opinions... I would say half of my friends were OK with it and knew I would be very smart about this chase... The other half of my friends and family seemed very concerned and was basically telling me I was crazy to stay there... While I respectfully told them that I was staying, I still want to thank all of them for their concerns... That night the Holiday Inn feed us and after eating I went back to my room to read this:




When I read that discussion out of Houston it really took me back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005... I immediately had a bad feeling that if we didn't leave the Holiday Inn during the landfall of Ike they might find us dead inside this building tomorrow... I talk to Jared and Michael and voiced my concerns with the storm surge and wave action... I knew the building would make it through the winds but I seriously doubted it would make it through the surge and waves bashing against it... Katrina was a clear warning to me that you DON'T mess with the ocean!!! You won't win and I promise you will die!!! We actually went on top of the roof and talked some more about the situation... After many long conversations we decided to wake up at 7am to reevaluate the situation... As long as we could find a strong parking garage to get my car into, and also as long as Ike didn't explode over night we decided as a group we would stay and ride it out... I'll be the first to say that this night was the first time since Katrina that I had any fear with a storm chase... I knew that if we made a mistake it would cost us our lives!!!

After about 5 hours of sleep and a grand total of 6 hours sleep going on 3 days I woke up at 7am... We noticed that Ike had only ramped up to 105mph and decided that we needed to find a parking garage right now! We left the Holiday Inn and found a solid fort on the UT medical branch campus which was located on the back bay on the eastern part of Galveston Island... This parking deck was 5 stories tall and I knew right then and there that we would be safe during Hurricane Ike... No matter how high the surge was going to be I knew we were going to be safe, because we were about a mile away from the Gulf and the wave action that would be coming from it that night! I decided to call it Fort Galveston!!!

We parked the car on the third floor and decided to walk back to the hotel... As we were walking back along Seawall BLVD I was amazed at the Gulf... Huge waves were breaking into the seawall and shooting 20+ feet at times into the air... I have never seen the ocean so pissed off that close... Also I was shocked at how many people were out checking out the waves... I really never saw any feelings of fear or urgency with Ike even less then 18 hours from landfall... We we made it back to the hotel and I tried my absolute best to convince Sam, Abe, and others to come with us later to our fort! Unfortunately no mater what I said they were going to stay put and ride it out! I was very worried that when we came back the next day the hotel would be gone, and most if not all of the people(including children) would be dead... At the very least we convinced them to move their cars to Fort Galveston! We got most everyone together and heading towards the parking garage in a Holiday Inn van... After we dropped off the cars and headed back to the hotel I think for the first time everyone staying at the hotel started to realize the seriousness of the event... They looked out the windows in amazement as wave after wave crashed into the seawall... Reality was starting to sink in!!!

After talking to a few people and posting one more blog we decided to leave the hotel for Fort Galveston around 3pm... There was a curfew in effect at 8pm which threaten people outside being arrested and/or facing fines up to 2,000 dollars... Needless to say we didn't want any of that! Jared, Michael and I packed our gear up and tried to convince everyone one last time to come with us... I could tell we finally were making them uneasy with staying but no one left to come with us... As we walked towards our fort the winds were approaching tropical storm force... Again there was still a lot of people and media on Seawall BLVD playing with the huge waves crashing into the seawall... It almost felt very surreal as we walked towards the Fort... Sort of like we were on some sort of military mission trying to get to base... There were multiple black hawks helicopters circling the island which was the first time in my life chasing I saw that! Again it was just a surreal situation!

When we got to our fort one of the first things I started to notice was a thick black smoke coming from the marina... A dry boat dock was on fire and we stood and watched 30 to 40 foot tall balls of fire coming out of the building... I passed along the information through twitter as the fire just got worse and worse... The police and fireman couldn't do anything about it, and at that moment you knew that everyone on the island was on their own... It was marshal law and like the wild west it was every man/woman for themselves!!! By the way that fire burned until the eye of Ike made landfall...

At around dark the winds started to gust to hurricane strength... By about 9pm the winds were sustained at hurricane strength... Even though things were deteriorating fast I was still able to use my iphone... I HIGHLY recommend this phone to anyone as it was a life saver during Ike... Justyn Jackson gave us repeated updates on the hurricane which was very helpful during this dangerous storm... Like always Justyn was clutch and showed you why he's LDCT... Thanks for the help buddy! As the eye came closer and closer you could start to see Ike contracting and strengthening... You could see meso-voriticies on radar which is a clear sign of a major hurricane! The NHC decided to leave the hurricane at a 110mph Category 2 which is only 1mph short of a Category 3... This was my 11th hurricane chase and I'll I can say with my experiences is it sure didn't feel like a Cat-2 to me... As the northern eyewall came ashore around Midnight the winds were gusting to near 125mph... Near that time you could see storm surge coming out of the bay and heading towards us from the east and north... While it was only 3-4 feet tall at the highest point you could still see this wall of water slowly make its way up the street... It was a very crazy experience and only makes me wonder what it would have been like if the surge really would have been 25 feet!!! At around 1:30am the eye started to push over us... Now you couldn't see any stars or anything like that but between 2-3am the winds were dead calm... It's always an amazing experience to be in the eye of a hurricane... Of course I wish it could have been daytime but beggars can't be choosers in storm chasing...

The eye lasted over 2 hours and around 3:30am the southern eyewall starting to come ashore... I was forced to move my car to the opposite side of the parking lot as the winds switched out of the west... While I don't think the top wind gust were quite as high in the southern eyewall, there was no doubt it is was much stronger because of the constant battering... The southern eyewall was very similar to Katrina in duration and relentlessness... Which says a lot when you compare anything to Katrina! At around 4:30am the winds were pounding the fort so hard that it began to bounce up and down... It felt like someone was next to you on a trampoline as the car bounced up and down until near daybreak... We stayed in the parking garage until near 10-11am... Even then the winds were gusting to tropical storm force... At first when we ventured out I was impressed how the buildings held up... Of course there were windows blown out, trees down, and roofs gone but overall it wasn't that bad! Unfortunately the closer we got to the Holiday Inn on 18th and Seawall, the quicker we realized that the damage was very bad!!!

A huge section of the hotels roof was gone, windows were smashed, and the metal gate to get into the parking lot was blown away... You could tell that this hotel went through pure hell!!! Almost immediately after getting there I saw Sam and Abe walking around... You could tell they were very scared and kept saying that they wish they got our phone numbers before we left... They described the roof ripping off and water rushing down the hotel walls as they fled for the staircase... They also kept saying how thankful they were that the surge didn't get them... I think they knew at that point that if Ike would have gone about 40 miles west the hotel would have been lost to the Gulf... I'm so thankful that didn't happen!!!

After checking out the damage to the hotel, Abe, Michael, and myself decided to walk west along Seawall BLVD... Needless to say, the damage was horrible!!! Huge chunks of the seawall were ripped apart and thrown on the street... Gigantic boulders were tossed like toys all along the road... The hooters restaurant was gone! Many piers and businesses were gone! Many tourist stops were gone! The Flagship hotel was hanging on by a thread!!! And For about a 5 block area the damage was comparable to Katrina!

Unfortunately I did see some looters... They weren't taking much, and what they did take wasn't worth much, however it really made me sick to see these people loot!!! Especially watching moms and dads helping their kids loot! Man that makes me mad... The good news is the cops came in quickly after that and put a stop to the looting really quick... I wouldn't mess with a Texas cop!!!

At one point Abe and I climbed up on the debris to get a better view... The view was incredible and it really gave you some perspective on how bad this area got hit! Even Fishtails were Chris and I ate 5 years ago was heavily damaged... There was all sort of mangled stuff in the debris pile... After taking a few pictures a news crew climbed up there with us and asked if they could interview Abe since we was from Galveston and was the manager at the Holiday Inn... You could really see that the damage was getting to Abe and I really felt bad for him!!! I think he realized that lot of the places he hung out at for years were gone forever... Of course you would hope they will rebuild, but when you live in an area that is destroyed by a natural disaster those thoughts really don't comfort you in the short term... I have noticed over the years that when it finally hits you, it hits you like a ton of bricks!!!

We stayed at the hotel Saturday and Saturday night with the hope of getting off the island Sunday morning... Even though we were blessed to get to stay at the hotel the conditions were going down quick... Because of the roof ripping off water had flooded throughout the hotel... A strong smell of mildew started to develop quickly!!!! I have to say that I have never felt more dirty in my life and also I have never taken so many mosquito bites in my life, but hey that's part of hurricane chasing... I got about 7 hours sleep and headed towards the causeway around 9am... Too be honest, it's a miracle we made it off... The bay side of the island was annihilated... Probably around a 100 boats were thrown all over the road, piled very high on the south bound lane into Galveston! And were not taking bass boasts here, were talking about some large yachts and commercial fishing boats!!! As we were trying to get out a HUGE convoy of military and medical vehicles were heading south towards Galveston on the north bound lane... That was only the second time I have seen that(Katrina) on a major roadway... I think we just timed it perfectly and honestly just got plain lucky... We easily could still be there today if any cops wanted to stop us! It really is chaos in those situations... Timing and luck is everything when it comes to storm chasing!!!

While hurricane Ike was not the worst case scenario for Galveston Island it still was very bad!!! Out of my 11 hurricanes I have chased I would rank Ike 3rd behind Charley and Katrina... Rita was very close, but being on a barrier island like Galveston really brought you much closer to the water than I have ever before... There is no doubt in my mind that as far as a chasing standpoint, this was the most hardcore I have ever gone with a hurricane... Actually probably the most hardcore I have ever gone period!!! I feel very confident that I could have survived a Category 5 hurricane in Fort Galveston but I think we would have been stuck on the island for weeks... Shoot if Ike would have been 40 miles west, Galveston would have looked like Gulfport in Katrina and I seriously doubt we would have been going anywhere for weeks and weeks... I'm just very thankful the eye went directly over our heads... Historically that is extremely rare and hasn't happening in Galveston since 1915... Also thank god for the seawall... While it can't stop a surge of 20+ feet, it did its job in Ike... Without it, even in this situation, the island would have been lost to Ike... I hate to say it but the tragedy of 1900 has saved Galveston at least 4 times from certain destruction... The 1915 hurricane, Carla in 1961, Alicia in 1983, and now Hurricane Ike... Without the 1900 tragedy I doubt Galveston would have ever built a seawall... Eventually it would have happened but the bottom line is the ghosts of the great Galveston 1900 hurricane continue to save their island from another tragedy!!! I just hope and pray Galveston continues to stay lucky, because it would be horrible to lose such a historic American city!!! If you are fascinated by weather and especially hurricanes I highly recommend everyone in their lives to visit Galveston Island at least once!!! I know I'll be back someday soon!!!

All photos are copyright of Greg Nordstrom


Mike Wilhelm said...

What an amazing account Greg!

Very captivating story and it makes me wish I was there with you guys.

I took my boys to Galveston and we stayed at the Hotel Galvez, ate at Joe's Crab Shack and the Wendy's that was in your photo. We explored the seawall and shopped in the Mermaid souvenir store at the end of that pier. It is so spooky to see these photos, remembering what it looked like just last year.

Thanks for sharing your story. Do you have any video?

Dewdrop said...

This is an incredible account of your chase, Greg. Wow. Incredible. Glad y'all made it safely.

LDCT said...

Thank you both very much!!! It really was an incredible event and is something I'll never forget! I do have a decent amount of video... Of course it was tough to get the best winds at night but I have a lot of other interesting stuff before and after the storm... I'll be out of town this weekend but when I get back I'll try to upload the video ASAP!!! I actually have a new website (www.ldctstormchaser.com) which I'm going to start to work on here soon... Right now there really isn't much, but I'll be changing that soon... I'll definitely put video from Ike and other chases I have been on up there soon... Thanks again for both of your kind words!!!

Michael Detwiler said...

Excellent post Greg. Felt like I was there with you guys. Can't wait to see the video. Keep up the great work.

Ryan Aylward said...

Amazing. A great description and I am very glad to hear you three made it out safely. It has been a bad tropical season, and you have gotten to chase a lot. Sadly, I think you might still have another chance this year...

mrswoolley1 said...

Great account Greg! As a native Houstonian and former Island resident, this is all so heartbreaking. That pile of rubble on the seawall were some of my favorite places. The Balinese Room has been there my whole life, and had so much history. Hooters(formerly Ocean Grill)and Murdocks Souvineers were great ocean side places to visit. It freaked me out as we drove down the seawall to se the fishing peirs..just GONE. One pier had a pickup truck on the pier. This was a walking pier. i hope the person who owns it was not inside. As we drove down the streets it was the saddest thing to see all the houses just destroyed, and personal belongings like trash piles. The Airport is another devastaing loss as well..
If you think this was just another Cat 2 storm then take a drive and see for yourself!
Another area hit hard is Shore Acres in LaPorte1 BAD! EVERY home was destroyed. Flooded by 10-14 feet of surge and every house gutted.
Texans are tough though and we love our Island and will do all we can to support the rebuilding of Galveston.