September 15-16, 2004

"So are you gonna chase the hurricane?"

For the previous several days, this was the question I kept hearing as Hurricane Ivan churned away across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. I had never really considered chasing a hurricane before, but as Ivan entered the Gulf of Mexico and turned northward towards the Gulf Coast, I started thinking, "hey, why not?" By the 13th it became apparent Ivan was probably going to make landfall somewhere between New Orleans LA and Panama City FL, possibly only a 10-15 hour drive from Norman. So that night I went to Walmart to stock up on food and drinks, in case I wanted to make the drive out there. I went to work on the 14th not knowing for sure if I was really going to go, but once I got home that evening and saw Ivan was still taking dead aim on the Mississipi/Alabama coast - that did it for me, I was gone. So I got on the road by 10pm, and was off on my all night drive towards the Gulf Coast.

The plan was to arrive in Hattiesburg MS the next morning, then evaluate the situation from there. At this point it was still uncertain whether Ivan would make landfall closer to Gulfport MS or Mobile AL, but seeing as I had good road options going out of Hattiesburg this sounded like a good plan. So I drove all night towards my target, taking I-35 south to I-20, then I-20 east through eastern Texas and Louisiana. All of the NOAA Weather Radio stations in Louisiana were giving periodic updates on Ivan's current position - which was quite entertaining considering one of the broadcasters had a heavy Cajun accent. By sunrise I was approaching Vicksburg MS, where I began seeing the outermost high clouds from Ivan. Soon afterwards the low cloudiness followed, and I began to notice flags indicating a light northeasterly breeze. Once I got to Jackson MS I took US 49 southeast towards Hattiesburg. Around this time I began noticing the human impact from Ivan. Despite the fact it was 7:45am and still a good 16 hours or so before landfall, northbound traffic was backed up for miles. Traffic flowed a bit better once I got southeast of the Jackson area, but the traffic I saw in Jackson was nothing compared to what I would see in Hattiesburg. This was where evacuation traffic from New Orleans, Gulfport, and Mobile all met up - so northbound traffic was bumper to bumper all throughout town. Traffic signals had already been turned off, and police was directing traffic through town. Once in town I decided to top off the tank and evaluate my options. I was amused to see the credit card screen on the pump broadcasting updates from The Weather Channel. Based on what I saw on that, and what I had been hearing on radio, I made the decision to continue to Mobile AL.

Once I got to Mobile, it was apparent many of the residents were prepared for the storm - as most business were closed and boarded up. I spent much of the afternoon driving around the city scouting out places to seek shelter. I first scouted out the downtown area, but seeing how the parking garages were not allowing people to park on the bottom two levels I was concerned on how the storm surge would impact this area. Ivan was not going to be a storm to be messed with, as it was still a Category 4 storm. As rain and wind gradually began to pick up throughout the afternoon - I repeatedly checked out the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center a couple miles inland, which had a sturdy parking garage that was rapidly filling up with cars. By 5pm all the protected parking was taken up, but I figured it was going to be here or nothing, so I parked facing a wall at the top of the garage - and gathered my camera and food/drink supply and hunkered down in the covered area of the garage.

The first hour or so was rather uneventful, but by about 6:30pm, tropical storm force gusts began hitting my location, and power flashes became visible on occasion. At around 7pm, one of the nurses at the medical center stopped and talked with me as she was walking her dog. All of the sudden, we become startled by a tremendous crash. "DAMN!!!!!!" she shouted, as a large branch snapped off a tree about 500 feet away. Over the next couple of hours I would hear additional crashes as more and more trees succumbed to the wind. Even with all this excitement, I was rather tired having not slept for nearly 36 hours, so I lay down on the wet cement and got in maybe 10 or 15 minutes of sleep. After that I sat and waited for the next few hours as the wind blew spray all throughout the garage. I noticed the wind whipped curtains of rain kinda looked like the rain curtains you see wrapping around a mesocyclone, so I began picturing there was a big tornado behind them. This continued until about 11:30pm, when gusts began approaching hurricane force. Just for fun around midnight, I decided to go to edge of the garage and subject myself to the full brunt of the wind and rain. The intensity of the rain was unbelieveable - almost like being underwater - could hardly keep my eyes open. The winds continued at this intensity out of the northeast until around 2am, occasionally taking material off the roof of a large building nearby. Then at 2am, winds died down dramatically and became more northerly. This was not the eyewall, as my pressure was still only at 973 millibars (more than 30 millibars above the reported central pressure). But this shift in winds made it apparent to me I was not going to be inside the eye. I called Jay Barnes, who was nowcasting for me throughout this event, and he indicated to me that the eye was in the process of making landfall, and the western eyewall was looking unorganized. But during the course of our call, winds did begin to pick up a little. After my cell phone battery went out around 2:20, I checked the barometer again. In just under 30 minutes, the pressure had dropped from 973 millibars to 965 millbars! I went to the other edge of the garage and looked off to the northwest, in awe over the massive jet engine sound the wind was making. All of the sudden at 2:30, the wind suddenly shifted to a northwesterly direction. Immediately I ran away from the edge to seek a less wet location in between cars and all kinds of rain began pelting me. The winds were now just as strong as ever before, peeling more material off that roof and violently whipping around street lights and signs. Pressure was still on its way down, by 3:03 it was down to 958 millibars - where it stayed for a while.

By 4am I had just about reached by exhaustion point. Despite the noisy wind out there I was leaning on cars trying to stay upright. I checked the pressure and saw it was back up to 959 millbars, so figured that we had probably seen the worst I scampered back up to my car to get some sleep. Amazingly I got 5 hours of sleep in, with tropical storm force gusts continuing to batter my car from the west by the time I got up at 9:30. I got out of my car to check how things looked in daylight, and saw numerous large trees uprooted as well as the parking lot and ground level flooded. At 11am I decided it was time to leave for good and make the long trip back home to Norman.

The streets of Mobile looked a lot like the streets of Norman after a severe thunderstorm went through. All of the roads were covered with leaves, with tree limbs down here and there. Damage to structures mostly appeared light, although I did see a lot of fast food signs blown out and billboards ripped up. The worst structural damage I saw was a church which had a 10 ft steeple knocked off its roof. Similar tree and light structural damage was noted in Semmes and Wilmer, with virtually no damage in southeastern Mississippi. The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, and I arrived back in Norman around midnight.

Despite not getting into the eye, and only getting winds that barely topped hurricane force in gusts, it was still exciting to experience my first tropical cyclone. For a total weather geek like me, it was exciting recording the massive pressure drop - seeing it go from 1007 millibars to 958 millibars in 15 hours - an astonishing 49 millibar drop! Even in Oklahoma, it's rare we see the pressure range more than 40 millibars in an entire year! And my hometown of Turlock CA saw a pressure range of only 48 millibars between 1988 and 1999! The eye ended up passing about 20 miles east of Mobile, with a minimum central pressure of 943 millibars at landfall near Gulf Shores AL. Mobile Airport about 6 miles to my west recorded a minimum pressure of 963 millibars, while another station two miles to my south recorded a minimum pressure of 956 millibars. While the Mobile area got about 6 inches of rain, rainfall dramatically decreased to the west, as lots of dry continental air got drawn into Ivan's circulation. So while damage was fairly light in the Mobile area, it was far worse on the storm's northeast quadrant in Baldwin County AL and the western FL panhandle - which experienced wind gusts over 100 mph as well as some storm surge flooding.

Special thanks to Jay for the nowcasting updates - I was just amazed at how clear cell phone reception was despite the heavy rain and frequent hurricane force gusts!

Video captures

Total Mileage: 1644 miles
Total Time Gone: 50 hours, 27 minutes

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