Grand Trek Up the Baja Peninsula
|Location||Puerto San Carlos, Baja California Sur, MEXICO|
|Date||01-02 Sep 2009|
|Intensity||Cat 2 (90 knots)|
Chasing a cyclone up Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula isn’t exactly a cakewalk! Raw desert landscapes, rough roads, and isolated towns make it a high-risk chase theater. But when Hurricane Jimena approached, iCyclone chased the storm to "ground zero": Puerto San Carlos—a tiny, exposed village on the Peninsula’s west coast. And as the hurricane’s center passed directly over the small town, iCyclone caught the action, moment-by-moment. Jimena was an angry little cyclone—packing a surprisingly heavy punch for a Category-2 hurricane.
Well, first off: this chase surprised me, because I went into it with a really bad attitude—sort of halfheartedly, expecting it to be a major bust. It wasn't. It was a satisfying and memorable chase—in some ways one of my favorites. It was also my first Pacific hurricane, making Jimena special in my heart.
When the back eyewall was raking Puerto San Carlos yesterday morning-- as the wind shrieked and the giant palms bent way over and clouds of debris sprayed down the street in violent bursts—I was reminded why I love hurricanes so much and why I put myself through so much dreadful discomfort to get to random corners of the earth to be in them. I spend a whole year waiting for that one hour or so.
1. Scott's Baja Superstorm
I will always think of Jimena as "Scott's Baja Superstorm", because it was my chase partner, Scott Brownfield, who first mentioned the possibility of a cyclone hitting the Baja on the Eastern US Wx forum on 18 August!
He again mentioned it on the forum on 26 August.
Interestingly, Jimena actually formed from a disturbance that originated in the SW Caribbean (93L). I was heartbroken when it crossed into the EPAC. If I only knew at that time that I'd be chasing it a week later!
2. Bad Baja Attitude
When Scott first saw the possibility of a cyclone hitting the Baja, I didn't take it seriously because Baja systems are generally problematic chase subjects. There's always a risk of busting badly with EPAC chases because of 1) the ever-present risk of the cyclone curving out to sea and 2) the typical oblique approach angles which make landfall points hard to predict. Baja cyclones are even worse in these regards, and to make them even less savory, most Baja hurricanes are weakening as they hit.
Jimena presented all of these textbook risks and so I was really hesitant to chase it. Even on Sunday I was trying to find reasons not to. Scott gave me the pep talk I needed to go after it—and I'm glad I listened to him... this time.
0400Z 090109 1245Z 090109 2245Z 090109
3. Location: Bullseye
It's rare for me to come out of a chase feeling like I'd positioned perfectly for it. This was one of those times.
I rode out the cyclone in Puerto San Carlos—a small fishing town on an elbow of land that juts out into the Pacific. As you can see, based on the 5 am PDT and 8 am PDT advisory fixes, the center of Jimena's eye passed almost directly over the town with an intensity of ~970 mb/90 kt (Cat 2):
(Sometimes, I like to get to the right of the center—to get the absolute highest winds—but given the lack of viable coastal locations further E, Puerto San Carlos was perfect for this chase.)
What also made Puerto San Carlos cool was its exposure. It's a tiny, low-lying town, surrounded on all sides by water, highly exposed and not very high above sea level, making it a perfect place to experience high, "over-water" windspeeds. I'm not sure I'd be cool doing a Cat 4 there, but a Cat 2 seemed OK:
4. Jimena's Assault on Puerto San Carlos
Now for the chronology of the cyclone's approach and passage (all times MDT):
By 12 midnight, the wind was frequently gusting to gale force and our Internet connection went down. I had a final phone chat with Scott—to get the 11 pm PDT position—then shaved, showered, and crawled into bed for a short nap. (I always clean up right before the storm hits because I don't know when I'll next be able to—and I don't want to end up looking like a wild beast.)
I cracked the drapes open a tad, so that with my head on the pillow I could see the palms waving under the street lamps. And although it was disgustingly warm in the room, I didn't use the fan because I wanted to hear the wind. I set the alarm for 3:15 am and dozed off...
I woke with a start before the alarm sounded. The wind was howling—the palm trees outside the window were waving like crazy. Jimena was coming! It felt like Christmas morning. I jumped out of bed to call Scott to get the 2 am PDT advisory position. There was no phone service.
I kind of freaked when I realized I now had no connection to the outside world—no Internet, no phone, no nothing. It would be like chasing in the olden days—just doing it by feel-- not knowing where the center was headed, when the core would be hitting, etc.
I went out into the courtyard and the storm was in progress—gales and moderate rain sweeping through. I said hello to Jim Edds and Jeff Piotrowski—who were also just waking up—and we agreed that it seemed like a decent storm was coming. The wind had that tug and that sound to it—you could tell this was a good, healthy circulation.
I went back inside, where I forced myself to eat a sandwich and a banana (I forget to eat when chasing), then hastily packed my stuff and moved it all up onto furniture so it wouldn't get wet if the hotel flooded. The power was flickering off just as I was grabbing the videocam and the car keys.
I hopped in the car and drove up and down the main street as the frequency and intensity of rainbands increased.
By 4:30 or 5 am, the cyclone was in full force. The wind was making that creepy howling/wailing sound that I only hear in strong hurricanes. I felt pretty sure the center was coming in our direction.
I saw a sign tear off of a lamppost and fly away, into the darkness. I heard lots of crashing and banging sounds as some of the weaker, shabbier houses in the neighborhood lost roof materials and porch coverings. Pieces of tin blew across the street, which was becoming almost impossible to drive on due to wreckage, palm fronds, coconuts, and branches. Most of the concrete lampposts were bent 45 degrees across the street, and power lines dangled everywhere. Using the NW-to-SE direction of the street as a reference, it seems the max winds came from the NE or E—judging by the general flow of the wind, the way the debris was blowing, and the way the lampposts all fell.
It's very hard to shoot at night. It's an art form to position the car in a way that 1) shines the headlights onto objects while 2) allowing you to shoot through an open window without getting the camera wet. I did my best—sometimes using bonus light from the rare passing car to catch the action.
The intensity of the winds surprised me—more than I was expecting from a weakening Cat 2. The eyewall winds had a sort of up-and-down rhythm. They would ebb and flow, with the high-energy bursts (i.e., series of gusts) lasting 30 seconds to maybe a minute, separated by periods of slightly lesser winds. Jim later described it as a "pulsing".
During the peak gusts, the car really shook—to the point where I put on the emergency brake as an extra precaution—and a couple of times, hard objects crashed into the car, literally making me jump. I started to worry that something was going to come through one of the windows and take my head off—or that a lamppost might fall on the car and crush it—and so I kept myself as low as possible in the seat as a I shot video. The darkness always makes things a little scarier—you just don't know what's happening.
While I always talk about being safe, the reality is, this is not a safe activity. It just isn't. It comes with real risk—especially the nighttime landfalls, when you get desperate for good shots and will do what's needed to get a good angle.
I noticed the wind seemed to lose its edge just after 6 am. At first I thought I was imagining it, but my suspicion was correct and the winds died off quickly (within a matter of minutes) to maybe 15 kt, with a light drizzle.
I had trouble finding the hotel in the darkness and the mess of downed trees and wreckage. I ran into Jim and Jeff, who measured 973 mb on their portable digital barometer. We were clearly in the eye.
As the sun came up, residents slowly started poking outside, and by daybreak, the streets were filled with people inspecting the damage. The neighborhood was a mess. Stray dogs were everywhere—wet, scruffy things running around and playing.
It was a grey, gloomy sort of an eye—no sunshine—but it was well-defined: the winds were near calm and it completely stopped raining. The length of the lull was puzzling. I didn't think Jimena had a large eye, but an hour and a half into it, we were still in that grey calm, with no sign of a backside. I started to wonder if perhaps the cyclone didn't have a backside—like Gustav in LA last year. But Jim pointed out that the pressure was holding steady in the mid 970s without really going up for over an hour-- so clearly, it was just taking long for the eye to pass.
Almost every time I'm in a hurricane's eye, I get hypnotized by it. A side of me starts doubting there will be a backside, because it seems inconceivable that anything would break the calm. This same eye dementia happened to me again in Jimena.
Jim and I strolled down the street-- him with his fancy camera and tripod, me with my handheld—looking for good vantage points. I wasn't even wearing a rain jacket-- just a tank top and athletic shorts. We strayed many blocks from the hotel, occasionally stepping around puddles and debris. I remarked that a low bank of dark clouds racing into view looked odd. We then parted ways as we each looked for our own shooting locations.
Jim became just a dot in the distance as I wandered into a park with a couple of basketball hoops and some bleachers. I was kind of zoning out, wondering if this was it.
But suddenly at 7:50 am...
...the trees started waving again. By 8 am it was a whole gale, and by around 8:10 am, it was back up to a hurricane. And I was frantically running up the street, against the wind, trying to get back to the hotel. Crap and debris were blowing toward me, so I couldn't look in the direction I was running—I had to cover my eyes. A car drove by and a woman in the back seat pointed at me and laughed.
I was halfway back to the hotel when I found a wall next to the Hotel Brennan that perfectly protected me from the wind and even the rain (which seemed to blow above and past the wall), and from there I did some shooting. After a little while, I battled the rest of the way up the street and back to the hotel.
It was near the front gate of the hotel that I believe I saw the highest winds. Sensing a good shot, I squished myself into a little ball no higher than three feet and pressed into a small space between the wall and the gate and shot the action. Intense, shrieking gusts would come in waves, accompanied by clouds of debris spraying down the street at terrific speeds. The tops of the palms were waving wildly while the trunks bent. I was way too exposed—a piece of flying tin would have ripped me open—so I made the 25-foot dash to my car, then drove around to shoot the front of the hotel from another angle.
It was at this point that my camera died from water exposure. This is the second chase this has happened (the first was Dean) and I'm furious with myself, because I missed a couple of good shots—large piece of tin blowing by, etc. (Never again will I let this happen—I've learned my lesson. Time for an equipment overhaul.)
The wind continued at maximum fury past 9 am, with the front of the hotel taking a beating. By 9:30 am, the intensity of the wind seemed to lower a notch—the worst had past.
And I started to feel sleepy. By 10 am, I went back to my room. The floor was totally flooded, but I was too exhausted to care. I dried myself off with a towel and crawled into bed, a whole gale still blowing outside.
I was done with Jimena.
By the time I woke—around 12 noon—the cyclone had completely passed.
The wind and rain had ceased, and although not clear, the sky was much brighter. The hotel owners and their kids were out on the patio, just starting to clean up the mess—which was massive. Some of the roof of the outdoor kitchen had blown off, and pieces of it were scattered about. The owner told me (in Spanish) that it would take a week to get the place back to normal. I was really glad that that was the extent of it.
I packed the car and said goodbye to everyone, and I hit the road around 12:30 pm.
The Trek Back to Cabo San Lucas
I was surprised when I got to Ciudad Constitucion. It had gotten thrashed! I wasn't expecting this because the city is 60 km E of Puerto San Carlos and much further inland. But there were lots of broken winds, damaged facades, and downed signs—and serious flooding at major downtown intersections slowed traffic almost to a standstill.
Once I cleared the city, the trek to La Paz was treacherous. I had to drive through several very deep and wide puddles, and the car almost stalled out a couple of times. Each time, it seemed that if the puddle had been just two inches deeper, I wouldn't have made it—and I started to really doubt I was going to make it back to Cabo that day. I started getting very depressed.
The real test came when I reached a fifty-foot section of highway that had been totally washed out—surface and all. A few cars were stopped on the other side, and several men had gotten out to inspect the washout and assess the risk of trying to cross it. A driver on my side—who had made it across in a truck—told me the water wasn't that deep, but the surface was very rough and could damage the car. He thought I could get across, although it was risky. A fellow from the other side rolled up his pants and walked across—it wasn't that deep, really. Not having any other choice-- and with several trucks now backed up behind my car—I decided to cross. What else was I going to do—sit there all day? So I got back in my car, started it, held my breath, and just stepped on the gas.
Imagine my relief to make it across. The guys on the other side smiled when I arrived—and I hope my crossing inspired them to cross, too!
I wasn't exactly euphoric, however, because at any time I expected to hit some uncrossable barrier. Thank God, that wasn't the case. In fact, the washout was the grand finale—the last big test. Despite my fears, there were no major additional obstacles the rest of the way. The sun came out when I neared La Paz, and it was a nice day as I passed through charming little Todos Santos and got back to Cabo San Lucas—tired but just glad. Total trip time was a little more than six hours, I think.
I settled back into the hotel and—totally starving—had two dinners: one at McDonald's and one at a Mexican place.
5. Final Thoughts
- Infrared looks are deceiving. Jimena was not looking so amazing on infrared imagery the night before it hit—and I saw a lot of folks were suggesting it wouldn't even reach the coast as a hurricane. That was not the case. In fact, Jimena was the most severe non-major hurricane I've been in. I have new respect for Cat-2 hurricanes after being in this one. As Scott says, we have to be careful when interpreting infrared imagery—it doesn't tell the whole story.
- Weakening hurricanes aren't always lame. I'd gotten it into my head recently that a weakening hurricane is automatically a piece of crap with a bad, loose structure and lame winds. Jimena reminded me that I'd gone too far with this prejudice. Jimena was actually a tight cyclone when it hit Puerto San Carlos—a small system with a compact, angry little core. We have no radar, unfortunately, but conditions on the ground—a well-defined, rain-free eye with both the front and back eyewalls packing heavy punch—suggested a nicely structured, compact core. Jimena was a fine specimen—weakening or not.
- EPAC chasing is still dicey. I'm not in a hurry to chase on this side again. This chase worked out beautifully, but it was luck. It could have just as easily busted. On the other hand, it's cool to finally be so familiar with Baja California Sur. I feel prepared for future chasing here, when the setup looks good.
6. Big Thanks!
Thanks to everyone who participated in this thread and wished me well—it means a lot to me. I also have to give special thanks to:
- Scott Brownfield. While he couldn't physically come on this chase, he practically was chasing this with me, and he was my only connection to the outside world—and critical data—during the final hours.
- pman. He did a ton of research Re: chase locations, etc., and this was particularly valuable to me given that this chase was not one of my better-planned expeditions. It was very last-minute. I was in a constant rush from the moment I decided to chase this one, and pman's work saved me a lot of time.
- Bob Schafer. He did all of the image archiving—about as thoroughly as you can imagine.