TAMPA, Fla. — Last week, 10News was aboard one of the last Hurricane Hunter missions flying straight into the eye of Hurricane Harvey just hours before the storm made landfall in Texas.
On board were some of the best NOAA meteorologists and researchers, all working to gather vital data used by forecasters and emergency planners to make last minute preparations and decisions before the storm.
The Hurricane Hunter’s WP-3D Orion, nicknamed KERMIT, lifted off from the NOAA Air Operations Center in Lakeland around 10 a.m. Friday.
The flight took researchers out over the Gulf of Mexico on a collision course with Hurricane Harvey, at the time a rapidly intensifying Category 2 storm.
“If you’ve never been on one before, it’s going to be rough! You’re going to be questioning yourself, why did I sign up for this,” said Michael Ross McAlyster, a NOAA Science & Engineering Tech.
Two hours later, we hit the outer bands of Harvey and that’s when the real work began.
For the next four hours, the aircraft would fly through every corner of the storm, dropping sensors along the way.
“The drop sensors fall out of the aircraft on a small chute and they have a host of sensors on board: a humidity indicator, temperature sensor and barometric pressure. It relays information back to us real time as it falls through the atmosphere,” said McAlyster.
Once inside Harvey’s eye, the flight got smooth and the cockpit got bright. For the first time in hours we saw blue skies and sunshine as we were looking straight up into Harvey’s eye.
“It’s really been a phenomenal evolution over the past six hours,” said NOAA Hurricane Center researcher Jason Sippel.
This flight was of particular interest to him: not only is the data vital to his research but he’s one of the several people on board from Texas.
“I have a lot of friends and family in Texas and I have a lot of people exploring my Facebook account asking questions … and I try to update them the best I can.
Already he knew Harvey would likely bring catastrophic conditions to many of his loved ones back home, including his cousins living in Houston.
“The biggest impact from Houston is rain. I’ve seen some model forecasts put out 30 inches of rain near Houston. That would be a truly catastrophic flooding situation,” said Sippel
After our flight landed, Sippel urged relatives to evacuate flood-prone areas, including a close friend whose mother just had open heart surgery. But his cousins live in an area that "never" floods and they elected to stay.
Now, days later, his prediction is even worse than first thought.
“It’s beyond imagination,” said Sippel. “I don’t even think Hollywood, short of ‘Sharknado,’ could realistically come up with something this bad.”
He says his cousins are safe but remain trapped in their home.
“They got a foot of water in their house. They can’t get out.”
Sippel sends his thoughts and prayers to the people of Texas.
“It is going to be a long road ahead,” he said.
He hopes to continue perfecting his forecast models to give future storm victims the most accurate information and warnings.
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