While hundreds of thousands of people are driving away from approaching hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, Mark Sudduth is headed the opposite direction. For nearly 20 years, Sudduth has navigated his specially-outfitted SUVs toward a hurricane’s expected landfall. His goal is to capture the sheer power and impact of Mother Nature, to better educate anyone who might someday be in the path of a potentially deadly storm.
“It’s like a movie, but it’s real,” Sudduth said just hours after returning from his latest trip, to collect scientific data when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida. “Irma was a great example. The southbound lane of I-95 was just empty, and the northbound lane, cars just as far as the eye could see. It has got to be dreadful to evacuate like that. So, I see it, and there’s hardly a word to describe it. I do empathize, and I realize that some of those people are going to go back home to nothing.”
Sudduth grew up in New Bern, North Carolina, and spent a lot of time visiting the beach. He recalls attending a hurricane expo and watching a documentary film by the U.S. Department of Civil Defense entitled “A Lady Called Camille”, about the impact Hurricane Camille had when it ravaged coastal Mississippi as a Category 5 storm in August 1969. After graduating UNC Wilmington in 1995 with a degree in geography, Sudduth turned his education and passion into a career. He developed storm surge maps with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That led to founding HurricaneTrack.com, a website dedicated to his mission of collecting data from hurricanes to use for educational purposes.
“As soon as a I graduated, I went to work for Wilmington Industrial Development as an intern,” he remembers. “The guy that hired me said he needed a report to get businesses to come to Wilmington, invest and build here, and we need to show them that we don’t have a hurricane problem. So, I did this research, and my report was just the opposite. He didn’t like it, but it was the truth.”
Sudduth said that’s when he realized there was a need for a different way of approaching hurricane preparedness and information. He started Hurricane Maps Enterprises, producing large, poster-size storm surge and hurricane tracking maps that featured updated graphics, to get the attention of residents living along the coast, including the newcomers who had never been through a hurricane. That effort coincided with one of the busiest periods of hurricane activity and damage along the North Carolina coast. Hurricanes Bertha and Fran made landfall in the Cape Fear area in 1996, Bonnie made landfall near Wilmington in 1998, Dennis and Floyd were just two weeks apart when they hit the coast in 1999.
“I was right here in Wilmington and we had basically five (hurricanes) from ’96 to ’99, and the rest is history,” Sudduth says of his career being involved with hurricane preparedness and education. In the early days, he said he drove into the storms and shot storm surge and flooding with his video camera, and gathered wind and pressure data with instruments mounted on his vehicle. He thought the scientific data would be more valuable in the long run than shooting video of someone’s house being destroyed.
“I learned little things like filming the highest part of the (storm) surge during Floyd,” Sudduth remembers of the ’96 storm. “I was at Greensboro street in Wrightsville Beach, and the surge is coming in, everything is filling up. To be able to film it just right, at the peak of the eye, and then take it to the Army Corps of Engineers, and then we went out, took a survey, and we knew exactly how high the storm surge was. There was no approximation. I realized this could go forward.” After meeting with Steve Lyons, a Weather Channel meteorologist, Sudduth’s idea of putting a camera on a beach and sending back video during the storm began to take shape. He talks about that at 14:00 of the podcast.
By 2005 Sudduth had a relationship with Sprint, and using 3G technology, he had developed a way to send live video back from his vehicle during a storm. The next step was putting that equipment inside a protected box, with battery power, and secure it in place to record and feed video. Sudduth launched it in Gulfport, Mississippi during Category 3 Hurricane Katrina, which he has documented in one of his “Tracking the Hurricanes” DVDs. He talks about the experiment at 16:00 of the podcast.
“Three cameras were set up, and all three were working in one form or another,” Sudduth says about the equipment. “The only one that anybody ever recorded anything from was the one in downtown Gulfport facing the post office that a gentleman in Florida who ran another website called Hurricanecity.com was watching and recording onto VHS tape himself. He recorded that one, and the other two were in and out and I figured we’d just go back and get them, and at least we got the tape.” Sudduth only found one of the three cameras he had set up, and video problems kept him from achieving complete success. It was Hurricane Ike in September of 2008 where Sudduth’s vision worked for streaming and recording video, while also gathering essential storm surge data. That story begins at 20:30 of the podcast.
Sudduth’s equipment has advanced in the years since those early days. Now he takes compact units on assignments to accomplish the goal of recording data and video, while also streaming to visitors on his website. Sudduth spent almost two weeks in the Houston area before, during and after Hurricane Harvey. The amount of rainfall that the storm poured on southern Texas left him astonished.
“Just for me to realize that I was in a city that recorded 52 inches of rainfall in a few days time,” he says. “52 inches! When you hear that much snow somewhere you’re aghast. This is liquid that fell from the sky. All that rain on that bayou system they have there, the swamp it’s built on basically just couldn’t handle it.”
Sudduth returned to Wilmington, and with a few days rest he began making plans for his wife and children to leave in case Hurricane Irma turned north and headed toward the coast of North Carolina. He took off for Florida and set up in Marathon Key, where he gathered what he calls “great meteorological data” from the massive storm.
“The main thing is to help people understand the impact,” Sudduth says of the information and video he collects. “They read and they hear about it, wind, rain, storm surge, and sometimes tornadoes. But what does that mean exactly? What does that look like? Handheld video is one thing. But (with) a fixed camera, we can show the process for the entire duration (of the hurricane), that really helps you understand what’s happening. It’s not that “bam, waves coming up” dramatic money shot that so many think ‘that’s what a hurricane is!’ It’s not. It’s a process that takes a while to build up.”
From Naples Florida and my unmanned camera that witnessed quite an event today: before and after pic.twitter.com/4jN0MhJHit— Mark Sudduth (@hurricanetrack) September 11, 2017
Sudduth admits there is not a lot of financial reward with the career path he’s chosen. We talked in the podcast about how he relies on contributions from website subscribers to pay the bills, which can add up to thousands of dollars per mission. He shared stories of being worried about his own safety while collecting data during Cat 4 Hurricane Charley in 2004, and helping a small town in New Jersey get prepared for and endure Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the subsequent ‘thank you’ he received afterward from Governor Chris Christie. Sudduth doesn’t consider himself a “stormchaser”, saying that term best describes the crews in the Midwest that pursue and document tornadoes. Sudduth says he’s in it for the scientific benefit, to learn more about how hurricanes can impact lives and communities. We’re just lucky he can take us along for the ride on HurricaneTrack.com. I know you’ll enjoy our conversation.
You can listen to the entire interview with Mark Sudduth on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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