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Hurricane Rita
Loaded Gun Chasing
Hurricane Rita in Beaumont, Texas
September 24, 2005
Shepard Smith with Fox News
broadcasting live during Hurricane Rita


Rita was the third category 5 hurricane in an incredible 2005
Atlantic hurricane season. It was the fourth most intense
Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense
hurricane ever in the Gulf of Mexico. Rita made landfall along
the Texas-Louisiana border as a category 3 on September 24,
2005. The storm caused $11.3 billion in damage, killed seven
people directly, and many more died in evacuations and from
other indirect effects. It was an impressive tropical cyclone to
say the least.



I targeted Beaumont, Texas, which took a hit from the NW
portion of the eye wall. I had enough gear and supplies in my
car to get by for a week or more if I got stranded. Since this
was my first hurricane chase and I was chasing alone I took it
very seriously and wanted to make sure that I was more than
prepared. Nothing can prepare you for that experience though.

Being in an area where a hurricane hits is very much like I
would expect a war zone to be like. There was no gas once
you got South of Dallas. The highways leading away from the
coast were at a stand still with bumper to bumper traffic. Cars
that had run out of gas were everywhere with stranded people
camping in the ditches. It was unbelievable. The drive to and
from Beaumont were half of the experience. On the way out
there was debris everywhere. Huge trees and parts of houses
were in the middle of the roads. Flat tires are a serious
problem with all that debris that you have to drive over. Until
you see it, you can never imagine the displacement and turmoil
a major hurricane causes.

In my mind there were two approaches to chasing a hurricane.
You can ride it out in a parking garage or you can try to find a
sturdy building to hide behind. Parking garages are definitely
the safest option. You won't get hit with debris and you are
high enough to be safe from any flooding. The downside to
the parking garage is that you aren't going to get that great
of video. You need to get close to a business or residential
district to really see debris flying. Finding a sturdy building to
hide behind is the option I chose, strictly because I wanted to
get extraordinary video. In hindsight it was probably a pretty
stupid thing to do considering it was my first hurricane and I
was alone. Taking shelter some where besides a parking
garage is a huge gamble. You are much more exposed to the
elements and once the eye of the hurricane approaches you
are stuck there regardless of what happens. There is no 911 in
a hurricane. You are on your own completely and it can be a
very scary and lonely feeling when things go wrong.


In a last minute decision I decided to ride Rita out in downtown
Beaumont. I had initially gone to a parking garage, where
many other chasers were. While I was waiting on the approach
of the eye of the storm, I kept driving around town shooting
video. I found a spot in downtown where Fox News and
MSNBC were broadcasting live. They were huddled up to the
side of a building (on the downwind side) with their satellite
trucks. I figured it must be safe if they were going to park
million dollar satellite trucks there. That was a bad assumption.
Anyways, at the last minute before the eye wall approached I
decided to leave the parking garage and ride it out in
downtown Beaumont. It was about a mile drive from the
garage to downtown. About half way there things started to
get really scary. The winds had picked up dramatically and
debris was starting to fly around. Once I reached the building I
was going to take shelter behind I knew there was no going
back.


Everything went fine until the roof started coming off the
building I was parked behind. It wasn't too bad at first. I could
just hear little pieces of the building raining down, but then all
of a sudden there was a strong gust and the debris started
getting worse. Two of my windows shattered instantly. I
backed my car up as close to the building as possible and tried
to shield myself behind Fox New's satellite truck. Apparently
the crew from Fox News had worked out some deal with the
owner of the building we were by because they had taken
shelter inside the building about thirty minutes before the roof
came off. The crew from MSNBC made an extremely ballsy
decision and tried to make a run for it after the roof had
broken out mine and several of their windows. I decided to
follow them because I didn't want to be left alone by that
building just in case I got hurt. We made a quick escape to an
area of bars about a quarter mile away that had a steel deck
overhang on the second floor level of the building. We backed
right up on the side walk and hid under that steel deck. I
couldn't see much from there for shooting video, but at that
point I didn't even care. I just wanted a safe place to take
shelter before the eye wall reached us. At this point we were
about 45 minutes away from the eye of the hurricane and the
strongest winds.


When the eye approached the sound of the wind was
deafening. It sounded exactly like the roar a jet makes when it
takes off, but louder and deeper. It was probably the eeriest
sound I have ever heard. It really didn't sound natural. It was
constant and terrifying. I stayed under that steel deck until the
eye passed and the winds died down. The sun was starting to
come up by that time and the devestation became apparent.

I was totally exhausted by this point. I dealt with the media for
a little bit trying to sell video and then headed home. I only
took a few pictures of damage on my way. I regret not
documenting the damage left behind better, but at the time I
was so tired and worn out that all I wanted to do was go
home and sleep. I had been up for almost two days straight .  
I couldn't find a hotel room until I got North of Oklahoma City
due to all the evacuations. That was another lesson learned.
Make hotel reservations if you are going to chase a hurricane.

All in all hurricane Rita was an amazing experience that I will
never forget. It was the end of an amazing summer that I
spent storm chasing full time. I learned a lot from that first
hurricane chase that I will be able to apply to future chases. I
haven't chased another hurricane since then just because
there weren't any major (cat. 3-5) landfalling U.S. hurricanes
in 2006, but hopefully there will be one this year. I will
definitely be there when it happens.
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