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Hurricane Rita Chase - September 20th 2005

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Only a year after chasing hurricane Frances I went back to Florida to chase yet another storm. During the afternoon and the day on September 17th developed a tropical depression which was later to be named tropical storm Rita, this system developed in roughly the same area were hurricane Katrina developed a few weeks prior to this one, but a little further north. I was maintaining constant contact by e-mail and phone with Jim Leonard about the potential of this storm becoming a threat for South Florida and the FL Keys as that area proved to be a "hot spot" for tropical development during that hurricane season. In the afternoon of September 18th I decided to buy a ticket to Ft. Lauderdale arriving in the night of the 19th, only 20 hours prior to CPA of the storm.

I arrived to Fort Lauderdale at around 9 pm of the 19th after quite a rough flight from San Juan due to the storm and at the time the first feeder band hit the airport we landed when there were reports of 60 mph gusts with that squall. I was received there by storm chaser David Frank which was going to chase the storm with Jim and myself. We reunited with Jim Leonard at Florida City a few hours later and headed to his place at Islamorada on the Middle Keys. By that time Rita was still a tropical storm and was organizing faster than on the previous hours. The morning of September 20th received us with tropical storm conditions affecting the area and storm surge which started to flood all the way to the main road of the Keys, cutting the path at many areas. We documented the storm surge coming inland right at Jim's place, probably a 3-5 ft storm surge and then we decided to head towards Key West as the storm was projected to pass south of the island chain and we were going to be unable to head there if the storm surge kept rising. As we headed through the area we took quite a bit of footage of tropical storm conditions gusting to near hurricane force and storm surge shots at Marathon and Big Pine Key. We arrived at 3 pm to Key West were the winds were increasing and the storm surge was covering parts of the road at the south side of the island. Between 3-5 pm the eye of hurricane Rita passed its closest point of approach to Key West at around 40 miles due south and the eyewall around 10-20 miles offshore. Rita by that time was strengthening fast with winds of around 100 mph sustained in the eyewall and increasing. The strongest winds of the storm missed the island by a few miles but still we were able to experience sustained hurricane force winds during squalls in the period between 4-7 pm . We estimated the winds to be sustained around 75-80 mph gusting to near 100 mph at the strongest part of some of the squalls, specially around 5-530 pm. This estimate was supported by a report of a sustained 10-min wind of 73 mph with a gust of 90 mph at Sand Key (40 m height) just a few miles away from our position. This 10-min wind can be converted to a sustained 1-min wind of around 83 mph and the instrument later failed. The time of this report coincided with the strongest squall that we experienced. We also took footage of the waves crashing right at the Southern Most Point were the water flooded streets and the storm surge came a few blocks inland.

After 730 pm when the winds were still quite strong, we started our return to Islamorada and surprisingly we found an open restaurant at Marathon Key were the winds were much lower than in Key West. We arrived at Islamorada near midnight were there was a lot of storm surge damage in the road at the Lower Matecumbe. The morning after the storm moved away I filmed part of the storm surge damage at the road and nearby beaches with clean-up processes being started. The damage at the Keys was relatively minimal compared to what it could have been if the hurricane had move just a bit further north. To our surprise the storm maintained an impressive rate of deepening and at 11 pm on the 21st (just a day after bypassing the Keys) the pressure fell to an incredible 895 mb becoming the fourth-lowest pressure reading ever in the Atlantic Basin, winds were estimated to be sustained at around 180 mph during that time. At that time I had already arrived back to Puerto Rico a few hours earlier. It was quite an experience to chase this storm and more amazing to me is that I chased what later became one of the strongest storms ever in this basin.

 

All images above except satellite pictures: Copyrights © José M. García