Here’s A Harrowing Video Shot During The Cat. 5 Storm And The Full Account Of What It Looks Like To Be In The Eye Of The Hurricane From The Chaser Who Filmed It.
Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, was heavily damaged earlier last year after Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, tore through the base in October 2018. Mission capable F-22s assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing were “Hurrevaced” to Wright-Patterson AFB (and later relocated to Joint Base Langley-Eustis): at that time 31 percent of 55 Raptors assigned to the unit were NMC (non-mission capable) and could not be moved away. So they were sheltered in place and consequently damaged: photos of F-22s and QF-16s in Tyndall’s shredded hangars made the news and started circulating social media.
But what being in the eye of Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle with winds exceeding 150 mph and causing “widespread catastrophic damage”, looked like? The video below may give a hint. It was filmed by Bart Comstock as part of team of storm chasers which included Jason Cooley, Evan Hatch and Marcus Diaz.
Along with presenting the somehow frightening video, we reached out to Bart to get his first hand account of the chase of Hurricane Michael that brought him and his team inside Tyndall AFB that day.
Hi Bart, first of all thank you for your time. Can you please tell us something more about you?
I have been chasing storms since 2009 and cover all forms of natural disasters, not just tornadoes and hurricanes. I have been in 11 tropical cyclones (the type of storm a hurricane is) and part of a rare club of people to have been on an EF-5 tornado while it was on the ground, and in the eye of a category 5 hurricane at peak intensity.
I am highly experienced in surviving and documenting severe weather and natural disasters in-situ and do not recommend anyone tries to emulate my aggressive chasing style that often puts me in harm’s way and in situations that could kill you if you do not have the experience and knowledge that comes with chasing for as long as I have. I also was part of a team of four chasers, with all of us having experience chasing together and being in hurricanes. Jason Cooley (driver), Evan Hatch (navigator), Marcus Diaz (camera operator), and myself (also a camera operator) all worked together on our forecast for this storm and we are all veterans at what we do so that if one of us were incapacitated the rest of us could fill their role and also help treat them and forecast as well. Jason lived in Lewisville, TX, Marcus is from Amarillo, TX, and both Evan and my self live in Oklahoma City, OK.
So, what about Hurricane Michael?
On the late evening of October 9th my team and I met in Lewisville, TX (a suburb in DFW) and quickly made our way to Florida with the intention of intercepting Hurricane Michael. Normally when chasing a hurricane we have time to prep and plan how we will tackle a storm and get there a full day ahead of the storm so we can find shelter but this storm was not going to afford us that luxury. Hurricane Michael was a very fast-moving storm that formed late in the season, and it was gaining strength just as rapidly as it was racing to Florida. Normally a fast-moving storm that forms that late in the year behaves more like Hurricane Nate of the previous year and is not worth cost and effort to travel from the plains to it, and so we waited until the very last second to pull the trigger on this storm.
When we first started to exit the Dallas metro we knew that Michael was rapidly intensifying and as we drove through the gulf states on our way we became increasingly concerned that what we had assumed would only be a mid-range cat 3 at landfall was going to make a serious run on being a high-end cat 4 or even stronger. This made us nervous but still determined to intercept the eye of the storm. I have been in 11 tropical cyclones, including category 4 Hurricane Harvey and thought I was prepared for what I was to face in Michael. By the time we made it to Mississippi, it was clear that given the storm’s current track my family in Panama City needed to re-evaluate where they were to shelter. Initially, they were to stay in their homes but with the updated forecast it looked as if they would be at the risk of the surge and the full brunt of the storm’s eyewall (the most destructive part of the storm). Frantically I worked to reach them and were able to convince them to shelter inside one of the major hospitals that were in the city in my cousin’s office there.
Despite driving as fast as we could we were greeted by rapidly deteriorating conditions in Panama City. Our best efforts to beat the storm to our target were not good enough already the area was deeply entrenched in tropical storm force conditions. Until this point, it looked as if the storm was going to directly hit Panama City and our plan was to take cover in a parking deck in town. This would allow us to stay safe from the wind and surge but also allow us to be able to shoot the footage we would need during the storm. Unfortunately for us and the town of Mexico Beach, the storm began to wobble to the right and it now looked as if landfall was going to happen near or at Tyndall AFB. Already experiencing hurricane-force gusts none of my team was ready to take a chance and try to see if we could get to Tyndall and find a place to ride the storm out before the eyewall made it ashore.
I was able to talk my team into just driving out quickly to have a look and was trying even harder to get us to set up in Mexico Beach, FL. With Mexico Beach set to be nearly wiped out by storm surge that option was not even one to be considered by the others so instead we parked in between the main gates of the base on the highway in a mid-2000s Honda Civic. We first decided we would stay for just a moment and get some video from the edge of the stronger cat 3 winds and then bail west before the tall pines of the national forest started to fall across the road, but the storm was moving too fast and it was not long before we became stranded where we were in the middle of the airbase on the highway that cuts through it where we knew we would be safe from the surge.
However, you remained there for quite some time.
Despite this storm moving much faster than most hurricanes, for us in the vehicle the next few hours would feel like an eternity. The winds were unrelenting and seemed to never stop getting stronger. The car bucked and rocked and felt as if any moment the wind would catch it and push us over as it had done to many of the cars left on base. As we started to get into the meat of the eyewall buildings began to come apart, showering us with debris in a constant stream that moved in excess of 150mph. Trying out best to keep ourselves shielded we would continue to reposition the vehicle so that the rear of the car faced the wind. All of our windows were directly exposed except for the rear window. Being protected by the shape of the truck and the large fuel cans strapped atop it, the rear window was able to be missed by most of the larger debris. This would not last as the debris became bigger, and bigger until finally something large enough was able to rip into the gas cans and tear several off. This moment can be heard in my video as I comment that I can smell gas. (Because hurricanes knock power out to such large areas and the evacuations consist of thousands of vehicles when you chase a hurricane you must bring your own gas. This gas has to be left outside of the car since the rapidly falling air pressure will gas the cans to balloon up with fumes and would be deadly if left inside the car.)
We quickly turned off the car and began to weigh our options as the sky began to brighten and we knew the eye was drawing close with its badly needed relief of the winds. Unfortunately, before we got there we would have to first pass through the strongest part of the storm, the area just on the edge of the eyewall right before you get in the calm of the eye. It was while in this zone that we would finally lose the rear window, shattering it and exposing us to the full brunt of the storm. In a panic, we were able to get the car started and turned around but now would have to face the winds head-on with no protection. It would still be another 30 min before we would get into the eye and during that time large pieces of debris continued to pound the car, leaving it cratered and even going so far as to puncture our tires and push into the engine bay where it punctured the battery and killed the civic.
Finally, the winds ceased, for a moment, as the eye was on us. Quickly we scrambled out of the car to survey the damage and realized if we wanted to survive this storm we would have to abandon our vehicle for someplace sturdier in the base. With the rear window busted and the winds destined to be coming from the opposite direction we knew that if we stayed in the car we would be forced to sit in those winds fully exposed with our car filling with water from the relentless rain in the eyewall and since the battery was now dead and several tires flat, we couldn’t turn the Civic to face a better way. So with all that taken into consideration, we quickly gathered up all our sensitive electronics and scrambled into the base which was completely deserted.
Yes, the video shows base buildings with significant roof and siding damage.
By this point, every building on the base had been made uninhabitable and had serious damage, our goal was to figure out which of these wrecked facilities had the best chance of making it through the next half of the storm without totally collapsing. It was like a scene from a monster or zombie movie where the heroes roll up on a completely abandoned and trashed military base and have to quickly find where they can survive before the horde makes it to them. The storm was moving fast and the calm of the storm would only last so long as the eye was over us. We had about 15 minutes to find where to hide settle in before we would be forced to turn back and take our chances in the car. Lucky for us there was one building close by that still had most of its roof and walls up, the Raptor Training Annex.
We had to climb our way into the building through the collapsed front offices of the building and using the map on the wall of the hallways we were able to find a classroom in the middle of the structure that was designated as the severe weather shelter. The room was dark and wet with water pouring out of the ceiling and causing the drop in tiles of the false ceiling to fall and hit the floor below with a loud splat. Much of the rooms in the building had standing water from all the rain and leaks ponding in them and this one was no exception so we decided to push all the desks together over the dryest spot of the floor and hide beneath them.
Once satisfied with our new home in the storm we left the building for just a moment to survey around us for the last 15 min we had and marvel in the sight of standing in the eye of such a storm. The eye was open and built like a giant model of the Roman Coliseum that stood tens of thousands of feet tall. It was nearly noon and so the sun was directly overhead, baking us in the still and humid air. Since hurricanes are warm-core storms and also areas of low pressure, the eye of the storm was very hot. It felt as if it were in the 90s with 100% humidity and no wind, and the air pressure had dropped so much it was like we had gone from sea-level to the elevation of Denver without ever leaving the same spot. Soon we could hear the approaching roar of the other side of the storm and we knew it was time to hide once more.
In the first half of the storm, the intensity of the winds steadily builds over time until it stops, almost instantly, as you make it in the eye. Now we would be forced to ride this out in reverse with the winds starting at their peak strength and slowly bleeding that off over time until it was calm and sunny once more. While the others stayed under the desks of the building I knew that this may be my one and only chance at getting footage of a storm this strong during the daylight (as its much more common for high-end Saffir-Simpson scale rated hurricanes to hit at night). Much to the horror of the others I went back outside into the wind and stood with my back against the leeward side of the building so that I could film without being blown away or hit by debris. This is when the building we were in would lose the rest of its roof with sheets of metal 50 yards long spraying off the roof and slammed into the parking lot before me and my camera’s gaze. After having filmed this spectacle and worried more of the building will come apart I decided to climb back into the safety of our shelter where I would ride out the rest of the storm.
What happened next?
Finally, Michael would move on forward with its march north into Georgia and allow us to climb out from hiding. As we climbed into the eerily calm Florida sunlight we began to fully grasp just what we had been through. The base was completely destroyed, looking like it had either sustained a heavy bombing campaign or was hit by the outer fringes of a nuclear blast. Nearly every tree was flattened, every building had lost its roof, most had even lost a wall or two on the side and a few were swept away into the fields next to them. It was a miracle we survived and we knew it. Upon making it back to our car we found the storm had taken another window out, ripped off both bumpers, flattened a third tire, ripped open the trunk, left a foot of water standing in the floor, and caved in the side panels that had faced the wind, and yet the Civic was lucky compared to the vehicles around it. Many a car had been rolled, had the roofs caved in with large debris, or pushed into a pile with the large debris and other vehicles near it.
The civic had only one spare and was going to need a battery and some larger pieces of debris untangled from its undercarriage. In one of the vehicles that had been utterly destroyed by the storm, we were able to find a battery that would get our car rolling again and with the help of copious amounts of duct tape and zip ties we were able to put the car back together enough that it would drive on the flats. It was just as we were leaving that we saw the first MPs starting to return to the base so they could secure it and they did not look like they were in a talking mood so we promptly left.
We wouldn’t make it far before a woman would flag us down desperate for help. Her husband had fallen from the roof of his house after the storm and was in serious need of medical attention. I am a certified rescue diver and first emergency responder and so did what I could to help. It was obvious that the man would need to be transported to a hospital but I did not have a way to safely move him given that he had shattered his hip, and broke several ribs and damaged his back and head. Calling 911 was of no help because the area was so badly damaged they told us it could be a day or two before someone could reach him so I set off in another chaser’s vehicle to find help. In the next town over we were able to locate some firefighters and with their assistance, we were able to load the man into the back of his own minivan which I then drove to the hospital.
The drive to the hospital would have normally only taken 10 minutes but thanks to the amount of damage and trees down we were forced to take a path that took nearly two hours as we cut and weaved our way through town to the hospital. Once there we were greeted with chaos as it too had taken enough damage to force parts of it to be evacuated. They were still able to take the man and he ended up being flown out of the area to another hospital out of the storm’s path. I would never hear from him again but have heard that he is recovering and made it.
From there it was off to find my own family. With no cellphones or power or internet, there was no way for me to see if they were okay. Upon finding where they had been sheltering in the city’s other hospital I was left only with a mystery. The hospital was dark and void of life, only a few security guards were left. During the height of the storm, the roof had come off the building and once the storm had passed everyone there was evacuated out of the area. Utterly exhausted and unable to get word of my family’s fate I decided to head back to the rest of the team where we spent the night in a van that was given to us for the night by the family that we helped to the hospital.
The night was long, humid, hot, and dark with shouts and noises of chainsaws cutting surrounding us in the distance. Despite all of this I was able to sleep soundly as I was just too worn out from the storm. The next day was equally humid and warm right from the get-go. Awaking shortly after the sun rose over the panhandle my team and I set out to get most storm video, edit more of the video we already had, and also looked around for any wheels and tires we could trade for so the car could roll. By lunchtime, we were able to have accomplished all of that and were soon on our way back to Dallas.
In fact, we were able to drive all the way back with little trouble from a car that should by no means been as sound as it was given what it had been through. Looking like it had just come from a demolition derby the Civic sailed down the interstate with flapping tarps covering the broken windows and all of us still wet huddled around the vents as we tried to stay warm with the car’s heater as we drove through the October night until finally at first light we had made it home to Texas safe and sound.
It must have been a frightening experience, isn’t it?
Hurricane Michael was a storm that I will never forget. I have been chasing storms since 2004 and have covered everything from massive wildfires to the craziest lake effect blizzards to EF5 tornadoes and yet the destruction brought on by this storm was mind-blowing even for someone who thought they had seen it all. It was exponentially more powerful than Hurricane Harvey was, which was still a category 4 storm! Michael was a category 5, the strongest category of hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson scale, and it shows in just how devastating it was on the communities it impacted. Its scar and economic impact will be seen for many many years in the Florida Panhandle, yet life goes on and the job of rebuilding is underway. It is heartbreaking to see how so many have lost so much there and for the storm to gut the heart of the area by destroying Tyndall AFB.
Did you go back there after the storm?
I was able to go back one month later with my team and toured much of the damage in Panama City, Tyndall AFB, and Mexico Beach. Already signs of life were spouting up as streets were cleared of debris and people were working to restore their properties, yet for the areas hardest hit it was still absolute destruction that makes it hard to imagine how they will ever gain back what they have lost.
Bart, thank you very much for sharing your experience with the readers at The Aviationist.
Ok, we have talked so much about this video, here it is. Some important marks in the footage: at 7:11 mark the group of chasers park their car right outside the Gate at the main intersection (you can see the Tyndall AFB street sign). Around 16:00 min mark – the eye, the get out, then run onto the base at an F-22 ops bldg before the backside falls.
In the aftermath of the storm, the Air Force made a first assessment of the damages that revelead that the F-22s that had remained in Tyndall when Hurricane Michael struck were not as badly damaged as originally feared. Some F-22s that sustained minor damages were moved to Joint Base Langly-Eustis, Virginia.
H/T to our friend Jim Edds who pointed us to Bart and his video!