While most tried to evade Hurricane Laura as it traveled along the southern coast of the United States, one group of Red Raiders traveled to the coast to learn more about the hurricane’s features.
The Texas Tech Hurricane Research Team (TTUHRT) traveled to different points along Hurricane Laura’s expected path to record data regarding the hurricane’s wind speed.
Brian Hirth, research professor with the Tech National Wind Institute (NWI), said the program has different equipment that is deployed in hurricane environments.
For the Hurricane Laura field research, Hirth said 48 StickNet platforms, which are portable weather stations, were deployed along the coastal area from the east side of Galveston Bay to southeast of Lafayette, Louisiana. The group also utilized two mobile Doppler radars.
During the drive, which started when the team left Lubbock on Aug. 24, the TTUHRT members tried to identify different deployment areas, Hirth said. It is non-stop work until deployment.
When doing hurricane field research, the team will depart Lubbock days before the hurricane’s landfall because of the drive it takes to get to a certain coast and due to the fact that it takes two full days to deploy the StickNet equipment, Hirth said.
The team deployed the equipment on Aug. 25 and Aug. 26, with a concentration of the StickNet platforms being placed from the Texas state line east towards Lake Charles, Louisiana where the highest impact was expected, Hirth said. When not in the field, team members stayed at a hotel in Baytown.
“And yes, we get up very early to start the deployment, usually before the sun’s up, so that we can arrive at the first deployment sites at about the time first light happens,” he said.
Getting up early helps maximize the time to work during the day and makes the deployment easier when most of the general public is not yet awake, Hirth said.
“When these major storms make landfall, obviously these people are evacuating or at least out and about trying to buy supplies, gas, whatever the case may be,” he said. “So, you tend to run into a lot of added congestion that can slow up the work that we’re trying to do.”
The storm made landfall the night of the second day of deployment, Hirth said. The team later picked up the deployed equipment the following Thursday and Friday and drove back to Lubbock on Saturday, Aug. 29.
Even though the StickNet platforms were deployed near the coast, Hirth said the position of the radar trucks had to be in a different location.
Because the team was expecting high wind speeds with the core of the hurricane and because the radar trucks are required to be manned in order to operate, Hirth said the radar trucks were deployed elsewhere as a safety concern.
“So, we ended up deploying them on the west side of the strongest part of the wind field,” he said, “and those were deployed in Port Arthur.”
When conducting this research, Hirth said there were multiple goals.
“The first was to document the breadth of the wind field and understand what the distribution of the wind field was across the entire storm circulation,” he said. “So, that’s why we deployed 48 platforms spanning from Galveston Bay all the way to east of Lafayette. Of course we’re interested in the highest wind speeds experienced right near the center of the hurricane. We also wanted to better understand what the full distribution of the wind field looked like.”
The results of this research helps provide a better understanding of general hurricane structures, Hirth said. With the radars deployed together, the team was able to develop dual-Doppler wind fields, which allows one to map the full wind fields at different heights.
It is important to know the power and the variability of the wind to understand how buildings can withstand hurricanes, Hirth said. Also, with this information, the insurance industry can know where the strongest winds occur and how to handle different insurance claims related to natural disasters.
“With this trip, there were several firsts for us,” he said. “This was the most equipment we ever deployed into a hurricane. Taking 48 StickNet platforms and both radars. This trip, also, represented the highest wind speeds we ever measured with the StickNet platforms, so we’re still sorting through the data to get the numbers right because some of the platforms were impacted by debris.”
Seven platforms failed after being hit by debris, Hirth said. This was unique, as there were such high wind speeds that allowed for a lot of flying debris.
Several platforms recorded wind speeds of more than 120 miles per hour, Hirth said. Those are the strongest winds that have been experienced during field research within the program.
“But all-in-all, we deployed 48 platforms, and all 48 platforms recorded data up until either they failed due to debris impact or otherwise they reported throughout the storm,” he said. “So, we had a really good deployment where all the equipment functioned correctly, and so that made it a very successful deployment for us.”
Along with these successes, Hirth said the radars collected nearly 10 hours of uninterrupted data, which is important for future research.
Anna Thomas, director of operations at the NWI and research assistant professor, said, as one of the three team leaders participating in the field research, the experience is important from a scientific perspective.
“A lot of the forecasts, especially with Hurricane Laura, they were spot on,” she said. “But if you look at previous storms, especially if you look at [Hurricane Irma] or [Hurricane Dorian], there were big changes that happened to where exactly they hit.”
The field research helps to improve modeling and forecasts, Thomas said.
“I think also if you look at some of the different forecasting and weather channels as they’re broadcasting during a hurricane, a lot of the people in the areas that are more prone and susceptible to storms, in a lot of ways, they hear the forecasting where we’re crying wolf over and over,” she said.
In the event a hurricane was not as devastating as stated in a certain forecast, Thomas said people will stop trusting that forecasting system.
“For us, we’re really trying to marry the truth and the actual data with the forecast, so that we can provide, as close as possible, correct information to the public that we can get out there.”
Regardless of the potential data that was collected from this research, the experience one gains from participating in the research could add other benefits.
Matthew Asel, a first-year master’s student in the atmospheric science field from South Bend, Indiana, said this field research experience was his first regarding the study of hurricanes. He said the experience was beneficial, as he is a visual learner.
“By actually getting to see something helps me learn better,” he said. “So, by actually getting to witness and then also feel the power of the wind, it actually helped make me realize what a hurricane is; how strong it can be.”
When out in the field, Asel said his adrenaline was running at certain times. There was a point where the truck he was in started to rock due to the peak wind speeds, which led to them undeploying the truck to move it to a safer location.
“Even though it was sort of a scary experience, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything,” he said. “It was still really really fun and really interesting to be there. You don’t really realize the power of those winds and destructive forces until you can actually feel them and experience them.”
When it comes to dealing with hurricanes, safety precautions may be a top priority when conducting field research.
With the pandemic being an issue, Hirth said the team also implemented different health precautions.
Whether it be wiping touch points with disinfectant or not making a lot of stops at restaurants and other places, Hirth said there were different precautions that were taken.
At least two people are required to be in each vehicle for safety purposes, Hirth said. Team members had to make sure to not to jump around from vehicle to vehicle to avoid a spread of germs.
“We spent a lot of time in the vehicles during this trip, so we just tried to make sure that our environment in the vehicles was as clean as possible,” he said.
Despite the different risks present during this field research experience, the trip can be fulfilling in a variety of ways for those involved.
“We’re doing stuff that really no one else in the country is doing,” Hirth said. “So, it’s really a unique experience, especially for the graduate students.”
It was neat to be a part of this field research and represent the university, Hirth said.
“Texas Tech is one of only a few universities in the country that does this kind of field work in hurricanes,” he said, “and Texas Tech, by far, brings the most equipment to the field of any other university that does this kind of work.”