Mike Theiss, President of Ultimate Chase, has documented over 25 Hurricane landfalls since 1987 and penatrated the calm eye of 8 of these Hurricanes !
By: Mike Theiss , 11:39 PM GMT on August 21, 2007
Hurricane Dean Chase Account From Dominica:
Iíve always wanted to document a Hurricane in the Lesser Antilles and saw Dean as the perfect opportunity. I knew there was a chance I would miss Deanís later landfall in the Yucatan as a stronger Hurricane but decided to go for it. I knew Dean would be a strengthening Cat-2 when passing the islands but didnít know for sure if Martinique or Dominica would take the direct hit. I flew to Puerto Rico and waited as long as I could before the flights were about to be canceled and chose Dominica. The flight to Dominica was amazing! The plane flew through the rain forest mountains and valleys and we had to make a quick decent since the runway was short and because of the mountains we could not make a gradual decent. It was a wild landing to what would be the beginning of a wild expedition. I arrived to the airport to find many tourists panicking trying to get off the island. This is typical before a hurricane is about to strike a location. I have arrived to many locations and seen this reaction from people every time. Funny how Iím always the only person desperately trying to get into position for the storm and everyone else is trying to get away.
I went to my reserved hotel in the town of Roseau on the southern tip of the island and began to unpack all my gear and prep for the next morning when the Hurricane conditions would arrive. The staff at the ďGarraway HotelĒ was finishing up last minute preparations and did a fantastic job making things safe for the guests. I felt extremely safe and accommodated by the excellent staff and was pleased to hear the hotel had a brand new back up generator so we would never lose power. I headed out into town with the last hour of daylight left to try and stock up on water and food since I always prepare for the worst and want enough food and water to be self sufficient for at least 7 days. I had no luck since the only stores open have huge lines and basically are already sold out of supplies anyway. I get back to the hotel and ask where I can get some water and food and I'm directed to the bar where I was able to buy 6 gallons of water and some other food supplies. Like I said the hospitality at the Garraway Hotel was amazing. I decided to get a few hours sleep before things got interesting and was able to get a solid 2 hours of sleep until....
Crash! I was startled out of bed at 5:30am from a loud crashing sound of a large piece of sheet metal hitting the side of the hotel. Winds were picking up and daybreak was coming real soon. I never bother going outside when still dark because there is no point if I canít shoot video and photos. I analyzed the storm on the internet and realized the island Martinique just to the south will take a direct hit and Dominica will be spared from the worst winds. My attention then shifts from documenting wind to documenting any landslides or flash flooding that may occur. The island of Dominica is mountainous and I knew with the heavy rains we would experience that there was going to be some issues with mudslides and flash floods coming down the mountainside.
Daybreak! I venture outside and the winds are blowing about 65mph and giant swells are starting to come in and crash over the seawall. Throughout the morning the winds shifted as the storms center passed and now the winds were causing havoc. The gusts were probably no more than 65mph but there was a lot of loose pieces of sheet metal and other debris that made this a dangerous situation. The hotel had locked in all the guests in the hotel for their own safety so I shot video out my hotel room window for the first few hours as the strongest winds passed by. The winds were starting to calm down by 12noon but the rain never slowed down and I just knew this was going to cause problems and be the main story for this expedition. I ventured my way over to where a small flash flood had started and in the matter of an hour this small flash flood became a raging class 5 rapids of rushing brown water and mud that was coming down the mountainside. I was having a tough time getting video because I could not keep the video camera dry. I decided to run back to the hotel and get my brand new underwater housing I bought for my still camera and give the video camera some rest. The underwater housing worked perfect. I didnít have to worry about keeping it dry or hiding under rooftops. I was able to get out in the thick of things in the pouring rain and document this rapidly rising flash flood. There were homes being destroyed on top the mountains and down at the bottom of the mountain where I was I would occasionally see roof tops, refrigerators, and other parts from homes come rushing by in the dangerous flood waters. I even saw large trees that were ripped out of the ground in mudslides float by moving very fast. This was the most violent and fast moving water I had ever seen. Yes, Katrina the water was higher but not moving as fast and violent as I was experiencing in Dominica. I continued to document this event and after about 3 hours the rain let up and the water instantly began to go back down. The winds were way down now to about 35-40 mph and the rain stopped but now the attention was drawn to the large 10-15 foot swells coming in off the ocean. There were dozens of localís standing on the seawall letting the waveís crash into them. At this point I had been soaking wet for hours and felt the documentation of the flash flood was a success and called it a day. I arrived back to my hotel that is now running on a back up generator and was surprised to see I still had high speed internet. I took a long hot shower and got dry. Now, if you are reading this you might think the main adventure is over, NOPE! It has only begun.
I had reservations with American Airlines to leave the island but they were cancelled due to weather conditions. This is understandable and appreciated for safety. But, what I found out next was totally unacceptable. I called American Airlines to see when they would be flying again and when I could leave the island. I was told that two flights will be coming in tomorrow but there is no room on any plane for 2 weeks!! Yes, 2 weeks. Ok, letís get this straight, I had reservations to leave and AA cancelled them so I am not going to be put on the next incoming plane? I was told all flights are full for 2 weeks and that they were sorry and would refund my money. REFUND MY MONEY !!! That does not do me any good when I am stranded on an island in a foreign country that only has one other airlines coming in and they were full too. I talked for over 4 hours with AA pleading with them that they need to send in an extra plane or change there schedule from 2 flights a day to 3 flights a day long enough to pick up the slack for customers waiting to get off the island who HAD RESERVATIONS ! They continued to apologize and tell me they would refund my money. I was feeling like I was in the twilight zone. I could not believe this was the only option. The organization with AA was MISERABLE. They continued to use the Hurricane as their excuse for not getting me off the island for 2 weeks and this was not a valid excuse. It was as simple as sending in an extra plane and the problem would be resolved. I now realize AA is not going to do anything about this and it was up to me to get off the island. This is where my good friend (Canít remember his name) which is an employee at the Garraway started making calls for me and we worked together to find a way off the island. He was connected with the locals and found out there was one last ferry leaving the island at 5pm. He explained to me that I could take it to Guadeloupe and in Guadeloupe they have an international airport with more flights coming in and out so I would have a better chance getting a flight out. After hours and hours of waiting and talking to the officials running the ferry service I was squeezed on the ferry and off I went.
The island of Dominica was amazingly beautiful and the people were really nice but I still had a huge grin on my face as the ferry pulled away and I realized I made it off the island only the next day after the Hurricane hit. I took some fantastic photos of the islands as we pulled away and made a comment on how calm the water was. Well, that changed once we got away from the islands and in the channel that cuts between Dominica and Guadeloupe the waves became large and the boat ride was beginning to get rough. It only took 5 minutes of this and the throwing up began. I became extremely seasick and miserable. The only relief was that I knew this ride was only about another 75 minutes so I had to tough it out. The sun set and the moon was lighting up the night sky. As we approached Guadeloupe the seas got calm again and I was able to gain my health back. I felt worn out and still had to figure out where I would stay in the island of Guadeloupe and where the airport was. No problem I thought. Communication on Dominica was good because everyone spoke English but Guadeloupe is a French territory so everyone speaks French. I know broken Spanish but not a lick of French. Long story short my time on Guadeloupe was miserable and I got ripped off because I was not familiar with the exchange rate and once again American Airlines let me down. I get to the airport in the morning and all the other airlines ticket counters are open except American Airlines. They have a bunch of announcements taped on their windows but they are all in French. Now donít you think American Airlines is primarily flying American customers and to put all the announcement is French is a total lack of common sense by the company? I go to the information counter and English is the only language they donít speak. The airport at Guadeloupe made no effort to accommodate American citizens at all. After a lot of grief I figured out how to call the 1-800 number in the US for AA and found out a flight was leaving at 3pm to Puerto Rico. I am not going to list every single thing American Airlines did to lose me as a customer but I will tell you this corporation does not care about their customers and has become so large and powerful they have a monopoly and will never change. I have been a loyal customer for 20 years and at times I'm willing to pay extra just to fly American. Not anymore. They were going to leave me stranded on an island for 2 weeks because the amount of people stranded was too small to worry about and they did not want to spend the money. Itís all about saving money with these corporations and not customer service. I took notes the entire trip and plan on raising some serious hell with the management in the next few weeks when I get rested and have time to timeline all the events they put me through and request they reimburse me for the money I had to spend because they left me on the island.
Overall the chase was a success and I was able to document a powerful flash flood on a tiny island in the Caribbean. I missed the Cat-5 status in Mexico but it was all at night so I didnít miss seeing anything. The people of Dominica are amazing people and the islands landscape is breathtaking. I owe a huge thanks to the staff of the Garraway hotel in Roseau and would highly recommend this hotel to anyone going to Dominica.
I have added many photos to this blog and more can be found at the following link:
More Hurricane Dean Photos
Photos from the airplane:
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