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'Hurricane chaser' filming Ike's landfall

  • Story Highlights
  • Storm chasers are in Texas to gather video and other data from Hurricane Ike
  • Mark Sudduth captures storm footage with remote, battery-powered video cameras
  • Packed in watertight cases, the cameras train unblinking eyes on storm surges
  • The cameras shoot live streaming video in conditions too hazardous to film by hand
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By Brandon Griggs
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(CNN) -- With at least three video cameras trained on the Gulf of Mexico and floodwaters rising around him in Galveston, Texas, Mark Sudduth prepared Friday to ride out Hurricane Ike from a hotel room on the city's wind-whipped oceanfront.

Mark Sudduth's remote video camera captured this image of surging water during 2005's Hurricane Wilma.

"Most of the north end of Galveston near the bay is now going underwater," Sudduth told CNN Friday afternoon. "The island is filling up like a bathtub."

Despite that, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of anxious Texas residents have fled inland, Sudduth and partner Mike Watkins had no plans to leave Galveston. Their only concern was the safety of their Chevy Tahoe -- and the fate of their equipment that will stream live video of Ike's fury to Internet users around the world.

The two men are part of a small fraternity of storm chasers who plant themselves in the paths of hurricanes to gather photos, video and meteorological data they hope will help scientists better understand these natural disasters.

What sets Sudduth apart, however, is his pioneering use of remote, battery-powered video cameras, packed in watertight cases, to train unblinking eyes on lethal storm surges that are too hazardous to film by hand.

"The stronger the hurricane and the more [news] reporters have to leave, the more important these cameras become," said Sudduth, who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. "There's absolutely zero risk to human life. Plus they can stay there for 15 hours and never have to go to the bathroom."

For decades, journalists with shaky video cameras have shot footage of approaching storms, only to retreat when the winds, and danger, grew too great. Thanks to his remote-camera system, developed around the time of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, Sudduth may be the first storm chaser to capture live streaming video from inside a hurricane as it blows ashore. His footage has appeared on CNN and numerous local TV broadcasts.

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The 37-year-old traces his fascination with hurricanes to his childhood along the North Carolina coast, where big storms blow in from the ocean almost every summer and fall. By the time Hurricane Bertha struck in 1996, he had launched a business to raise awareness about the deadly storms.

Sudduth outfitted an Isuzu Rodeo with weather-measuring equipment and drove it into storms to collect data. But he and his partner began to question the wisdom of their operation in 2004 when Hurricane Charley abruptly shifted course and trapped them inside the vehicle as the Category 4 storm thundered ashore near Port Charlotte, Florida.

"It was just so violent. I thought there was a chance one of us could be killed," said Sudduth, who witnessed his Isuzu totaled by Hurricane Ivan a month later. "We thought, 'There's got to be a better way.' "

So the next year, Sudduth developed his remote-camera "storm cases," as he calls them. An unusual mix of high and low technology, each is equipped with two small, high-resolution cameras that extend from the case on a 60-foot cable and can be mounted on a building or a pole and aimed at the sea. Inside the case is a VCR filled with nine hours of videotape, because tape is less susceptible to saltwater than digital files.

One camera connects to the VCR, the other to a laptop that records about 18 hours of live video. The whole thing is powered by two 75-pound marine batteries, which also weigh down the case to help keep it from blowing away. The outfitted cases cost about $1,800 each and are not unlike the indestructible "black boxes" that record cockpit voices and other data on airplanes.

Sudduth's storm cases streamed their first live video from Gulfport, Mississippi, during Hurricane Katrina. Sudduth watched the video feed on a laptop from the safety of an inland motel room and saw footage of waves cresting the seawall before the storm surge washed away his equipment.

"We never found the cases," he said. "Everything was absolutely annihilated."

Sudduth has had more success with the cases since, capturing live streaming video of Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Wilma and other big storms. (There's no audio, because the swirling winds just create white noise.) He can compress hours of his remotely captured video footage into a minute or two, creating dramatic short films that show coastal areas being overwhelmed by surging floodwaters.

This year CNN bought two of Sudduth's storm cases and employed them for the first time on levees in New Orleans during recent Hurricane Gustav.

"We work closely with him to put them where we think we'll get maximum impact," said CNN planning director Greg Agvent, who mobilizes the network's breaking-news teams. For Agvent, the cases help keep his TV crews out of harm's way during major storms. "No picture is worth that risk," he says.

Sudduth also maintains a rolling weather station in his Tahoe, which measures wind speed, rainfall, barometric pressure and other data. He posts the streaming video -- available to subscribers only -- on his Web site,, and e-mails his data to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

"It can be useful to us. We'll be interested to see his unique data from the storms to come," said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane center. "But it's dangerous work. We don't recommend anybody going out and doing this."

Sudduth and Watkins set up three storm cases Friday along the Gulf in Galveston and were looking for another location -- possibly their hotel balcony -- to plant a fourth. The cases' cameras all were pointed at the churning ocean, offering real-time images of Ike's approach.

The two storm chasers planned to take shelter late Friday in their 11th-floor hotel room to eat crackers and peanut butter and watch their video feeds. Nightfall was expected to make their video images murky and hard to see, however.

Forecasters expect Hurricane Ike to make landfall late Friday or early Saturday, packing gusts of 100-plus mph.

"Ike will be a huge, huge event," Sudduth said. "It's going to push an enormous storm surge [of water] into Texas."


Filming hurricanes can be adventurous and exciting. But Sudduth also has been chastised by residents who feel he is capitalizing on others' misfortune. As someone who has traveled the country speaking about hurricane preparedness, he is sensitive to such criticism.

"We're not profiting from it any more than the fire hydrant company or the people who build ambulances," he says. "It's not just about the money shot. We can extract the science from these cameras. If we can match the visual record from the cameras to the meteorological record, we can help answer [scientific] questions."

All About National Hurricane CenterHurricane KatrinaHurricane CharleyHurricane Wilma

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