Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not paying attention to one of the strongest storms I have witnessed

This wasn't even the nastiest part of the storm. That was behind me, and I didn't get a chance to shoot it.

I knew it was coming. I got the warning from the National Weather Service. I saw a large chunk of red on the radar, indicating heavy precipitation and possible hail. I had been walking outside all evening to see if anything interesting was brewing.

But work got in the way Sunday.

Deep in the process of designing a newspaper page, I was determined to finish it before leaving for a dinner break, which I would use to photograph the approaching storm. But it took longer than expected, and when I walked out the door, the sky was falling.

Clouds drooped low to the ground. Lightning bolts zipped toward the earth, one after another. I ran for my car, then sped away, trying to find a proper position to photograph the storm.

As for the shots of the system approaching, I was too late. Conceding that, my only objective was to find a spot that was free of precipitation. The rain was coming fast. So I darted across the causeway, en route for the beach to the east, where the storm was heading. There really is no other way to describe these Florida thunderstorms than to compare them to a giant spaceship - something you might see in "Independence Day" - moving slowly over land, water and palm trees.

I stopped along the causeway and snapped a shot of the clouds to the east. The real action, though, was to the west. But the trees were in the way, and I needed to reach the beach to get the right view. I hopped back into my car.

The rain came in visible sheets, stronger in some places and weaker just yards away. The wind was noticeably worse at the crests of the causeway, which are undulating bridges that are low in the middle to connect with Merritt Island, high over the two rivers - the Banana and the Indian - that abut the island and low on the mainland ends. Aside from probably one storm I experienced in Maine, in which a tornado was confirmed several miles away from my home, this was some of the most intense weather I had seen. And traveling in a compact car, there was nothing I could do than to take it slowly and to grip the steering wheel tightly.

But that wouldn't achieve my objective. To get in front of the precipitation, I couldn't play it safe; I needed to go 70 or 75 mph. And when I arrived at the beach in one piece, I breathed deeply. But at that moment, the skies opened, and the water came. The only family left at the beach struggled to load a sedan with their umbrellas, coolers and beach towels. The father opened the driver's side door just a crack, and the wind whipped it outward.

With visibility at a matter of feet, my photo opportunities had dried up.

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