Puerto Rico is still reeling from the devastating effects of Category 4 Hurricane Maria, and full recovery is likely to take years. Storm photographs and anecdotes from those who endured it tell horrifying tales of the traumatic event.
But perhaps nothing more starkly captures Maria’s raw savagery than hurricane chaser video, shown above, as the storm slammed ashore. Recorded by Josh Morgerman, one of the world’s top hurricane chasers, the eyewitness video offers a front-row seat to some of Maria’s most violent moments. It also provides a rare glimpse of just how severe conditions are at the center of a high-end Category 4 storm, with sustained winds up to 155 mph.
Morgerman, who lives in Los Angeles, has intercepted 35 to 40 hurricanes all around the world — from the United States to the Philippines to Australia. Maria, he says, was one of the most harrowing storm chases he’s conducted.
“I’ve been chasing a long time — I’ve seen a lot,” Morgerman said. “This was one of the worst I’ve seen — and top three for me, up there with Super Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Patricia.” Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013, packed winds of 175 to 195 mph, the strongest storm to hit land in recorded history. Patricia crashed into Mexico’s west coast with 150 mph winds in 2015.
We interviewed Morgerman on his experience pursuing Maria — from his decision to fly to Puerto Rico to what conditions were like at the height of the storm to his perspective on the aftermath. His responses, lightly edited, are below.
What drew you to chase this storm and the particular location?
Once Maria became a [Category] 5 and barreled into the Caribbean, all the computer models seemed to lock on one historic scenario — a powerful hurricane ramming into the heart of Puerto Rico. I just thought, “Wow, this is going to be big — meteorologically and historically.” And I knew I had to document it — collect data, shoot video and just record this cataclysmic event. So I hopped on a flight to San Juan and got there as fast as I could.
Folks see satellite images of hurricanes and think they’re big targets — so they must be easy to chase, right? Wrong! The inner core of a hurricane — the ring of violent winds around the center called the eyewall — is actually pretty small. And often it wobbles erratically as it approaches the coast. So penetrating that core is a dangerous, high-stakes precision sport. You watch it approaching on radar, you follow the wobbles, and you drive up and down the coast, trying to anticipate where it’s going to come roaring ashore.
Describe where you intercepted the storm. How sound was the structure you were in and how confident were you it was a safe place?
My hunt for Maria’s core brought me to Palmas Del Mar, a community in Humacao, on the southeast coast. I knew nothing about it — it was just this dot on the map that seemed like the right place. When I got there the afternoon before Maria hit, I realized this was a wealthy, upscale community — gated and so on. And all the buildings were solid concrete — a good thing given the nuclear-grade winds that were coming.
I checked in at a big hotel — a large four-story building less than 200 yards from the beach. That’s my M.O. when chasing the big game — the Cat 4s and 5s: Ride it out in a big ol’ concrete structure, if possible. I say “if possible” because sometimes it isn’t. I had to ride out violent Hurricane Patricia in Mexico a couple years ago in a wood-frame building, and that was not a good thing — I barely got out alive.
But for Maria I was in a good, solid building.
Your footage shows a family that you helped relocate into your room. What was their story? What happened to their room?
Maria approached in the early-morning darkness. I was watching the storm from my fourth-floor balcony on the downwind side of the building. I had this awesome, unobstructed view — perfect for recording observations and shooting video. By 5 a.m. the winds were roaring — really hammering the building and doing damage, with constant crashing and banging sounds.
Suddenly there was this knock at the door. I was like, who could that be? It was the family across the hall — a toddler, a young mom, and a grandma. Their windows had blown out, the wind and rain were blasting into their room. They were pretty freaked out — they needed help.
They came to the right place. Many times I’ve been in buildings as hurricane winds smashed the windows, ripped off the roof, you name it. So I know what to do — I’ve been through this drill. And in these situations I find myself taking control and telling the folks around me what to do. It’s an instinct — I do it without thinking — like it’s my job to protect them.
So I put my visitors in the bathroom — that’s the safest place in most hotel rooms. We put the kid in the tub and put a pillow over him. And I gave the mom and grandma pillows as well. That way, they could cover their heads if my glass doors blew out and things got ugly. Flying glass is lethal.
Describe the conditions during the peak of the storm, as the core came through — the sights and sounds. Were you scared at any point?
My barometer bottomed out at 929 millibars a little before dawn as destructive winds were raking Palmas Del Mar. The air pressure was rising when morning light came — a sign the hurricane was moving away — and I expected the winds would start to lessen. But instead they got worse.
The trees lining the street waved in this crazy, wild way. Then this wall of wind and rain swallowed everything up. The view off the balcony turned pure white — you couldn’t see anything. The buildings across the street, the trees, everything just disappeared into this roaring white energy. We were in the violent inner core of a high-end Category 4 hurricane.
To make things worse, the wind had shifted and was now hammering my windows. I joined the others in the safety of the bathroom. I remember two sounds: a harsh, nonstop whistling — like a tea kettle left on the stove — and the banging of the glass doors that were getting ready to fly out of their frames. And I remember two feelings: the rumbling of the building — like we were on a train — and the painful sensation of air being sucked out of my ears.
We got lucky — my doors withstood the pounding — and by 8 a.m. the worst had passed.
Describe the general scene in your location after the storm passed. What was the state of mind of locals who endured the storm?
I was shocked by how beat-up and dead the landscape looked. The surviving trees had been reduced to sticks — totally defoliated and even debarked — and many palms had been blown down, shredded or snapped mid-trunk. Previously green hills were brown — so this deep-tropical paradise looked like Siberia in December.
Every street was blocked by fallen trees and signs. The marina was trashed, with boats thrown about. It seemed like every building had broken windows, and large parts of the hotel roof were on the patio next to the pool.
But there wasn’t too much structural damage — despite the ferocious near Cat 5 winds. Those solid concrete buildings held up well. Yep, building codes matter! Unfortunately, not all of Puerto Rico is built that way.
Folks were walking around afterward, inspecting the damage and kind of shellshocked.
How were you able to leave Puerto Rico so quickly after the storm? How were you able to negotiate roads back to San Juan with all of the trees down and debris? What was the situation at San Juan airport when you arrived, and how did you get a flight out in relatively short order?
Late in the afternoon, I hit the road for San Juan. It was the toughest drive of my life. Every route was blocked by fallen trees, signs, power poles or flooding. At dusk I had to detour through the dark side streets of Humacao, inching block by block through a blacked-out, devastated city.
The going didn’t get any easier as I inched north — whole highways were out of commission, and I started to understand the full extent of the catastrophe: The island’s infrastructure had been destroyed. The entire power grid was out, and the arteries connecting cities were blocked by floods and mounds of wreckage. Puerto Rico had been brought to its knees.
I made peace with the fact that I probably wouldn’t make it back to San Juan that night — I was prepared to sleep in the car on the side of the road. But somehow, I did make it back that night. Incredibly.
Even San Juan had heavy damage. It was like no part of the island had escaped Maria’s wrath.
I was trapped there a few days. The airport was pure hell — hot and chaotic and full of desperate people.
When I say it was hell, don’t feel sorry for me. I put myself in these situations in order to document these events and collect rare data, so I accept the hardship — it’s what I signed up for. But I felt bad for normal folks who never wanted to be in a hurricane and had been basically living at the airport for days since the storm — no exaggeration — trying to get off the island. Some of them were on the edge.
In the aftermath of this storm, lots of questions have been raised about whether the federal response has been adequate. As someone who witnessed the disaster firsthand, what is your perspective on this?
There’s a lot of finger-pointing now about the relief efforts — it’s become politicized, like everything else now. But there’s zero time for that. Leaders have to put aside partisan politics, big egos and petty grudges and just make this about one thing and one thing only: getting help to victims fast. Nothing else matters right now. The situation in Puerto Rico (in terms of water, electricity, gas, food and medical care) is dire. More people will die if basic life needs aren’t addressed now.
More Capital Weather Gang coverage of storm chasing by Josh Morgerman: