An international storm chaser returns to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for hurricane season.
Josh Morgerman, known as @iCyclone on Twitter, spent the 2020 season in a small house in Bay St. Louis that survived both Hurricane Camille and Hurricane Katrina. The porch became his “favorite place on the planet,” he told fans on a YouTube livestream last week.
And after years of chasing storms all over the world, just stopping by each location for a few days, he loved to be in a community to experience what he calls the “rhythms of the season”.
The pandemic ended his plans to spend 2020 chasing storms in “distant lands”. But he found that he liked the coast so much that he is returning for the 2021 hurricane season. By the end of June, he told the Sun Herald, he would be back at the Bay St. Louis house he calls the Hurricane House.
When planning a storm chase from his Los Angeles home, he spends most of his time looking at computer models and devising complicated travel logistics. Things were different at Hurricane House.
“Of course, when I live on the Gulf Coast, I still look at computer models,” he said on the livestream. “But I also just go to the coast every day, just look at the sky and the sea and ask what the gulf will bring me today?”
Eyeing Claudette from a distance
Last Friday, he was still at home in Los Angeles, watching the models as “Potential Tropical Cyclone 3” whirled towards the coast.
He wasn’t particularly impressed.
“That’s what I call scrambled eggs,” he said on the live stream the night before PTC 3, later called Claudette, reached the coast. “It’s a mess. I don’t think this thing is going anywhere in terms of intensity.”
But he predicted that the heavy rains could cause big problems. In parts of southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi, where the most rainfall was predicted, the soil was already saturated from recent rains.
And even a relatively small storm surge of a few meters can have consequences. He only learned that last year in Mississippi, he said.
In the livestream, he showed two photos of Beach Boulevard in downtown Bay St. Louis, one on a normal day and one when Tropical Storm Beta came ashore 400 miles away. In the second photo, the street was completely flooded.
“Before I lived in Mississippi, I would laugh at the idea of two feet of storm surge or three feet,” he said. “Who cares? Who does it affect? Well, it does affect places like Mississippi.”
On March 1, 2020, Morgerman planned a year to “conquer the world” with international expeditions and a lecture tour. Then the pandemic shrank his world. Travel to East Asia, the Indian Ocean and Australia was no longer possible. Instead, it would be limited to the southeastern United States.
Morgerman produced a map of the United States. He recorded the westernmost point he thought he could track – Port Isabel, Texas – and the southernmost – Homestead, Florida – and the easternmost – Wilmington, North Carolina. What was roughly in the middle and accessible by car from anywhere? Mississippi, “the heart of the US hurricane country”.
Morgerman, who was born in New York City and currently lives in Los Angeles, was surprised to enjoy life in a small town.
When he wasn’t chasing a storm, he liked to ride his bike over the bridge to Pass Christian and along the beach.
And life in Bay St. Louis brought him close to the many storms that hit the Gulf last year.
He hiked swamps in August to track down Hurricane Laura in southwest Louisiana. He drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama for Sally. And for Zeta, he didn’t even have to leave Hurricane House when the eye of the storm swept over Bay St. Louis.
What’s in 2021?
Morgerman is not superstitious so he has no “gut feeling” about what this hurricane season will bring.
“Even the top forecasters’ predictions are often wrong,” he said. “It’s a very, very imprecise science.”
NOAA predicts a more than active hurricane season with fewer storms than in the record year 2020. Forecasters expect 13 to 20 named storms this year. Last year it was 30.
Now that he’s developed a bond with the coast, storm chasing feels different here than it does in places he’s never visited before. When the sun rose over Bay St. Louis on October 29, 2020, it was clear even from the porch of Hurricane House that the city had been badly damaged.
“I am always sad to see destruction,” he said. “But it hits you in a different way when it’s your adopted community.”
He thought back to one of his first hurricanes and what it means to be fascinated by storms, which are often inextricably linked with suffering.
When he was 15 years old and lived on Long Island, a hurricane came up the east coast and hit his city and did some damage. Already interested in storms, he was excited.
“I remember my mother starting to cry,” he said. “It went from this cool fascination to just making me feel bad.”
Morgerman was living out of the country when Katrina hit the coast so he did not witness the storm or its aftermath. But he encounters the legacy of that storm and so many others in his conversations with the coastal residents.
“One of the things I like about life in Mississippi is that everyone is kind of a hurricane nerd,” he said. “Everyone is very knowledgeable about the subject, has experiences to share and wears it almost like a badge of pride – what they should. “