By BILL HARRIS
Special to The Lede
“It’s like being inside of a car wash.” That’s how hurricane tracker Mark Sudduth describes violent storms in Discovery’s gripping new Canadian original documentary HURRICANES: ROGUE EARTH, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
“Yeah, an out-of-control car wash,” Sudduth added, during an interview at Bell Media headquarters in downtown Toronto on Thursday. “Maybe they could rename it, instead of ROGUE EARTH, Rogue Car Wash. We have a spinoff!”
HURRICANES: ROGUE EARTH is the fourth installment in the ROGUE EARTH series. With raw and never-before-seen mobile phone footage from Hurricane Matthew, as well as interviews with experts such as Sudduth who risked their lives to gather storm data, HURRICANES: ROGUE EARTH showcases the bravery and generosity of individuals, and emphasizes the need to better prepare for future disasters, which most assuredly are on the way.
We spoke with Sudduth about his storm-tracking observations over the past 20 years, including his own personal fear factor, and the ridiculous rain associated with a new breed of storms:
Q: Storms are never totally predictable, but have things changed in recent years?
Mark Sudduth: “Yes, especially in the rainfall. It just seems that they (hurricanes) rain more, if that makes sense. Fresh-water flooding - it’s not unprecedented, but it has been frequent. In fact, a big part of Hurricane Matthew was the rainfall in North Carolina. We’re talking about feet of rainfall, instead of inches. And then last year in North Carolina with Hurricane Florence, just two years after Matthew, 30 inches of rain in some locations, and North Carolina’s worst all-time natural disaster, by far, a $22-billion disaster, from rainfall.”
Q: Rain damage is even harder to overcome than wind damage, correct?
Mark Sudduth: “It is - the words I like to use are, incessant and penetrative. It creeps up on you, so you can look at the exterior of a building that had just two feet of flooding, and it doesn’t look like anything happened. But the inside is full of mould, the walls, the infrastructure, the carpeting, everything is damaged. The building might have to be demolished. Whereas with wind damage, you see that, there’s a visual to it. So it’s different.”
Q: Do you gather different data today than you did 20 years ago? Do the agencies want different information from you?
Mark Sudduth: “Yes, for this hurricane season coming up, we will be adding simple plastic rain gauges, to try to track some of these bands that form and dump three or four inches of rain in an hour. It’s literally an analog way, if you will, instead of a digital way, we’re just going to stick a bucket out there with measurements on it. But that’s exactly what they (weather forecasters) want. Because this rainfall is a real problem. I think the warmer atmosphere we seem to be having is holding more moisture - that’s my theory.”
Q: Modern weather reporting largely seems designed to scare us, so when a storm doesn’t turn out to be as bad as the predictions, people tend to get cocky about the next one. Do you find that the general public is more cognizant of big storms these days, or more cavalier?
Mark Sudduth: “That is a great point, a great question, and it’s a great concept to explore. You get these situations where something is hyped up to be a certain level, and it doesn’t pan out. But what it comes down to is, we react as human beings to these weather situations based on our last experience on a personal level. So if the hurricane was supposed to be very bad for your location, and it wasn’t bad for you personally, that’s what you’re going to base your future movements on. It could be, say, a tropical storm, but a major pine tree falls on your house and splits it in half, and you have $100,000 damage. If it didn’t do that to your neighbour, he’s going to say, ‘It wasn’t that big a deal.’ But to you, it was catastrophic. So we don’t tend to ask, ‘How bad will it be overall?’ We tend to ask, ‘What’s going to happen at my address?’ ”
Q: In your extreme line of work, how often have you honestly been scared?
Mark Sudduth: “The last time I was truly scared - and I have no problem using that word, some of the people who do this work try to shy away - but it was Hurricane Charlie in 2004. We were sitting in our SUV that had instruments on it, we were videotaping with handheld cameras, and it was frightening. That was the start of what we’ve done ever since, which is to create remotely operated equipment. Now I am more scared for the people, and I mean that. When I see something like last year, Hurricane Michael, coming for Florida, and people are asking me, ‘Do you think it’s going to be as bad as they’re saying? It always weakens. They’re always full of it.’ I’m thinking, ‘This is somebody who has no idea what’s coming.’ I’m setting up remotely operated equipment, because I know that it’s going to be lethal at this spot tomorrow. So I’m more scared for the people these days than I am about my own safety, because we learned from an event in 2004 that truly scared me. I guess you would say it scared me straight.”