Cyclone Erica approaching New Caledonia at 0425z on March 13 2003.
Satellite image from NOAA
Cyclone Erica started out as a tropical depression off the coast of Australia on March 1st and intensified into a Cat 2 cyclone before moving north and dissapating. Four days later Erica regenerated near the Soloman Islands and over the coming three days matured into a powerful CAT 5 cyclone as it tracked south, with New Caledonia firmly in it's sights. By the 13 March, landfall, or at least a close pass of New Caledonia was inevitable so I flew to Noumea on the last avaliable flight to intercept it. Timing was going to be tight. Erica was now approaching the northern tip of New Caledonia, I was able to rent a Landrover 110 turbo diesel 4WD which was certainly to prove it's worth later on. Driving north and stopping for updates on Erica via GSM mobile phone it was becoming clear that New Caledonia was in for a direct hit, not only that, it was forcast that Erica would make landfall on the north west coast at the town of Kone at about 0800 on the 14 th March and track south along the coastline of the entire country ! Arriving in Kone late in the evening of the 13th, I quickly found a strong looking hotel, actually, the only hotel in town. I was amused by the efficient receptionist who promptly showed me the very latest warning and tracking map from the French Met Service....without any details on the storms intensity, showing Erica would make landfall on the coast at Lat 21 degrees. I had already logged the towns co ordinates with GPS and found it to be exactly on the 21 degree line...the very reason I was in that town, I asked her what preparations the hotel was making as Erica was going to be coming ashore right here with destructive winds to as least 250 kph.... they had absolutely no idea, they did take my advice and spent the next few hours furiously taping up windows, nailing up shutters and warning the guests. I thought I would have a chance for a good nights sleep before the mayhem begun at daybreak the next morning. Sleep was rudely interupted at around 3 am when violent winds and torrential rain started....this surely was not one of the outer bands of the storm, the show had started early, I tried to log on to the internet with the mobile phone for an update, the cellular network had failed, setting up the satellite phone was impossible too, the power went off soon after, then the hotel room started creaking and shaking, (I was on the 2nd floor) and water started coming in everywhere, it was time to leave. Driving alone in total darkness in a town that was being torn apart is not ideal...apart from the high degree of danger it is also nearly impossible to get good film. I quickly left Kone with power lines and trees falling everywhere around me, roofs flying off and rapidly rising winds. I sought shelter in the car wash at a Mobil gas station at the edge of town to await daybreak along with a truck driver. Even there the buildings started to tear apart, with signs and cladding tearing off the building, some of it hitting the vehicle. The only thing left to do was to move out into the open in front of any potential flying debris and keep the vehicle pointed into the wind to keep it from overturning in winds now peaking at 250kph, a quick trip outside the Landrover with an anemometer confirmed this. Air pressure was now down to 910 hpa, so low it caused my ears to pop with the pressure change. It was 6 am. Daylight came soon after and I was able to use the Iridium portable satellite phone to contact fellow stormchasers in the United States, Jim Leonard and Jim Edds, who were monitoring Erica's progress on the internet. They were able to send regular text messages to the Iridium phone of the exact GPS co ordinates of the centre of Erica as it tracked south. This , coupled with the handheld GPS unit I had with me enabled be to do something extraordinary, for nearly 2 hours I was able to drive south in the eye of Cyclone Erica ! I was able to drive from Kone, south all the way to the town of Poya in the eye of the storm, negotiating thousands of fallen trees, powerlines and flash floods in the trusty Landrover before I encountered a small problem, some fallen powerlines, of the high voltage variety, snagged on the vehicle and dragged down more lines and a power pole in front of and behind me...! Oops, this is not ideal, being stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the eye of an intense cyclone in the middle of potentially live lines. Well, there was a solution, the lines were hanging about a metre off the ground, hmm, I had 2 heavy cases of equipment so I figured that if I could throw the cases onto the lines without leaving the vehicle for safety reasons then the lines would be dragged down to ground level and I could drive over them, then I would have to of course retrieve the cases without touching them, no worries, tie a nylon rope to them and then to the vehicle so I could drag them clear afterwards, this actually worked....! On with the storm chasing...The town of Poya was heavily damaged, the school was destroyed, and a building was completely blocking the highway, forcing me to do some imaginative driving, (across someones front lawn). The second half of the storm overtook me near Poya with very violent winds and I was able to film roofs blowing of buildings. Attempting to drive all the way south to Noumea I was stopped by a huge flood about a kilometre wide and more than a metre deep near Bourail, I spent the night inside the Landrover at the edge of the flood waiting for the water to recede. The cyclone did pass directly over Noumea causing major damage. The countries national Newspaper " Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes" devoted the entire paper to coverage of the storm and it's aftermath.....locals said it was the worst cyclone in the countries history. The rest of the worlds media seemed to be too obsessed with the looming war in Iraq to even notice such a major event. I wonder if a Category 5 hurricane hitting the USA would be ignored.... I dont think so..... ?
Geoff Mackley 16 March 2003.