Into the storm


ABOVE: Noah Poe, undergraduate in applied atmospheric science, uses a handheld instrument to take measurements during Hurricane Irene.

When many people were inside their homes while Hurricane Irene battered North Carolina, one courageous group from East Carolina University braved the storm. Four students in the combined GEOG 4540 Coastal Storms and graduate GEOG 6540 Advanced Coastal Storms class led by Dr. Scott Curtis, associate professor in the Department of Geography, ventured out into the elements to document valuable data about this hurricane.

Curtis and his students left early Saturday morning and made it about two miles outside of Chocowinity before they turned around because of hazardous road conditions. They then traveled mainly around Pitt County for the duration of the field trip. Every 20 minutes or so, Curtis stopped their van and he and his students took measurements of the wind speed and pressure levels of the storm with their handheld instruments. They also tried to measure the rainfall, but because of the intense winds, the rain gauge was not reading accurately.

For this trip, the students also used a phone GPS to get the storm’s coordinates. Curtis said this is excellent because not only did they collect meteorological data about the storm, but spatial information as well. This helps with understanding the storm’s path in relation to the damage.


Students in Dr. Curtis’s combined Coastal Storms/Advanced Coastal Storms class use their handheld instruments to monitor the measurements of Hurricane Irene.

Noah Poe, an undergraduate in applied atmospheric science, and Kelsey Mulder, a graduate student in geography, went on the field trip. They both agreed that the trip was a fantastic experience.

“It was truly an exhilarating and fun experience,” said Mulder. “We had to brace ourselves against the wind and rain.”

Poe echoed Mulder’s thoughts.

“I felt like this trip opened up my eyes because usually I am inside and don’t get to see how a hurricane affects the community,” he said. “This time, I was able to go outside and look around. This experience just made me want to learn more about meteorology so I can help people.”

This course, which Curtis has taught since 2005, focuses on different aspects of coastal storms including the meteorology, changes to the environment due to storms, the societal impact, and how people react to storms. The class focuses not just on hurricanes, but any kind of storm that impacts the coast, including winter storms.

Curtis, an atmospheric scientist, said this class is his favorite to teach and he always gets positive feedback from students about the course content.

“This course is an important one to teach at ECU because students can relate to the topic of coastal storms,” he said. “Even if some of the students are not from the area, they still need to understand weather, especially the possible hazards involved. The more people learn, the more they understand, and the better they can respond to storms.”

Curtis said that his class takes field trips to observe storms whenever one is threatening. Other hurricanes his students have observed in the past include Hurricane Ophelia in 2005 and Hurricane Earl in 2010.


Hurricane Irene hit eastern North Carolina and left ECU’s campus with damage.

According to Curtis, having field experience is a vital part of studying meteorology. “There were a lot of predictions about how fast the wind was going to be, but unless you have the measurements, you won’t know for sure,” he said. “It’s good experience to get out there and see what the storm is doing for yourself.”

Curtis always emphasizes safety on field trips.

“Hurricane Irene was actually a close call, and we almost didn’t go out in the storm,” he said. “We always avoid downed trees, power lines, and standing water. We are very cautious about where we drive in our van, and we keep the speeds low. We focus on keeping everyone safe.”

The students in the Coastal Storms class also learn more about GIS, geographical information science. This is a way to overlay data to create intelligent maps and document information together like storm tracks and population data. This way, meteorologists can see where the data intersects and can tell which populations are going to be most vulnerable to storms. The students learn more about GIS by doing lab projects. They also read the latest literature on storms, complete semester-long projects, and learn how to fill out storm-tracking maps.

Mulder and Poe are both excited about being in the Coastal Storms class and learning more about meteorology.

Mulder first became interested in weather when a tornado hit while she was in the third grade. “I was petrified of the tornado, which is rare in Boulder, Colorado, but by middle school, I realized that I wanted to learn more about weather,” she said.

During her undergraduate years, as she studied meteorology in Oklahoma, Mulder became interested in the societal impacts involved. “The public needs to be able to understand and respond appropriately to different weather conditions,” she said. Mulder plans to write her thesis on flash-flood warning responses in Boulder. “They are vulnerable to flash flooding there and it is a quick impact. It happens in minutes,” she said.

When she graduates with her master’s, Mulder would like to go on to earn her doctorate and become a geography professor.

Poe also said that for as long as he can remember, he has enjoyed learning about the weather. When he was younger, he would purchase weather related books at the book fairs and wanted to know more about nature.

“I love to help people and I thought that learning more about the weather would give me a chance to help them schedule their days,” he said.

When he graduates, Poe would like to find a job as a meteorologist.

By Meagan Williford, University Marketing