Meet the Toronto storm hunter who braved 160-kilometre winds during Hurricane Ian

Meet the Toronto storm hunter who braved 160-kilometre winds during Hurricane Ian

Mark Robinson has chased 25 hurricanes throughout his career

Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson is a Toronto-based meteorologist who heads smack dab into the eye of the storm as he chases natural disasters for the Weather Network. He’s been documenting and investigating extreme weather events throughout North America for nearly 10 years. Fresh from covering Hurricane Fiona, which hit Eastern Canada and parts of the Caribbean last week, Robinson is currently on the ground in Florida, pursuing the raging Hurricane Ian. Reported to be one of the strongest storms in US history, the hurricane has brought severe winds, sheets of rain and catastrophic flooding to the Sunshine State.

Where exactly have you been chasing this hurricane?
I was in Punta Gorda, in southwest Florida, as the storm came to shore—essentially in the eye of the storm. Then I managed to get to Tampa late Wednesday night, and that’s where I am now. I’m hoping to get back down to Fort Myers to take a look at the damage there and document the destruction in the area.

What have you been witnessing?
I’ve chased 25 hurricanes in my career, and the wind speeds that we saw during Ian were truly incredible. I personally measured a gust of 160 kilometres per hour, but they likely got faster than that. Being in the eye of the storm was unbelievable. After we went through hours of unfathomable winds, they dropped to just about nothing as the eye transitioned over us for 45 minutes. Then those winds came back fast. It was a unique experience.

How does Hurricane Ian compare to other storms you’ve chased?
This was the strongest hurricane I’ve seen since Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Michael a few years ago. Katrina was kind of in a class on its own because of the damage it caused. Ian had similar wind strength to Katrina and was maybe even faster, but I didn’t experience storm surge where I was. The surge went into cities like Naples and Fort Myers, so that’s where people saw a tremendous amount of destruction in Florida. The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been in Punta Gorda, but I still saw roofs ripped off. As I drove out of the city, power lines were down, trees had fallen everywhere, and there was massive freshwater flooding. It’s very overwhelming, especially since I’m still trying to process Hurricane Fiona, which I was chasing just last week in Cape Breton.

How do you protect yourself while chasing these storms?
Storm surge is the most destructive and dangerous part of a storm, so I always want to make sure I’m safe from it. It’s important to be somewhere higher than where that water is going to come in, so I try to be in a parking garage, which is a perfect hurricane bunker. It also minimizes the risk of being hit by flying debris, which is the other major source of injury and death in these hurricanes. On top of that, the most helpful thing is knowledge: knowing what the storms are going to do, how they move, and what their different elements are. At the same time, every single storm is unique. You sort of start over with each one.

What does the public tend to misunderstand about events like this?
Sometimes people aren’t prepared for how spectacularly dangerous these storms can be. They are truly an amazing phenomenon of nature, but the videos I share of them can give the impression that they’re not as life-threatening as they are. It only takes one piece of flying debris to turn your day very bad very quickly.

Would you attribute the intensity or frequency of these storms to climate change?
That’s always a tricky question. One of the things that I like to say about climate change is that it’s like loading the dice. We can have a storm just like this without climate change, but we’re increase the likelihood of having a storm of this magnitude with climate change. We’re still researching, and we need 30 years of data to better understand what is happening. But we seem to have decent evidence that storms are at least getting stronger, if not more common. One big storm can be truly devastating, and that’s exactly what happened this week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.