VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Virginia Beach is normally a sun-drenched destination for tourists and locals alike. But in September 2003, an unwanted guest — Hurricane Isabel — was making reservations to crash into the coast.
Jimmy Cox, Assistant Chief Engineer at WTVR, and a team of journalists and photographers including this reporter were assigned to cover the hurricane along the Atlantic.
”You know the drill," Cox said. "They tell you when the forecast is coming this way and we’d pack up our stuff and head toward where the storm was going to be.”
As the storm intensified, Cox relayed around-the-clock dispatches by satellite back to Richmond.
“Honestly when I’m doing that gig I’m running on sheer adrenaline,” he said.
Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks sat in the storm's crosshair.
The wrath of howling winds gusting to more than 90 miles an hour left a lasting imprint on CBS 6 photojournalist Stacy Sacra.
“That quiet before the storm is something I find really fascinating,” Sacra said. “I think we remember Isabel quite well. It’s got a real rumble to it. It is impressive. It is scary. One wrong step either left or right and you can get taken out very quick.”
All these years later Sacra still marveled at Isabel’s relentlessness.
“That surf was crazy,” he said. “I don’t remember that surf being that staggering. That is incredible.”
Reporter Jon Burkett captured Isabel’s arrival while working behind the camera.
”I was geeked up. I was ready to rock,” Burkett said. ”You could tell if you put your big toe in the surge it would sweep you away quickly.”
The Category 2 Hurricane packed a punch of unpredictability.
“Sure enough I’m in ankle-deep water and the next thing you know the water is up to my chest and you’re like ‘Woah! What just happened here,” Burkett said. was real then. By then it was legit.”
Despite evacuation orders, our CBS 6 crews remained.
“You’re in the element of the storm. You’re just along for the ride and hold on for dear life,” Burkett said.
First responders made a sobering request to those who stayed behind — write names, phone numbers, and social security numbers on our arms.
“If you guys want to be down here in the area covering this thing we want to identify you if something goes wrong,” Burkett said. ”You knew they weren’t playing.”
Hours of wind, waves and flying debris kept the crew on alert. A metal parking sign crashed beside me.
“The winds were popping. The winds picked that sign up and tossed it like a frisbee,” Burkett said.
The sign is a keepsake for Jon Burkett reminding him of the hazards of covering Isabel.
“Obviously we laughed about it but when you think about it in hindsight that wasn’t very funny. That was close,” he said.
“There was a rush doing it. But that didn’t supersede the dangers you faced. As you get a little bit older you start to realize those dangers are real,” Sacra said.
The CBS 6 team escaped the battering on the beach largely unscathed.
From the coast, Isabel roared across Virginia and left a trail of destruction and darkness in her wake.
”I remember driving back in and normally you can see the skyline and there was no skyline,” Sacra said. “I remember being without power for a total of 10 days at my house.”
“People think it is fun to ride out the storms and I’m here to tell you it is nothing to play with,” Cox said.
“I got a call during the storm that two trees had fallen into my house in Midlothian and my kids were scared to death,” Burkett said. “My daughter was crying that she wanted her daddy back.”
Hurricane Isabel was a monster storm for the ages.
“So we were just honored to be there and to witness it and respect it. Pay homage to it,” Sacra said. “And try to get through the next one because there will be more. Yeah. Mother Nature is Queen isn’t she?”
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