The 2005 Oregon Star Party and Hurricane Katrina
I have close emotional and physical ties to Louisiana. I was born there and lived the first 30 years of my life in Baton Rouge. Family members live in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf coast. While I attended the Oregon Star Party (OSP), Hurricane Katrina, although 1500 miles from Indian Trail Springs in eastern Oregon, had a sobering and distracting effect on me. What follows is my journal of that week. Friday: Packing. Of major concern to me this year was the problem of 12 volt power to operate my computer and imaging equipment. As generators are not allowed at OSP because of fire danger, I was going to rely on a solar panel to keep my four deep-cycle batteries charged. Saturday: We arrived at Maryhill State Park on the Columbia River around dark. NPR news reported a Category 2 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, expected to hit the Louisiana Gulf coast.
Sunday: As we drove out of the Columbia Gorge near The Dalles NPR reported that Hurricane Katrina was Interbay Sports Field, Seattle now a Category 4 storm, predicted to make landfall
Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina superimposed on a Hubble image of M100 (M100 courtesy the Anglo-Australian Observatory).
Monday morning south of New Orleans. I called my stepmother in Baton Rouge who told me that my stepbrother and his daughter were evacuating New Orleans, that roads were jammed and cell phones were not working. We checked into a motel in Prineville to watch CNN’s coverage of Katrina. The storm went to Category 5. By early Monday it was turning north: good news for New Orleans, but I knew it could still be bad if the levees failed. For New Orleans, the northwest quadrant of a hurricane is the most dangerous, because Lake Ponchartrain lies to the north. For some time this has been known as the “Doomsday Scenario.”
Monday: From all reports, New Orleans had dodged the bullet and the levees had held. By early afternoon we were at OSP. Even though it was three days before the official opening, the high plateau was filling up with trailers, tents, and assorted telescopes. The terrain at OSP is similar to Mars, consisting mostly of dust and sharp rocks, large rocks, small rocks, submerged rocks, etc. It was tough clearing a site for my newly acquired Kendrick tent, but by dark I had the tent and all equipment set up for a night of imaging Abell galaxy clusters. After polar and drift aligning, I collected a set of dark and flat frames for image processing. My first target was Abell 2589, a group of over 17 Mag. 15 galaxies in Pegasus, tightly grouped in a field of view of less than 30 arc minutes. I was able to capture all of them in one exposure but 20-knot winds proved too much for serious work, so I retired around 1:00 a.m.
Tuesday: We were up to catch the 8:00 a.m. news. The levies around New Orleans had broken during the night and the city was filling with water. We sat stunned. All attempts to contact family in Louisiana via cell phone failed. I had a difficult time concentrating on imaging. The wind had dropped, so I re-imaged Abell 2589 and went on to image Abell 2593, another closely packed galaxy group in Pegasus, consisting of about 30 galaxies. Another Pegasus grouping, Abell 2634, proved difficult, requiring five separate images to acquire all 18 galaxies. Completing this group around 1:00 a.m., I moved on to Abell 2666 and Abell 76. By 4:00 a.m. the sky was beginning to lighten, so I retired, with five Abell groups and over 100 galaxies recorded.
Wednesday: After five hours of sleep I was up and trying to contact family in Louisiana. No luck. New Orleans was 80% flooded and the destruction on the Mississippi Gulf coast was total in several towns where I had relatives. The Internet truck was due to be in operation later in the day, but we drove back down to Prineville to watch CNN. The images were shocking. Around 5: 00 p.m. we returned to Indian Trail Springs where we were finally able to get a cell phone connection to my stepmother in Baton Rouge. All family members in New Orleans had made it out, but two elderly aunts who did not evacuate a small coastal town on the Mississippi Gulf were missing and presumed dead. Wednesday night’s imaging session did not go well. By now we had full Internet access: I kept surfing the net for Katrina news. I did image Abell cluster 2147 and part of Abell 262 before the sky began to brighten around 4:15 a.m. The night was surreal. Here I sat in a tent in the middle of nowhere imaging galaxies hundreds of thousands of light years away, in between reading and viewing images about one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history. Sleep did not come easily.
Thursday: By 10:00 a.m. the shower truck was in full operation and we took advantage of it. The news just kept getting worse. As night fell I prepared for the adult mentoring class that I was teaching. The concept of using CCD imaging for near real time observing is beginning to attract interest. My mentoring class between 12:00 and 1:00 a.m. consisted of a demo of observational imaging techniques with three students in my tent. Crowded, but things went well. After completing the class I finished imaging the Abell 262 galaxy cluster —a monster with over 30 galaxies spread over 60 arc minutes. Consulting Internet DSS images as I worked was almost essential. I retired around 4:00 a.m. almost too tired to sleep.
Friday: I was awakened around 9:00 a.m by the loud voices of elderly neighbors. If they had been younger, I might have roared out of the trailer. But I let it pass, got up, and staggered down to the espresso stand for caffeine. I attended George LaBelle’s lecture on imaging--George spends big bucks on his imaging equipment and his RV, and complains about the NSF generator restrictions at OSP. As always, Mel Bartels’ walkabout to review telescope design and construction was informative. That night I gave another imaging class session. Richard Berry dropped by and lent his expert help. I made a note to order his new book, AIP for Win. I completed imaging Abell galaxy cluster 347 and retired early, around 3:00 a.m.
Saturday: Around 10:00 a.m. the weather began to turn cloudy and reports for Saturday night were unpromising. I tried to get through by phone to Baton Rouge and to my surprise my stepmother answered. The two elderly family members had been found alive on Wednesday, and were in a hospital. She said there was very little food in the stores and gas was hard to find. Richard Berry’s presentation on our galaxy was outstanding, as usual. The night was hazy, so bad that they were showing the movie Contact in the big meeting tent. Although they stopped the movie because of clearing. I did not see much clearing. I only had one student—the others cancelled because of clouds. By 1:30 a.m. most had retired or were in full party mode.
Sunday: We packed up early. Richard Berry and I had a discussion about the future of imaging, and we talked about doing some work with the Meade DSI Pro camera. All in all, it had been a mixed week, with the trauma of trying to keep abreast of one of the worst storms in this century, and the joy of imaging at one of the best starviewing events in the country.