it All Happened
It is amazing how six years of storm chasing will change you. Your whole perspective is altered and the more storms you chase the more you crave the next chase. Of course I didn't start chasing until I was nineteen years old, and before then roaming the plains was nothing more than a dream. A dream I was determined to make a reality.
Spending my late childhood & adolescence in Nashville I did see supercell thunderstorms near my home a few times. I recall the first supercell I ever saw. Quarter sized hail fell, then it stopped. There were nearly clear skies all around and the storm had an explosive, cauliflower updraft. This is when I witnessed my first funnel cloud. One day, a tornado-warned supercell passed just north of my house. This is when I saw my first wall cloud, or at least a dark lowering. Watching storms from my home was the only way I could witness severe weather since I didn't dare to chase at that time.
For me it was only a dream to chase these storms in the flat, open terrain commonly referred to as the Great Plains of Tornado Alley. In the spring of 1999 I received my acceptance letter from the University of Oklahoma to start in the fall. In my wildest dreams I couldn't have possibly imagined the experiences which were to come my way.
I remember my first meteorology class which had about 150 students. I though I'd meet tons & tons of weather nuts just like me. Boy was I mistaken. Most of the students I met had a general interest in weather but lacked the passion. Interestingly, perhaps appropriately, all of those people changed their major later down the road.
Then, in the spring semester of 2000 I met Simon Brewer. He looked like an outcast with long hair, and long sideburns. He didn't say anything to anyone, had a serious look on his face, and it equated to a very intimidating appearance. After a calculus class I said hi and we started talking about weather (big surprise). While we didn't know it at the time the Stormgasm team was born.
Our first chase was March twenty eight that year. We both saw a cumulus cloud literally explode along the dryline just east of campus. This is when I met Tom Santillo. The three of us chased the supercell and saw the tinniest funnel known to man. I was stoked and wanted to go chasing again.
For the next couple years we didn't see very many tornadoes. This was mostly due to not being able to chase on the big tornado days. But in hindsight that actually helped us grow into the hardcore, passionate chasers we are today. Most chasers will only go out to see a tornado. Meanwhile we'd (and still do) get all excited driving deep into Texas in early March to see a supercell.
Most people think storm chasing is this wild joy ride right along side a tornado, with your hair on fire screaming "Wahoo". This common misconception is the sole fault of the Hollywood movie "Twister". To the surprise of most people, approximately ninety percent of storm chasing involves two things: driving and waiting. You make a forecast; drive to your target region - for us many times it meant driving for several hours - and wait. Sure you look at weather data at a library or on your laptop if you have one, but mostly you wait for the cap to break. You spend a lot of time on the cell phone once storms fire, and it can be very frustrating trying to decide which storm to go after. For these reasons plus loads more, storm chasing isn't just about the storms. It's about the road trips. The people you are with, the experiences you have whether or not you see a storm; the places you see and the people you meet. The rare days are the best - the days when you see a major tornado up close. Those moments make driving for twenty hours and not sleeping for two days totally worth the pain.
During the semesters we always hoped for weekend chase days. But the weather doesn't care what day of the week it is. By 2002 we had proven to ourselves we were hardcore storm chasers. Being hardcore doesn't mean you see a tornado on every chase. No. Hardcore means you go out even when chances are slim for even a supercell, much less an actual tornado. If you see a tornado on every chase then you don't chase very often, thus don't have much experience. There are a lot of setups every year with low tornado probabilities but the supercells can be breathtaking.
It wasn't until 2003 when I finally started seeing large, photogenic tornadoes up close and personal. Chasing a tornado is unlike any other thing I've ever experienced. It never fails, every time I see a tornado I'm amazed. Another phenomenon that never fails is the way I scream when I'm witnessing my first tornado of the year! By the end of the 2003 chase season I had seen my first wedge tornado which, unfortunately, leveled a town; watched two simultaneous tornadoes nearly side by side; and witnessed a tornado literally destroy a house right before my eyes.
I remember the first time I saw major damage caused by a deadly tornado. We were driving through a small town in Kansas during one of the biggest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. The tornado was still to our northeast not too far away, and on both sides of the street were leveled houses. It really hit home when I later saw a man climb out of what was left of his half-destroyed house. I felt sick to my stomach and wished I could take back what the tornado had done. But there was nothing I could do. From that day forward I never looked at tornadoes the same way.
Throughout my college career I chose storm chasing over school numerous times. I knew this set me aside from the other ninety nine percent of the meteorology students. This isn't to say I wasn't a good student. I just stretched my luck as far as it would go. I learned you can't really get much studying done in a car too! But sometimes I had to suck it up and study. Probably the most frustrating situation was when I stayed home to study for a final exam. Meanwhile a large tornado outbreak was occurring over Southwest Kansas. Needless to say I didn't get much studying done until the sun went down and I was sure I wasn't actively missing the action! Nonetheless, my discipline paid off.
When Simon and I began storm chasing in 2000 we never dreamed we could make money doing it. Throughout the years we've sold our footage to the media, and made deals with production companies. This, at first, was merely for the purpose of paying for gas, film expenses, and to help pay for future chases. By the spring of 2004 it was becoming clear that due to the exposure from our website, making a profit from chasing is possible. We just have to keep chasing. No dream is unreachable if you want it badly enough.
I graduated with my B.S. in Meteorology in May, 2004. I was actively searching for an operational forecasting position anywhere. Meanwhile, Simon and I storm chased until funds completely ran out. The season held a lot of disappointments and misfortunes, with a few great chases. We bagged a 2.5 mile wide tornado in Nebraska, which now holds the world record for tornado size. We also saw two of the most intense and spectacular supercells I've ever seen in my life.
Now things are much different. I work full time as a meteorologist for an energy company. I cannot chase all spring like I did in college. What I do now is take a chase vacation sometime in the spring each year in order to roam the plains in search of violent storms. I still chase on the weekends a few times a year when opportunities arise. In those instances I somehow manage to return to work in Houston Monday morning on time; though notably exhausted! The most frustrating situations for me are the great chase days that occur on Sunday's, but are too far away to return to work on time Monday morning (I arrive very early). It's much easier to deal with when I am at work the day of an event and physically cannot be out there chasing!
At this point the plan is to continue advancing in my meteorological career. The ultimate dream is to be able to chase storms full time, but not before becoming completely satisfied with my success in operational meteorology. I am confident this dream will become a reality, just like the original goal I set years ago to become a meteorologist. Without high goals what is there to look forward to, and what is the point of being alive? Life will be good for as long as I am physically able to storm chase.