An Interview with The Weather Channel

Henryville High SchoolYou're looking at the Henryville, Indiana, high school, photographed from across the street on September 30, 2014. By all appearances, there's nothing remarkable about it. But if you're aware of its recent history, then you know differently. Two and a half years ago, on the evening of March 2, 2012, there wasn't much left of this building or, for that matter, a good part of Henryville. Roaring out of the southern Indiana hills and across I-65 to the west shortly after three o'clock that afternoon, a large tornado inflicted EF-4 damage in this small community, leveling much of the school and residences east of it. Like many a tornado-ravaged town, Henryville pulled together, took care of its own, and rebuilt. Today, the resilient spirit of its citizens shows not in any marks of the devastation that transpired there that afternoon but by the lack thereof. Where piles of Henryville Hillsidedebris once lay, new houses and commercial buildings have sprouted. The school is in full sway, with new buildings in place of the ones flattened by the storm. The only evidence I could see that Henryville is a tornado town--and the clue is noticeable, chiseled into the landscape--is a swath of shattered trees where the wind blasted the hillside east of the school. That memento left by the town's dark visitor is not soon expunged. On Tuesday the 30th, I made a side trip through Henryville on my way down to Clarksville, just north of the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. I and my friend and long-time chase partner, Bill Oosterbaan, had been asked to do an interview with Karga 7, a production house for The Weather Channel, for a show spotlighting the Henryville tornado. A couple months ago, Nichole, a producer with Karga 7, contacted me to inquire about using my footage of the tornado, which Bill and I had caught at its formative and maturing stages north of Palmyra, Indiana. I directed her to my video broker, Kendra Reed of KDR Media, and Kendra negotiated agreements for Bill and me, and  now here I was, heading down I-65 toward Clarksville's Clarion Hotel, where the interview was to be held. I felt both pleased and nervous at the prospect of being featured on national media. I'm a low-key kind of guy, and while, as a professional wordsmith, I can communicate colorfully and descriptively when I need to, I'm not by nature a showcase personality. So I wasn't sure what kind of interview material I'd make. Writing allows me to edit my words till they reflect my thoughts to my own satisfaction, but an interview doesn't afford that luxury. I hoped to shed a realistic and positive light on storm chasing and chasers, neither of which I think the public understands very well; and I wanted to give a strong message for people to take personal responsibility for their own safety and that of their loved ones by paying close attention to severe weather forecasts and warnings and not depend on sirens.* Nichole, her two camera persons, and the guy who greeted us at the door seemed like great people. They were professional, courteous, and enjoyable to work with. The actual interview lasted at least an hour and a half, and I think Bill and I did a good job answering the questions, playing off of and supplementing each other's responses. In a couple instances, our answers differed. For instance, Nichole asked, "Did you know when you first saw it that this was a killer tornado?" I said no. We had caught the funnel at its inception and stayed with it through early maturity, and I felt comfortable saying it was a violent and potentially lethal tornado; however, "killer tornado" isn't about storm strength but verified human impact, something quite different. All tornadoes have the potential to kill, but most don't, and that includes the relatively few violent ones. Not until later would I learn of this storm's heartbreaking toll on New Pekin, Henryville, and Marysville. Bill said yes, but he had processed the question differently from me. He does business frequently in nearby Louisville and knows the area. He was aware of towns to the northeast that the tornado might impact, and he knew it could cross an interstate highway. Bill evidently felt comfortable with calling the tornado a killer at the onset, based on its violence. It boils down to a matter of how each of us interpreted the question. I think he and I would agree that neither of us knew what the storm was going to do, but we did know what it could do if it hit a community, and we very much hoped that wouldn't happen. Between Bill and me, I think we did a good job of communicating two messages: (1) the tension storm chasers experience between their passion for storms as the magnificent forces of nature they are versus the concern we feel for those who lie in harm's way; and (2) the excellence and limitations of severe weather warnings, and the need for people to be proactive in safeguarding themselves against violent weather.  I hope those messages will come across clearly in our part of the TWC episode. We did our best, and from here, our content rests in the hands of the film editors. I look forward to seeing how it all turns out. Interview aside, the footage Bill and I got of the tornado was spectacular and affords a unique perspective of the tornado. I chalk that up to good forecasting, serendipity, and Bill's knowledge of the area. On March 2, 2012, Bill and I had been chasing together for sixteen years, beginning well before technology improved the odds of seeing tornadoes. We had logged thousands of miles, busted many a time, gradually improved our forecasting skills, seen some amazing storms, and had a blast overall. The thing that kept us going was, and remains, sheer love for the storms, not money or media attention. But it's nice to think that a little of both has finally come our way. Many thanks to Kendra Reed for her invaluable role in negotiating with Karga 7. Kendra, you are the absolute best! The show will air this coming spring, probably sometime in April. __________ * Civil defense sirens are the least dependable of warnings. When tornado victims say they "had no warning," what they often mean is that the sirens weren't sounded. I'll reiterate here what I said in the interview: don't count on sirens. They may or may not sound, depending on the judgment of your local civil defense; and if they do sound, you might not hear them for various reasons. Sirens are of limited effectiveness, and to rely on them as your primary warning is to live in the last century and jeopardize your safety. Today's warning system harnesses everything from local television to mobile phones to social media and more, and while it's still possible for the occasional rogue tornado to slip in under the radar, the big storm systems such as the one on March 2, 2012, are invariably well-forecast and well-warned.

Storm Chasing: The Anthology: An Interview with Blake Naftel

Blake2Amid my collection of storm chasing videos is an old VHS titled A Spotter’s Guide to Michigan Convective Weather. Produced in 2000 by Blake Naftel in collaboration with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, the award-winning video is a vintage reflection of Blake’s dual passions for storm chasing and videography—a combination shared by countless chasers, but which in Blake’s case, having developed in a unique way at an opportune time, has forged a path that brings him today to the verge of a remarkable undertaking. But let me set the stage. . . . Long past are the days when storm chasing was the little-known, eclectic pursuit of a handful of pioneering weather photographers and researchers crisscrossing the Great Plains. Today, hundreds of chasers routinely pound the roads of Tornado Alley, and more are entering the fray all the time, influenced by what they’ve seen on TV but lacking any awareness of where it came from. Yet storm chasing has roots—deep roots, a legacy of personalities, events, and endeavors that deserves to be cherished but is in danger of being lost. The time to preserve that rich heritage is now, when most of those who have created it are still with us. Now is the time to honor the colorful history of storm chasing and connect it to today’s talented generation of younger chasers and weather scientists and the future which is theirs to shape. That is the vision that drives Blake Naftel to produce Storm Chasing: The Anthology. It is unquestionably the most ambitious cultural and historical project ever to focus on storm chasing. Given the grassroots character of chasing, it is fitting that an effort of such a landmark nature should arise not out of some big commercial production house, but from one of our own. Someone who has storm chasing in his blood and cares about it deeply enough to portray it with honesty; better yet, to let those who have contributed to it do the portraying on their own terms. There will be no scripting, no manufactured storyline. There will just be stories, told by those who have lived them, beginning with the very origins of storm chasing. There will be storms, of course—unadorned, historical storms as well as contemporary ones; storms you may have chased yourself as well as ones from decades past that you’ve only heard of and wished you could have experienced. There will be insights into the rise and development of tornado research. And there will be much more. That is, provided Blake can pull off a venture of such magnitude. Those of us who know him think he can. He’s immensely talented as both a chaser and a cameraman with years of experience in TV journalism, he has a penchant for the truth, and he’s motivated by sheer love for his subject. The project is huge in scope and fraught with challenges. But Blake is embracing those challenges, and the result promises to be unlike anything else that has ever been attempted. And with that, I’ll let Blake tell the rest of the story. --------------- Question: Let’s start with a bit of personal history, the stuff that has forged your path toward this project. What first got you started both as a storm chaser and as a professional cameraman? Blake NaftelBlake: My interest in severe weather, meteorology, and storm chasing developed early, just before I turned five. I recall being exposed to The Wizard of Oz­­—specifically the tornado sequence—and more importantly, to the NOVA-WGBH documentary “Tornado,” which was first broadcast in November 1985. I was determined to record the program, but my family lacked a VHS VCR at that time. Fortunately, my uncle in Detroit had one, and just after Thanksgiving 1985, I had a copy of the broadcast. The following year, my parents purchased a VCR, and the tape was played extensively—to the point of memorization. The tape found its way to  friends’ homes, where instead of children’s cartoons, the sixty-minute program on tornadoes, storm chasing, and the Barneveld, Wisconsin, tragedy was required viewing. Picking up on my interest in severe weather, my mom began telling me stories of the tornado she witnessed only a few years prior in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on May 13, 1980. Descriptions of the “twin tails” rotating around one another from her viewpoint at the Civic building in downtown Kalamazoo captivated me. The iconic Kalamazoo Gazette front-page newspaper photograph furthered my fascination, and soon I was checking out every book on tornadoes that I could locate at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Later in the spring of 1986, my mom visited my godmother in Kansas City, Missouri, where, at the time, the National Severe Storms Forecast Center was located. She returned with numerous informative brochures and spotter’s guide material, which I instantly became hooked on. Additionally that year, Mom designed a flip book with illustrations of the progression of the events from May 13, 1980­—sunshine, clouds, greenish-grey skies, lightning, the tornado’s approach, its wrath—concluding with calm, blue, sunny skies. It depicted the day just as it had transpired. I still have this little book, entitled Tornado! (“For Blake, from Mom.”) Zooming ahead about a decade, I began developing a great interest in cameras—specifically in motion picture cinematography, videography, and 35 mm photography. This was early in the Internet age, and multiple interests of mine were spanning territories that included affordable access to used camera equipment, fee-based and free weather data, and newsgroup networking with seasoned storm chasers and meteorologists across the United States and Canada (WX-TALK, WX-CHASE). Upon receiving my driver’s license, I began to actually chase storms in 1996­‒97. My chasing at the time was all local, learn-as-you-go, with my knowledge of storm structure and my chase style informed by various storm chase highlight videos which I swapped with Bill Reid, Jim Leonard, Tim Marshall, Warren Faidley, Scott Woelm, Bruce D. Lee, Roger Edwards, and Rich Thompson, among others. At this point, I also began experimenting with HTML design, early online video, and the development of a regional group of storm spotters and chasers who would gather video of severe weather events in Michigan for the purpose of SKYWARN spotter training. Eventually, after making contact with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, I created a statewide training video for storm spotters, developed though my early attempt at social networking and video sourcing. The now long-defunct website known as MSIT (Michigan Storm Intercept Team) was one of several web pages I created back then. During the same period, I began an online business buying and selling used motion picture and video camera gear. By doing so, I acquired several different types of cameras, learned about them by trial and error, and frequently focused their lenses on the weather, nature, and people around me. This approach mixed in with a “vintage” look I was going for at the time, and it eventually became a style I utilize to this day. Then in 1998, the event occurred that would lead me to a future career in photojournalism and TV. On June 11, I was storm chasing across north-central Indiana in Elkhart and Kosciusko counties. It was a very basic chase with paper maps, weather radio, black-and-white television tuned to local media for radar updates, and a general target area based on the parameters. It did not seem like a prime tornado day, although when I recall the dynamics of the system today, it now is very obvious. Long story short: I ended up successfully intercepting and documenting several brief tornadoes which struck south and northeast of Nappanee, Indiana, on SR 19. The chase had at least one nerve-wracking moment when my vehicle’s transmission temporarily gave out in the path of the oncoming tornado, which was less than a mile-and-a-half away. Fortunately the transmission kicked back into gear, allowing me a northern escape. Once in a safe position, with SVHS camcorder tripoded, I filmed the wall cloud and its attendant weak tornadoes as they continued dipping down to the northeast. The following morning, I saw the amateur video of another tornado near Bristol, Indiana—which occurred prior to what I witnessed—showcased on the morning news on WSBT 22 and WNDU 16. Prompted by my growing interest in broadcast meteorology, TV news, and videography, I called WNDU and spoke to Mike Hoffman, the chief meteorologist, about my own video. He took great interest and asked if they could buy the video for their 11 p.m. newscast on June 12. After another round of severe weather across the same region that day, I ended up meeting the station’s chief photographer in White Pigeon, Michigan. I gave him my original tape, and later that evening, my video of the Nappanee tornadic event appeared on WNDU’s newscast. From that point, I began freelancing for local media and soon became  involved with the production side of local television. This eventually grew into my various incarnations as a photojournalist, reporter, weather producer, and technician in the years that followed. Q: What were those early years like for you? With whom did you chase? How have your experiences and personal interests influenced your videographic approach, which goes beyond chronicling the storms to also documenting the human and historical sides of storm chasing? B: My early years of storm chasing were very local, restricted to traveling through the western portions of lower Michigan, with occasional trips to northern and central Indiana. Typically, those early trips were either with high school friends or solo, utilizing my 1989 Ford Taurus wagon or a dilapidated 1978 Chevy van my friend Aaron Graham would occasionally drive. Fuel cost was still low, just 79 cents in 1997, so traveling at length to witness severe thunderstorms was not of great significance. Even back then, I was using multiple documentation formats, frequently hauling motion picture film, video, and still photography equipment together into the field just to chronicle everyday Michigan severe thunderstorms. For the more vivid events, I preferred to shoot silent Super 8 color movie film, whereas VHS/SVHS video was a near-constant format that seemed to be always rolling. I was intrigued by tornadoes on film—namely, the early NOAA-produced films—versus video. The quality, grain, and occasional scratches and dust flecks produced by the projector created a look I was determined to capture. And I did, experimenting with different cameras, formats, and photographic styles. I didn’t confine myself to severe weather or storm chasing only; family events, pets, and the natural surroundings across my hometown area in Texas Township, Michigan, also provided a dynamic environment full of interesting subjects and colors. My subject range continued to expand as I became involved with broadcast photojournalism and developing my own shooting style. Again, it was all by trial and error. My first chasing exposure to the Plains states was in 1999 and more expansively in 2000. Prior to this point, I had only lived vicariously through the videos of other chasers with whom I had networked through the Internet. Bill Reid, from the Los Angeles region, was one individual who had direct influence not only on my chase documentation style but also on my musical tastes at the time. Over the years, we swapped storm chase highlight videotapes and conversed online, and this eventually led to a distant friendship, which in turn opened the doors to my working for Tempest Tours, with Bill serving as tour director. In 2001 I was invited to drive and help forecast for Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, run by Todd Thorn. By then I was twenty years old and attending college, and the appeal of having all my lodging and fuel costs paid for seemed too good to pass up. That experience involved a huge tour: three vans full of individuals from across the world as well as three media vehicles from The Weather Network, the Denver Post, and WKOW-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an eye-opener for someone who had primarily chased solo or within small groups, and only locally, never throughout the Plains states. I don’t regret the experience whatsoever, but I chose not to drive for a second tour scheduled directly after the first. Tours can be exhausting, especially those with so many participants! That year was also the first operational year of Tempest Tours, a company formed by documentary filmmaker Martin Lisius, who was good friends with Bill Reid. I had been in contact with Martin in previous years, ordering his Chasing the Wind, Chasers of Tornado Alley, and StormWatch productions. Out of the blue, Bill contacted me, inquiring about my interest in being a paid driver/guide for Tempest Tours the following year. I was both humbled and floored! I accepted the offer, and in May 2002, I began a five-year stint with Tempest. During that time, I developed many new friendships that would never have been possible without the flexibility that working for a storm chase tour company provided. Concurrently, I was also working on my geography/GIS degree at Western Michigan University, and I found myself drawn intensely to the mecca of academic severe weather research and meteorology in Norman. The tours, based out of Oklahoma City, provided a wonderful gateway to interacting with other meteorologists and storm chasers who shared similar interests. Due to the requirements of the broadcast news industry I was now working in, 2008 was my last year working in the storm chase tour circuit. The peak chase month of May is a “sweeps” period in newscasting, and vacation is rarely allowed. So the tours had to take a back seat. But the entire experience was fantastic, one that created friendships which continue to this day and left me with amazing images of visual water vapor, along with an enjoyment, courtesy of Bill Reid, of the musical artists Stan Ridgway and Klaus Nomi. It had been a remarkable, full, and deeply formative passage in my life—and I had it all documented extensively on videotape. Q: On to your project. Describe Storm Chasing: The Anthology. What is it? How did you think of it? How is it different from other storm chasing videos and documentaries such as Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, and what do you hope it will accomplish? Why is it important—and why now? B: Storm Chasing: The Anthology developed out of an earlier, untitled project from the 2003‒2004 era which I had shelved. The first concept was a 60-minute documentary on the human element of storm chasing. At that point, I had accumulated hundreds of hours of my own storm chasing endeavors—as well as the people I had been chasing with at the time. Impromptu interviews from the field were gathered, but it was all very “reality TV” to me, and that was a style I was losing interest in. Jump ahead ten years. Much had changed in the world of storm chasing. Several reality TV shows had transpired, including Storm Chasers, Tornado Road, and smaller spin-offs. I still had all of my original material sitting around in boxes, but had lost interest in doing the earlier concept. Then came the tragedy of May 31, 2013, in El Reno, Oklahoma, which affected the entire storm chasing community and touched me in a very personal way. That event served as the initial trigger for me to revisit my old project and envision a different and expanded approach to it, and it has given me the drive to complete it. The idea is to present a complete (or as complete as possible) visual history of storm chasing culture. This grows out of the humanity aspect of the original concept, but instead of using a narrator, it will be told through the words, stories, and images of every storm chaser and meteorologist who participates, revealing the full, fascinating decade-by-decade evolution of storm chasing. To date, the many documentaries and programs about storm chasing have focused on specific events, people, or scientific endeavors, with the 1978 documentary In Search of Tornadoes being the first widely broadcast feature on the subject. In contrast, Storm Chasing: The Anthology is comprehensive. It will serve as a sweeping visual history lesson and an archive of storm chasing culture. Through this project, I plan to preserve the legacy of past generations of the activity, connect that heritage to what chasing is today, and make the results available as an educational resource for present and aspiring meteorologists and severe weather enthusiasts. In time, I hope to have this project serve as a visual thesis towards the development of a digital, cloud-based, multimedia archive of severe weather. This would be university-based and available as a research and reference resource. That is far down the line, but it was another trigger to doing this project. As individual meteorologists and storm chasers pass on, their collections of imagery and work run the risk of vanishing; the archive would answer that concern. Obviously, you cannot preserve everything, nor is that my intention. One can, however, preserve vast amounts of a subject, and I feel that now is the time to make a push toward that end. Q: Who is Storm Chasing: The Anthology for? Primarily storm chasers? Or do you hope to reach a broader audience? How will this anthology benefit viewers? B: This production is being created for anyone with an interest in history, severe weather research, meteorology, and the activity of storm chasing. Granted, the core audience is those who are, or have been, directly involved in storm chasing. The benefit to viewers will be a broad education on all aspects of storm chasing as an activity. Initially, a condensed premiere version will be released, followed by a six-part anthology. The latter obviously may take far more work than I had initially thought, and at the moment, this is a completely independent effort—so I ask everyone to please bear with me. In terms of a broader audience, upon completion, I wish to make the anthology available to libraries and academic institutions. In time, I would love to present this program on a broadcast/web streaming platform—specifically, PBS. The film festival circuit will also be a part of the exposure to other individuals who would not normally have a direct interest in this subject. As for making the anthology available for individual purchase, that’s in the plans, but I’ll first need to take care of the necessary copyright and licensing requirements. Q: This is obviously a huge undertaking, spanning roughly sixty years of storm chasing history. Given your talents, experience, and relationships with storm chasers from veterans to talented younger chasers, you seem uniquely qualified to make it happen. What have you already done, what do you still need to do, and how long do you think it will take? B: So much has been accomplished already! A tremendous amount of video, film, and other material has been gathered over the past decade. But much remains to be done. The core of the project involves my completing fifty-plus interviews of individual storm chasers and meteorologists across thirty-one states and Ontario, Canada. The Kickstarter campaign is intended to defray my travel expenses. With that campaign now in its final week, concluding on July 25, I am still seeking additional funds to offset the combined 7 to 10 percent fee that Amazon and Kickstarter will take from the funding pool. My next task is acquiring a vehicle for travel. I share a vehicle presently and will likely be renting one for the trip. I’m currently approaching local car dealerships and national rental vehicle agencies about sponsoring a car. One of these options will be secured in the next month. I am also still deciding what format to shoot the interviews on. Presently I have the offer of older, loaned (fee-free) gear from friends, and that will likely be the route I take. Once the interviews are complete, editing will be the monumental task on my mind, along with production design. I am confident that a condensed premiere version would be ready by the summer of 2015. And I earnestly hope to have the six-part anthology completed by October or November 2015 and available either as BluRay/DVD or as a digital download. There is the whole aspect of meeting the deadlines promised to backers of this project—so 2015 will be a very busy year for post-production! I’m always eager for assistance and will likely be inquiring with local or regional production firms and/or academic institutions in order to complete the project in a timely manner. Another big reality is securing an income—or multiple-income sources—locally or regionally while working on the post production phase of this project. Working independently, I’m taking a great risk, and I find that both exciting and unnerving. I’m leaving my full-time job at WWMT on August 22 to set out for the month or so it will take me to complete the interviews, and I have nothing official lined up upon my return. While I have requested an unpaid extended leave from the station, it is only a possible consideration. Moreover, the focus required for the editing phase of this project is immense, so if I could secure local part-time or freelance employment within the Grand Rapids area, that would work quite well. Although I cannot say what the future holds, doors continue to open in new directions for me each step of the way with this project, and I have faith that everything will work out. Upon my return, hours upon hours of video will be ingested and logged. Not only so, but countless hours of B-roll video material dating back to David Hoadley’s earliest storm chasing movies will also need to be digitally archived. All the multimedia material I’ll be dealing with comprises well over 1,000 hours! Frankly, thinking about how to bring all of that together boggles my mind at the moment. This is all a real-time process, and that is one reason why I am choosing to release this as a six-part anthology. I may need to seek out a production team to assist in the design and distribution of this project somewhere down the line. So let me reemphasize that while Storm Chasing: The Anthology is currently an independent effort, I am open to assistance from the outside, including collaboration with other filmmakers and producers. Q: Who are some of your supporters? Do you have a projected release date? B: The supporters of this project are far too numerous to list here. I am extremely thankful to everyone who has pitched in to help make this project move from a vision to a reality. The projected release of the premiere version is in the early fall of 2015. I hope to feature it in the Oklahoma City/Norman, Oklahoma region, potentially coordinating with the AMS or NWA conferences between September and October. No premiere location is official yet; that too remains on my vast to-do list. As for the six-part anthology disc/digital download version, as I mentioned earlier, I plan to make it available by November 2015, barring any snags along the way. Q: What are your needs? How can people help? B: Full project details and proposed budget can be located via: http://stormchasinghistory.net. The ongoing Kickstarter campaign runs until July 25 at 11:10 a.m. ET.* While the $7,000 funding goal was met in twelve days, additional backing will only make this project better! Please continue spreading the word about this project through social media. And if you love a mix of history, storm chasing, and storytelling, then consider adding your financial support to create this anthology series. Any amount, large or small, makes a difference and is greatly appreciated. Q: Anything else you’d like to say, Blake? B: Thank you to everyone who has supported the development of Storm Chasing: The Anthology! This production would not be a reality without the collaboration, belief, and interest of others! I am eagerly looking forward to getting on the road with this project, and I will be providing field updates of my travels, once they commence, via Facebook, Twitter, and the stormchasinghistory.net homepage. ------------------------------- * Blake's Kickstarter campaign concluded at the time stated and was highly successful. He raised $10,200, well beyond his goal. Considering that the project will involve far more than travel expenses, those who contributed can consider their generosity well-placed.

Missing Out on Moore

I haven't posted in this blog for several weeks. Behind my lack of motivation lies a depression over how this storm season has turned out for me, which reflects a broader sense of personal failure as a storm chaser. A melancholy lead-in such as this will probably lose some of you, and I understand. It's not exactly sunshine and a bowl of Cheerios. But others may identify with this post and perhaps even find it helpful, and in any case, it's my blog, and I'll write what I please. The May 20 Moore tornado exacerbated what has been a brooding issue for me since 2011. During that intensely active and historic year, I was sidelined from chasing due to family and financial constraints, and my final shot at a decent chase on June 20 in Nebraska failed by an hour due to a series of delays along the way. With last year's notable exceptions of the March 2 Henryville, Indiana, tornado, and April 24 in Kansas, the trend has continued. And given how this year's slow start finally exploded in the second half of May with storms that ranged from photogenic to disastrous, coming home empty-handed from my two brief excursions to the Great Plains during another historic year has been hard to take. This post, then, is a continuation of my processing a deadly storm season that has robbed the storm chasing community of some of its best and brightest, exacted a steep toll on the residents of Oklahoma City, afforded a flood of spectacular videos, and caused me to search my soul as a storm chaser and wonder whether I even qualify as one. The rest of what follows is a post I wrote earlier today in Stormtrack. It belongs in this blog too, even moreso than in the chaser forum. ------------------------------------ Missing the Moore tornado in particular touched something off in me. I've never felt more frustrated about missing an event I would never have wanted to witness. El Reno didn't have that same effect on me. I watched the whole scenario unfold on the radar and on KFOR live stream with horror, not with regret that I was missing out on anything, and my sense of it is that OKC got off very lightly. I'm probably better off for not having been there. It was too dangerous a storm. But missing Moore was a bitter pill to swallow, and I think a lot of the reason has to do with my limited ability to chase. I just can't afford to do it nearly as often or extensively as I'd like, so having to head back to Michigan empty-handed one day too soon after driving all those miles, knowing that the next day would be big in Oklahoma, was hard on me. I could have afforded the extra day and I badly wanted to stay, but one of the guys had to work the following morning, and there was no getting out of it. He had a responsibility to his employer and his family, and as the driver, I had a responsibility to him. Such responsibilities are honorable and will always come first with me. But that didn't make things any easier. Watching the debris ball roll across Moore on GR3 while I was driving east through Missouri created an ugly mix of feelings for me. My first thought was, Oh my God! When you see something like that, you just know something horrible is happening. My second thought was, I'm missing it. After driving all those miles and busting (got just a fleeting glimpse of a rope tornado, not anything to even talk about), that radar image seemed like a slap in the face. I felt angry, like I'd been robbed, betrayed. Which is crazy, of course, but feelings are feelings, no more and no less, and I'm just being honest here about mine at the time. My third thought, which is the one I've had to wrestle with since, was, Why? Why was I feeling so torn about missing something so terrible, an event that would have have broken my heart and caused me to lose sleep if I had been there? I don't think there's a simple answer; I think there are many components which add up. But the bottom line is, there's an obsessive aspect to chasing for me that can either make or ruin my day and even my week. I don't see that as healthy, and it didn't use to be that way. I use to take my limitations in stride, and busts were just busts: not personal failures, just part of paying my dues as a chaser. But chasing today is a whole different ballgame than it was when I first got started seventeen years ago. The mindset is more competitive, many more people are doing it and spending gobs of cash and time in the process, and overall I just can't keep pace with it. So I've had to--and still have to--do some soul-searching. Who I am as a person goes far deeper than chasing storms. And more important to me than being in the mainstream of chasing is having peace of mind, and that requires accepting my limitations, working within them to simply enjoy something I love to do without letting it own me. I find that much easier to say than it is to do, but for me it is a necessity. If I can afford to chase a setup, I will; if I can't, I'll wish those of you who can success--and safety. I hope it will be many, many more years before anything like another Moore or El Reno occurs.

The Deaths of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young

When last I wrote about this year's storm season, it was non-existent: a cold, cold April and early May with teaser setups shot to pieces by crashing cold fronts. Funny how fast things can change--or really, not so funny. No, not so funny at all. On May 20, non-existent turned into horrible when an EF-5 tornado ripped across the heart of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people. Then, as if that weren't bad enough, on May 31 a monstrous supercell with multiple rotations took a second swipe at the area, taking another 11 lives (at last count). I followed its progress on radar, and I don't recall ever seeing anything like it before: just one big, amoeba-like mass of churning vortices pulverizing an already storm-shattered city. KFOR chopter cameras showed a rain-wrapped tornado approaching a highway filled with several miles of gleaming headlights, all at a standstill--hundreds of panicky motorists trapped as a mass evacuation turned into a parking lot. It was unbelievable. And it was horrifying. I have written nothing about storm chasing for over a month. At first, it was because there was nothing to write about. Then came the Moore tornado, and after that I've had just the opposite problem. I have felt overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, and there is so much to say that I haven't known where to begin. Until now. Tonight, I can no longer keep silent. I must write. When news of the deaths of veteran storm chaser and tornado research luminary Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and his chase partner Carl Young began to filter in last night on Facebook, I took it with the usual grain of salt. These things have a way of proving false, and I take a dim view of sensationalist reports until the facts have been confirmed. In this case, sadly, they have been. Three bright stars in the storm chasing firmament have fallen from the sky. They were not the idiot yahoos everyone expected would one day become storm chasing's first direct tornado casualties. They were skilled chasers, as expert and knowledgeable as they come and known for their caution and respect for the storms. Whatever circumstances surrounded their deaths in the violent El Reno tornado, it is doubtful that they involved deliberately foolish risk-taking. That wasn't their style. I have never met Tim, Paul, or Carl, but many chasers have, and everyone knows of Tim's work. Simply put, he was one of the most respected names in the field of storm chasing, and from everything I have heard, one of the nicest. I have never heard anything but good words for all three of these guys. And now they are gone, torn from our midst far too soon. There is some consolation in knowing that these men died doing what they loved. Some. But it does not mitigate the grief felt by their families and friends. Even those such as I who did not know them feel a great sadness. My heart is heavy, and my prayers are with the loved ones of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young. May you rest in peace, gentlemen. You have given the world much. Thank you.

Respect for the Victims: Some Thoughts on Storm Chaser Banter

Several weeks ago, en route toward a storm chasers' conference in Minneapolis, my long-time chase partner Bill Oosterbaan and I caught lunch in Parkersburg, Iowa. Five years before, on May 25, 2008, Bill, his brother, Tom, Jason Harris, and I had intercepted a tornadic supercell half an hour after it leveled the southern third of that town, claiming seven lives. It was the second EF-5 tornado recorded using the Enhanced Fujita Scale (the first tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007), and I was curious to visit the community it had impacted. As we headed north into Parkersburg, just two signs of the disaster greeted us: wind-torn trees which bore silent testimony to the horror of that grim afternoon, and street after street of new homes and commercial structures. In that 150-year-old prairie town, the delineation between old buildings to the north and brand-new ones to the south was sharp, and it was telling. This town had endured something far beyond a bad windstorm. It had been forever altered by one of nature's most violent and lethal forces. In just two or three brief minutes, one-third of the town had been swept away--homes leveled, businesses demolished, loved ones lost, bodies maimed, traumatic memories imprinted indelibly in the minds and emotions of survivors, and the history of an entire 1,870-person community dramatically shaped. Henceforth, Parkersburg would be one of those towns whose residents speak in terms of "before the tornado" and "after the tornado." As Bill and I walked down the sidewalk toward a family restaurant in the old downtown section, Bill remarked, "I can hardly wait to get out and chase this spring! Man, I hope we get some good storms." "Careful," I said. "Remember where we are." Bill understood immediately. "Good point," he agreed. It's so easy for even older, long-time chasers like Bill and me to forget. We're enthralled with tornadoes and severe storms, we're passionate about what we do, and we love to talk about it to the point where we lose track of how terribly dark the dark side of our interest can be. But those who have survived that dark side can never forget. I look forward to an active storm chasing season this year, certainly better than in 2012. But as we chasers begin to feel our blood stir with the approach of spring, let's bear in mind what we're dealing with. We're sometimes glib in our speech, and we say things jokingly or casually that we don't really mean. On Facebook and other social media, I run across comments like, "Bring on the EF-4's!" or, "I hope I see an EF-5." That's typical chatter for storm chasers, particularly newer ones. But do you really want to see an EF-5? Remember, the EF Scale is a damage rating, so consider its implications. Saying that you'd like to witness an upper-end-EF tornado is different from saying you hope to see a mile-wide, violent wedge. I would love to see just such a wedge, or two, or five or more, churning across the open plains this year. Gimme, gimme, I'm a junkie! But would I like to see an EF-5? No. Not considering it most likely means that neighborhoods have been leveled and people killed. I hope I never, ever witness something as horrible as Joplin. On three occasions, twice by night and once by day, I've tracked tornadoes as they hit towns. Chances are, eventually I'll see something along the lines of Greensburg, and I'll have video to show and a story to tell. But that will simply be because I was following the storm, not because I expected or wanted it to do something awful. Even EF-3 and lower tornado damage reflects a terrifying, hugely impactful, and sometimes deadly event for those in the path of the whirlwind. Chasers who witness such destruction inflicted on a community are sobered by it, shaped by it, and sometimes haunted by it. So as we enter tornado season, let's be mindful of what these storms can do and have done, year after year in town after town. My enthusiasm for chasing may not be be shared by the waitress who's serving me lunch in some small Kansas town, who lost her home, husband, and child in a storm.

April 3, 2012, Dallas Tornadoes and a 1974 Super Outbreak Retrospective

Now that all the excitement is over, here are a couple radar grabs from shortly after 3:00 p.m. EST (1903z) of two tornadic supercells moving across Dallas. Click on the images to enlarge them. I was on the phone with my brother Brian at the time when I took the screenshots. He, my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and my nephew, Sam, live on the eastern side of Dallas. Worried about their safety, I gave Brian a call. It occurred to me that, once the storms had passed, Brian might enjoy seeing a couple of the radar shots that had prompted my concern. The storms fired when moist, easterly surface winds collided with an old, eastward-moving outflow boundary. There's plenty of lift and helicity in that combination, and with good instability and adequate upper-air support, supercells and tornadoes were the result. The event was extremely well-covered, as you'd expect when a major city is in the crosshairs in this age of live streaming and hi-def camcorders. Facebook was abuzz with chatter and images as the scenario unfolded. But it's all finished, and now we wait for official surveys to fill us in on the full scope of storm damage. From the videos and photos I've seen, some of the tornadoes were quite large, but for all that, it sounds like their impact was relatively minor. Of course, in the neighborhoods where homes got damaged or destroyed, it was calamitous, but considering what could have been, Dallas suffered a flesh wound, not a severed limb. So far I haven't heard reports of any injuries or fatalities; let's hope that continues to be the case. One irony of this event is that it falls on a date that affords ample grounds for comparison. Thirty-eight years ago on April 3–4, the infamous 1974 Super Outbreak claimed 319 lives, a figure only recently surpassed by last year's devastating April 27-28 Super Outbreak. One hundred forty-eight tornadoes raked a thirteen-state region in the East and South, and out of that number, six tornadoes were rated an F5 and twenty-four, an F4. Even the 2011 Southern Outbreak, violent, deadly, and prolific as it was, didn't rival that statistic, although it certainly came very close. Dallas today saw nothing like the disasters that unfolded back then in Xenia, Ohio; or Brandenberg and Louisville, Kentucky; or Monticello, Indiana; or Guin, Alabama. That's a good thing. Such benchmarks are not the kind you ever want your own town to challenge, particularly if your town is as large and populous as Fort Worth or Dallas. If you want to get a fascinating and gripping retrospective on one facet of the 1974 Super Outbreak, spend a little time listening to these recordings of the blow-by-blow radio reportage from WHAS as the Louisville tornado moved through the city. Or for a really eerie experience, turn up the volume and listen to this MP3 of the Xenia, Ohio, tornado as it approached and ultimately destroyed the apartment of a Xenia resident, who wisely abandoned his cassette recorder to seek shelter in the basement. And that's enough of that. It's time for me to pull away from the computer and go practice my saxophone.