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A Day as a Storm Chaser

Let me guess.. When you tell someone you are a storm chaser, you get one of these few replies…

  1. Wow, do you know Reed Timmer?
  2. Oh, like Twister?
  3. Man that’s awesome, I’ve always wanted to do that.
  4. That’s neat, my Dad and I used to do that when I was a kid.

You’re thinking in your head…

  1. I know Reed, who doesn’t..
  2. No, nothing is accurate in that movie.
  3. Cool story.
  4. Even cooler story.

It seems that very few people really know what goes on in our world! So I am hoping this blog can spread some light on that. The next time you get a question, share this link,  and let them know what really goes on! A quick thanks to Vincent Webb and Morgan Guigon for the suggestions for this blog.

Before the Chase:

If you live far away from the plains, you’ve surely been checking the SPC outlooks for a week or more, and checking the models, planning just when you want to spend your hard earned cash to drive out to the plains. If you’re tied down by work, you’ve been asking for time off, switching shifts, or dreaming up which ailment you want to have when that day comes. Some people chase nearly every event. Some save up and spend all their money in a few week hoorah. To each their own!

Just in case you’re wondering, here is a link to the SPC website where you can view severe weather outlooks

Also, here are some forecast modeling websites!

HazWx

COD

WeatherBell

A lot of chasers will also read discussions called “Area Forecast Discussions” from their local forecast offices too!

If you’re lucky enough to live close to the target, you’re going to bed, planning to wake up in the morning and look at data. If you live far away, you have to commit the night before or sometimes days before (depending on distance) to the chase. If you have that long drive you have a hotel lined up, or a lot of Red Bull. The main thing you have to do before sleeping though, is be sure you know the general area you need to be the next day, and at what time. You don’t want to wake up late and panic! You also want to get as much sleep as you can.

Chase Day:

Waking Up:

It’s hard to sleep the night before a chase. It doesn’t seem to matter to me how tired I am, or how many chases I’ve just been on. Raise your hand if you always stay up for that first SPC outlook too? There will be another outlook in the morning, but why not go to bed with some idea what the professionals think?

In any case, you wake up and see whats going on. I always pull up visible satellite and radar first, just to see if anything overnight has totally ruined my chase, and my hours upon hours of driving was worthless If you see a ton of clouds and or rain, your first thought, after anger, is well, is there still a chase today? If so, where? Are there any boundaries in place?

If there are no clouds then you can focus on what is really important… Finding breakfast!

Driving:

I want to avoid turning this into a how to forecast post, so I will assume you have spent at least an hour looking at the SPC outlooks, satellite/radar, obs, models, etc and it’s time to drive. Sometimes, you do so well with your target the night before, you don’t have to go anywhere! Just for a shameless plus, I was in perfect position from my hotel on the Big Spring, TX tornado!

Depending on where you are in location to the threat, you have a few things to consider….

  1. Will you make it to the location of storm initiation?
  2. If you said “no” above, how do you anticipate storms to move, and in what direction and how far ahead should you be?
  3. Where will the best chance of a photogenic shot? Tornadoes are awesome, but if bad terrain, unsafe areas, etc are going to keep you from seeing it, maybe you pick a different target.

These decisions seem trivial, but they are really key to a safe, fun, successful chase! Nothing is more frustrating than not arriving on time, or not being able to see a tornado, or missing something due to city traffic, etc.

The Chase:

Storms are forming and you are in position. Whether they have been ongoing a while, or they are just beginning, you need to get in close and see what’s inside! Again here, this post isn’t to deep dive into the logistics of chasing, rather just the bigger details. Maybe if you talk me into it I can write about those things sometime 🙂

On the chase a lot of things are happening! Here is just a list of a few things that likely WILL go down during a chase.

  1. You will probably find some terribly rough road or railroad crossing, that will rattle the bejeezus out of your car making you question your life and why you tear apart vehicles.
  2. You will probably make a wrong turn, get stuck behind a train, or slow cars, construction or something else, and think your life is over, you will never see the tornado, and that you are a failure.
  3. You will probably open your window to try and get a picture and get blasted in the face with rain.

Hoping you survived the mental anguish from those events, here is what happens on a good chase.

  1. You stop out ahead of a storm and set up your tripods before the first tornado.
  2. The storm strengthens and approaches you and produces a tornado in close proximity.
  3. You film the first tornado and then move into position for another tornado later on.
  4. You capture a few amazing still images of the tornado.
  5. Darkness falls while you shoot some lightning shots and work on video.
  6. You upload some awesome video to YouTube and/or your broker.
  7. STEAK DINNER!

But… Not all chases are like that… Sometimes you have a bad day.. In addition to the things above…

  1. You might not see a tornado and only see a ugly shelf cloud..
  2. You might not get a storm at all.. The cap may win!
  3. You might get too close and lose your windshield and dent the heck out of your nice ride.
  4. You might forget to record something, forget an SD card, or not have time to grab your camera in a bad situation or a brief tornado.

Video/Media:

The “chase” seems to go well beyond just filming the tornado for me.. Since I do work with a lot of media outlets and make a good side cash stream with chase video, I have to work hard to get that video up ASAP! That means I have to have good internet, and time to edit my video. If I am alone, I have to pull off the road and work on editing/upload, making sure I have good internet where I stop. If I am with someone I will zone out in the passenger seat and focus on video. It’s a race to get that video up! Not only can you sometimes have money on it, many have contracts with local news stations etc to provide some video!

After the video is up, it’s a waiting game to hear if you sold! Then if you did, sometimes news networks will want to interview you.. That means you’re up at 4 or 5 the next morning taking phone calls and waiting on hold to do that live phoner while they voice you over your video… Or you’re on Skype or in some cases, a live shot!

During the El Reno tornado I literally had over 200 phone calls from various agencies wanting to interview me.. The next morning I had a limo at my door at 4am with a couple of monsters inside, and went and did interviews for about every major news network there was, LIVE from OKC. Then I began doing Skype and Radio interviews across the world the next 2 days.

News Interview Link

After about 48 hrs of being up nearly constantly, I had to shut off my phone and sleep. I was exhausted!

Summary:

Chasing can be far more work than fun depending on your style. Some don’t care about selling video or doing interviews, which can take TONS of time and kills your sleep potential.. Some (myself included sometimes) don’t mind if a shelf cloud is the only thing seen on a chase, which gets rid of that feeling of disappointment and frustration… Think of going through all the things above, for days on end.. It can be challenging!

Please comment if you have any questions… I tried to cover what I could think of, but not everyone chases the same as I do!

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Brandon Sullivan

I am an entrepreneur, meteorologist and storm chaser. I travel and take captivating photos and videos across the world. If I'm not chasing, I'm at the gym. All opinions are my own and do not represent my employers or investments.

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