Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Interview with a Storm Chaser

Benjamin Jurkovich's photo from April 14, 2012 
A nocturnal EF3 illuminated by lightning in the background.
JWSevereWeather chase tornadoes all across North America and hope to extend their coverage across the world, one day. They provide lifesaving warnings via chase vehicles fitted with P.A. systems, and eventually hope to travel with first responders and rescue dogs, to help those immediately affected by these devastating storms. In addition to this JWSevereWeather is beginning research efforts help minimise a storm’s threat to life and property. 
Many thanks to Jesse W. Walters, founder of JWSevereWeather, who has kindly agreed to take part in this interview today. He and his team have had a busy storm season, including covering the awful twisters that recently hit Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi. Once again the world witnessed just how dangerous twisters can be, and once again storm chasers like Jesse and his team, put themselves on the front line, risking their lives again and again.
So my first question to you, Jesse, is an obvious one. Knowing how dangerous a storm can be, what made you want to start chasing in the first place?

When I was very young, I was fascinated by weather and a local meteorologist, Tom Skilling. His long and detailed explanations of the weather forecast became the starting point of my weather education. A few years later, my parents purchased a double VHS compilation of tornado videos. At some point during that presentation, Gene Moore was introduced. They explained how he went out to document tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms, which I just thought was the coolest thing to do ever! I never realized the dangers of storm chasing at such a young age. I knew storms were dangerous, but Gene made it look so easy. 

Once I turned 16, with a bit more knowledge of forecasting and radar interpretations, I hit the road, packing only a handheld scanner and a map book. I stayed local initially, obtained my ham radio license, and joined the Lake County SKYWARN Organization by 18. I picked up for few more tips and tricks from Bruce Becker solely through observing and paying close attention to anything be said. After a year or two with them, I left and became an independent storm chaser. I had enough of seeing wall clouds and funnels. I wanted to see the stove pipes and wedges that rarely occur in northeast Illinois. That's when things really took off for me. I kept quiet about it, however. 

Chasing was always done by myself and for my own enjoyment. I was quite introverted and never really spoke to other chasers I met along the way. However, in 2011, after seeing all the casualties and devastation from a historic year of tornado outbreaks as well as the number of large, violent tornadoes, I decided to start my own organization. I've sought not only chasers, but weather enthusiasts that share the same passion as I, helping warn those in the path, chasing with immediate responders aiding communities with search and rescue, and providing aid and relief to those affected. We are even international now! With chasers in Canada, New Zealand, and Greece!

I can more than understand your motivation, not only because you get to witness these incredible weather phenomena first hand, but also because on the ground you make a difference and help to save lives. Can you step us through how you prepare for a chase?

Forecasting is the most important foundation to storm chasing. Countless hours of studying and interpreting weather data from multiple computer models will lead to a general target area. Even while on route to the target, I'm still combing through all the same data while adding the short range model data and finally checking out surface observations, satellite data, and if storms occurred close by the day/night before, how did they affect the atmosphere. All this leads to a smaller, more refined target area. My forecasting team and I tend to utilize HazWx.com for all our forecasting needs. Brandon Sullivan has done a great job creating this site with his team for meteorologists and forecasters across the United States. And then there's the basic coordinating with the immediate responders that volunteer within the area we'll be chasing, packing supplies and goods, and obviously packing your own goods to get you through how ever many days we may be out on the road.

I think most people will have no idea how much work goes into the predictive aspect of storm chasing. I can only imagine how satisfying it must feel, in terms of the science, when you get it right. So what about equipment?  What do you take with you on a chase?

When I began as mentioned earlier, all I had was a police/fire scanner, a weather radio, and a map book. This was before GPS systems were out and affordable too! Nowadays, I have a full suite of electronics such as a laptop computer mounted within the passenger side. 

Tammy King does all the driving so I can focus on 3D radar imagery, model data, GPS navigation, running a live stream, and reporting information via Spotter Network. We have internet access via a MiFi device, which is simply WiFi that utilizes 4G/3G cellular data. Also, we have amateur radio for communications in case we lose internet or cell phone service. It also provides access to NOAA weather radio and police/fire frequencies so we can stay abreast of the latest information. A cell phone/4G/3G booster is running at all times to help maintain that connection to cell towers for phones and internet access. 

We have a weather station on top of the vehicle that records and displays real time data including air temp, dew point, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and rainfall rates/totals. All the data is stored in the laptop for post chase analysis and is quite handy for seeing just what atmospheric conditions are occurring before, during, and after a chase. We have an LED light bar for safety from traffic and also for getting people's attention if we are warning them of a confirmed tornado or any other destructive forms of weather. Finally, we have a siren/PA system installed to aid us in warning those in the path concerning the aforementioned weather conditions that are headed their way.

That’s quite an extensive list and sounds like a lot to keep track of during a pursuit. But of course that is the technical and scientific aspects of storm chasing. However, as we know far too well, tornadoes are extremely dangerous. When you’re chasing and getting close to a twister, there must be times when it’s tough to decide whether to get in closer, or turn round and get out of there as fast as you can?

Yes, very much so! I am a chaser at heart, so I always want to get as close as I safely can to document it using media such as photographs or video. But when we see that it's heading for a community, we leave it behind and race ahead to that area of population to warn them that's it's confirmed and likely about to strike. Yes, there are tornado sirens found throughout the United States. However, some communities lack them due to funding. Also, the false alarm rate on tornado warnings is far too high. Thus, people have become complacent and tend to go about their business. We hope when warning people from our vehicles, to hammer down the fact that the threat is very real this time, and they need to take action to save their lives.  


I can't tell you how many times we have been out chasing in a community with tornado sirens going off, and you see people simply ignoring them. You'll find people driving around, running errands, even flooding fast food restaurants thinking that nothing is going to happen. It's a real shame to see that. It only takes one time for that warning to verify...

It sounds incredible that people would ignore the sirens, but in light of what you’ve said, also understandable. However, once again it shows what a key role storm chasers like you and your team performs, especially when it helps to save lives. But also you do this as real risk to yourselves. Has a twister ever switched direction and come after you?

Oh yes, their path is not always predictable. I'm constantly looking for escape routes while chasing. You never know when it will turn and head straight for you. Sadly, we lost three brilliant and well respected chasers in 2013 from the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and long time chase partner Carl Young all perished from that tornado. Other chasers were hit as well. It was a very sad day for the chaser community. They were much loved and respected.

That’s deeply tragic and in such a small and close knit community, the impact of something like that has to be profound. Yet, despite this you carry on, which by anybody’s definition, is courageous. Can you describe what it’s like to experience a twister close up and personal?

Joey Kastrel's photo is a tornado in the rope out 
stage, which is the end of its life cycle.
It's nothing like watching it on video. That only provides the visual aspect of it. However, to hear it, to feel it from the intense winds, to smell the earth as it churns over an open field, it's hard to describe really. It is something that you just have to experience firsthand to understand what I'm talking about. 


What category is the largest twister you’ve ever seen?

I have seen all categories. From EF0 through EF5.

With over 20 dead and huge destruction to property from the latest twisters to touch down, you must find yourselves constantly shocked by the aftermath caused?

I truly am, Nick. That's the whole reason I started this organization in the first place.

Are there any events that still haunt you?

Very much so. They not only haunt, but motivate me to make this vision a reality. 

To conclude this interview, are there any thoughts you’d like to leave people who live in Tornado Alley, with?

There are plenty of times when a tornado warning is issued, and we go about our business since nothing ever comes from it. But keep this in mind. It only takes one time for that warning to verify to turn your life upside down. Always respect the warnings. They are not issued in vein or just for fun. Warnings are issued to protect you from the very real threat of severe weather. Also, be sure to have multiple ways to receive warnings from the National Weather Service. NOAA weather radios are a great tool to have with you. There are portable models as well that you can bring with you virtually anywhere! Always be weather aware.

I’d like to thank Jesse and the rest of the team at JWSevereWeather for taking part in this interview and for the work they do on everyone’s behalf – brave people who make a difference and save lives. 

You can follow JWSevereWeather at:

Website: www.JWSevereWeather.com
Jesse's personal Facebook page: www.facebook.com/jwsevereweather

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this, thank you both - always been fascinated by severe weather and think this must be marvellous :)

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