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What It’s Really Like to Be a Storm Chaser

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

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“Just stay steady, you’ve got this, just keep us alive.” That was the line my producer Seni and I kept repeating to Serena (another producer) as she navigated us through the rapidly flooding streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 29, 2013.

Our rented SUV was varying between bobbing and grabbing at whatever ground or debris the wheels could hit. We were rapidly getting closer to the ocean that had washed onshore and for one of the first times in my life, I was genuinely scared that this wasn’t going to end well.

The storm was Sandy, a superstorm that was flooding the coast eight hours prior to landfall. I’ve chased dozens of tornadoes, been in several tropical storms and hurricanes (including Katrina), but never have I been so taken by the power of water like I was at that moment. I’ve never put myself into danger and couldn’t believe we were potentially going to be part of the problem.

Rewind 30 minutes and we had been shooting for World News. We were near the flooding, but in no way close enough to get caught up in it. Our assignment desk let us know there was a boat that had washed onto a house nearby and we wanted to go shoot it. We ran into a police officer and he told us the safest way to go. Turns out (he had no way of knowing at the time), he was wrong.

After what seemed like hours but was probably 4 minutes of floating toward the ocean, we finally caught enough ground. Serena’s mudding skills from growing up in Florida had gotten us to a slightly higher patch of grass. We got the SUV to a curb with less water, got out, and realized we had lost two tires and the vehicle was not in good shape, but we were. We stayed on higher ground and abandoned the now useless vehicle, carrying as much as we could from inside because even we didn’t know what was going to happen next to that part of the island.

***

I’ve had many adventures while storm chasing, none life-threatening but certainly all adventurous. It’s in my spirit. Growing up near Lake Michigan made for endless adventures. If you’ve not been, you should make a point to. The usually cool, gorgeous surface writhes and moves like an ocean. You can’t see across, and as a child (and an adult), its power and mystery have always enchanted me.

One summer my brother and I spent the whole three months we had off of school at a cottage where the back door literally opened up to the beach and Lake Michigan itself. From building sand castles to sailboarding, we were never at a loss for something to get into. The only thing that kept us from that beach were storms. We would be out in the sand and suddenly see storms blowing up and growing as they approached the cottage. My mom would finally call from inside for us to come in, but I remember thinking about how magical those storms looked. I now know we were watching lines of storms approach and the reason we could see for miles was because of the flat open water, much like the plains I would storm chase over years later.

Thanks to my mother’s over-precaution growing up, I was always fascinated with the danger these storms possessed. Science and math happened to be the subjects that came most easily to me, and I took a special liking to earth science. In my high school TV studio class, I had a teacher who said that I should try meteorology. I feverishly searched for colleges and landed on Valparaiso University not only because they had a great scholarship for me but also because they had a bachelor program in meteorology. And even more importantly, they offered a course called “Storm Chasing.”

As soon as I arrived on campus, I joined the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team, or VUSIT. The club went on day chases to Iowa, southern Illinois, Wisconsin … anywhere in quick turnaround land. In May 2001, I had the chance to take the three-credit Storm Chasing course: 10 days in the plains chasing storms. In those days I saw my first tornado and I was finally made aware of what it takes to be a scientist. Much like a doctor can’t be as skilled if they only read how to do a surgery in books, a meteorologist needs to storm chase to feel, smell, and see the atmosphere explode. It’s a completely different education and experience that makes you understand our atmosphere better with each storm you see.

I fell in love with the adrenaline on that trip, but also the understanding I came away with. I had been in classes for three years and hadn’t learned as much as I did in those 10 days.

As I finished my Bachelor of Science in meteorology, I started internships in television and loved them. I even started working as a meteorologist for the PBS station near my college while I was still in school. For the next five years, I jumped from radio WLAV, to TV WEYI, WOODTV & WMAQ. I loved my job, but for most of these spots, I was an in-studio meteorologist or an on-site damage reporter. Rarely did I get the chance to storm chase (though I did cover Katrina at WOODTV).

***

Cut to a Facebook message I got from a well-known storm chaser, Reed Timmer. He was on the Discovery hit Storm Chasers and they asked me to join the cast as a guest. For the next two years I chased with Reed and his team whenever I could. We traveled in his fleet of armored vehicles, getting up close and personal with these perilous storms, often taking observations and researching the environment around the storms using radar and sensors to measure temperature, dew point, wind, and pressure.

When I interviewed at ABC, I believe it was my passion for storm chasing that set me apart. I told then-President Ben Sherwood that I wanted to change the way networks cover weather. No more damage-chasing — we should storm chase. He agreed, and so we have: I’ve covered every major event — from Sandy to the deadly tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, wildfires in Southern California to flash flooding in Colorado.

While the past few months I’ve slowed down a bit (I’m pregnant and not traveling), there is nothing in this world that will ever make me quit storm chasing. One of my great loves is the atmosphere. It’s a love that will never end. I’ll always be attracted to it, enthralled by it, and ready to learn from it. Every time I walk outdoors, I look to the sky and try to figure out the puzzle that is our atmosphere. And every time I look up, I am enchanted again.

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