Ride or Die

Storm chasing is a pursuit we love to hate in the comment section, but if you look at the TV ratings, or YouTube views, it’s clear that we can’t look away, either. So what motivates chasers to actively put themselves in front of a storm when everyone is else is taking shelter? And, ultimately, do we owe them an apology?

Juston Drake will tell you he has no problem going out and playing in the wind. Even if those winds are hurricane speed.

“It looks like Simon and I were the only two people that were in the eye of all three of the category 4 hurricanes [that made landfall in the U.S.] last year,” Juston says, “and that’s an accomplishment of itself.”

Drake and his partner Simon Brewer are professional storm chasers. Last year a video of them went viral when they recorded themselves being battered by winds in excess of 115 mile per hour produced by Hurricane Irma’s eye-wall.

In the video’s comment section, you see a familiar debate unfolding: are chasers are putting even more people at risk with their behavior, or are they providing a public service?

Understanding Storms

Most storm chasers want people to know that they’re not irresponsible thrill seekers.

“I tell people all the time like listen I'm a professional. I've been storm chasing now for well over a decade,” Juston says. “I got my degree in meteorology so I can make forecasts and I know what to expect.”

He says that he was out there recording wind speeds and pressure for the National Weather Service to record, and is well aware of the dangers that come with chasing hurricanes – including the deadly storm surge. If understanding storm science is their goal, this in part helps explain storm-chasers’ affinity for tornadoes: they’re easier to access, observe, and photograph.

“We know that one in 10,000 thunderstorms is a supercell,” says Jennifer Brindley Ubl, who chases and photographs tornadoes, “and the supercell is a really, big, huge thunderstorm that’s really powerful. And those are the ones that can produce a tornado if the supporting environment is just right. Roughly one in every ten supercells produces a tornado.”

Courtesy of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Courtesy of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Brindley Ubl says we still don’t completely understand tornado genesis and why some supercells turn into tornadoes while others don’t. Her work focuses on photogrammetry, or the mapping of storms thru photography.

There’s also that another kind of research that most of us who’ve watched the movie Twister are more familiar with. “What we do is rather extreme trying to put probes in tornadoes,” Randy Hicks says. “And to do that, you have to go within a close proximity to the storm.”

Randy is a chaser based out of Missouri and founder of the “Outlaw Chasers”. He says that the probes he fabricates do a couple things; they record basic measurements, as well as infrasonic sound, or sound inaudible to the human ear, as well as record what’s happening inside of a storm.

He says he was motivated to record the inside of a tornado by chasing legend, Tim Samaras.

“I watched him on that NatGeo special in 2003,” Hicks says. “He builds a probe, it has no cameras, but gets the lowest barometric pressure and all these cool things and I’m at home thinking ‘man, this guy is my freaking hero, why didn’t he have a camera on that?’”

Chasing Ain’t Cheap

Randy says his chasing gang consists of four other chasers, including friend Lanny Dean, who helps him with the construction of their probes. The device within the probe which records all of the science within the tornado costs approximately $9,000. Randy, who’s a Toyota mechanic by trade says he has to budget for all of the expenses that come with chasing.

“Most seasons (May-July) my budget is usually between $2,800-3,500,” he says. “I’ve never spent more than $4,000 in any season because I didn’t have that to devote to chasing.”

He says he’s chasing now in an $80 Toyota Corolla with 312,000 miles. Other chasers like Juston Drake and Jennifer Brindley Ubl earmark the chasing season, anywhere from May-July, free from their regular employment. Juston, who works in IT for a local Sherriff’s office says his employers are very understanding and allow him time off. Jennifer, who’s a professional portrait photographer, says she saves a little extra here and there to support her chasing.

Juston puts 30-40 thousand miles onto his vehicle three month. Besides upkeep and gas, chasing adds other expenses. “When I say I love weather, that includes hail,” he says. “Over my entire career, I’ve probably gone through 25 [windshields].”

He also has to keep his video equipment updated so he can sell those videos he shoots, because storm chasing is a business.

The Business of Chasing

Some chasers livestream their videos while others, make highlight clips and send them into someone called a video broker, like Kory Hartman who runs Severe Studios out of Baraboo, WI.

“How that works is they shoot a video, they send it to me, I pitch it to the networks and the local TV stations, see if somebody wants it. If they do they pay,” Kory says. “I take a percentage of that as my cut for doing the work and the rest gets passed off to them – a majority gets passed back to the person who shoots the video.”

He says there used to be a lot more money in storm videos, but with the proliferation of smart-phones, HD cameras, and real-time radar it’s never been easier to capture storms. Media companies and networks have started skimming social media sites for storm videos, which Kory says has made it more difficult for professional chasers to make a buck. “We used to get $1,500-$2,000 the next day for a great tornado video to one network. And it’s not really close to that anymore.”

While the market for storm video may be drying up, there’s still a market for storm chasing personalities. Multiple networks have produced storm chasing Reality TV shows centered on chasers. But when it comes to overall experiences with TV networks, experiences have been mixed.

In 2007, Randy Hicks and Lanny Dean were contact by Tru TV for what he says was to be a three-year show called Tornado Hunters. “They came down and spent like two or three days with us and they did a bunch of interviews and re-enactments,” says Randy, “Then they packed up their little bags and went back to their studios.”

The final product was a one-hour show, not a three-year deal. While Randy thought he was going to be financially set for years, in the end he was used for another quick TV hit. “When you’re a nobody and someone gasses you up and tells you you’re amazing and do great things and we’re gonna make you a star and you’ll never have to worry about being hungry or sleeping in cars again you buy in to that pretty quickly.”

But even if you do land a deal with a major network, there’s no promise of financial security. Juston Drake was featured on a couple shows including Tornado Road which aired in 2009. Then he was on a show called Storm Riders, which ran for 4 seasons on The Weather Channel.

“What's been interesting for me at least is that they have been showing like reruns of our show a lot,” says Juston, “not only of just Storm Riders but also Tornado Road itself.” One Monday early morning in early April, The Weather Channel filled their scheduling with five straight hours of Drake’s Storm Riders. He told me that he receives no royalties on those showings. “There’s just no way for chaser to negotiate with networks.”

When networks do hire chasers, they usually do so as independent contractors. Besides giving up long-term rights of your likeness and image, it also gets networks out of providing basic benefits like insurance, which could be useful if you were chasing tornadoes.

Courtesy of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Courtesy of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Turns out chasing is DANGEROUS

What we’ve been dancing around here is that tornadoes and extreme weather can kill. They destroy communities, homes, crops, displace families – there’s a wake of destruction that follows. Part of the thrill is that chasers are literally skirting disaster – that is until they get too close.

Before Kory Hartman was a video broker he was a chaser.

“I got hit by a tornado myself back in 2008, I had a newborn child at home,” says Hartman. “And I had to call my wife and say ‘don’t turn on the TV because my video is going to be plastered all over the place.’”

In the video he warned his wife about, it’s around dusk in mid-June. Kory’s out with his chasing partner Kenny Allen. They’re livestreaming video of a storm for a local station out of Omaha, Nebraska.

The terrain they’re chasing in is considered dangerous terrain to chase in: lots of hills and trees and they’re driving on a dirt road. In the video, there’s near zero-visibility due to heavy rain. The Tornado was coming straight at them, and Kory couldn’t drive away fast enough on the narrow dirt road.

“We’re in the tornado! We’re in the tornado!” Kory’s heard saying in the video. “Our ears are popping. The tornado is right over us, right now. Holy smokes.”

The thing is, this wasn’t Kory’s first chase. He thought he knew what he was doing. It took something this dramatic for Kory to pull back from chasing.

With the money from the video he could turn his hobby website, Severe Studios, into a business. Ironically, it was his most dangerous video that gave him the opportunity to get out of the game.

El Reno

Chasers have a photogenic memory when it comes to the dates and locations of the storms they were in. The more dangerous the storm, the more prominent the place it holds in a chaser’s mind. El Reno, Oklahoma May 31, 2013 is a place and time almost everyone in the chaser community remembers.

Tim Samaras founded a field research team called TWISTEX which worked to better understand tornadoes. Like Randy his work centered on dropping probes into tornadoes to better understand them. And he knew what a lot of other chasers knew on May 31st, that El Reno was about to get rocked.

“Right now the skies are fairly clear we do not have storm initiation but we fully expect storm initiation within the next two – three hours”, Samaras says to an MSNBC anchor. “And boy, the ingredients are coming together for a pretty volatile day.”

Tim’s famous for his work studying tornadoes and lightning - he’s also completely self-taught. When I talked to chasers like Jennifer Brindley Ubl they used words like genius and pioneer.

“I mean if I’m listing off my chasing heroes, Tim Samaras is at the top of the list,” Brindley Ubl says.

As a kid, Tim would take apart and rebuild radios and television sets. Eventually, he started building probes to drop in the paths of tornadoes. With a storm like El Reno, there was too much good science for Tim to pass up.  

Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Justin Drake and a hundred other chasers converged on El Reno looking to get in on the action. As the day went on, the storms held off. All of this meant that the atmosphere was growing warmer, more unstable, and storing more potential energy for a storm.

Around five o’clock Tim Samaras tweeted: “Storms now initiating south of Watonga along triple point. Dangerous day ahead for Oklahoma -- stay weather savvy.”

Then at 5:30, things started firing, and the storm is massive. What started with multiple vortices intermittently touching down, turned into a wedge tornado – a tornado wider than it is tall. It was also rain-wrapped – behind a wall of rain and almost impossible to discern. 

Soon the vortices within the tornado, each the size of average sized tornadoes, were reaching speeds close to 300 mph. Fifteen minutes after first touching down, the tornado, was moving east, and passed over a major highway, Route 81. At that exact time, Samaras and his team pass Route 81 driving parallel and just north to the storm.

Then, the tornado hooked left, or northeast, and in so doing took lot of chasers by surprise, including Tim Samaras.

Courtsey of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Courtsey of Jennifer Brindley Ubl

The El Reno tornado was on the ground for forty-five minutes and traveled over 16 miles. Brick homes were decimated. Steel barns evaporated into thin air. And considering this was the largest tornado ever on record there were fewer casualties than might’ve been expected.

But while some in Oklahoma were counting their blessings, the chasing community was mourning. As the storm hooked left, 55-year old Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and their chase partner and meteorologist, Carl Young were right in its path. An amateur chaser also died, along with 18 others. While chasers have died before in car accidents, this was the first time any chaser had died at the hands of a storm.

“I think that people forget that the nature of that type of research, that mode of research, it requires that you have an aggressive chasing style,” says Jennifer Brindley Ubl. “It requires you to lower the bar of safety for science.”

She found out about Samaras’ passing early the next morning. She says she spent a lot of time crying and talking about what happened with other chasers. She called it a reality check.

“We saw that storm, we ran from that storm,” Jennifer says. “It makes you question for a moment, why are we out here? What are we doing? What are the motivators here?”

The Real Costs of Chasing

We know that when you’re chasing storms, eliminating risk is impossible, which means it’s just a matter of time before something terrible is going to happen to you or someone you know.

Randy Hicks – who’s seen friends shot, stabbed and overdosed – says it’s what he’s seen chasing that haunts him. “I still find myself, I’ll turn into a ball of shit and cry for two or three hours just out of the blue because of a victim I saw seven years ago,” says Hicks.

Relationships can end in divorce because of the time commitment of the hobby. Many chasers see therapists or are prescribed anti-depressants.

“It's just this crash – this two weeks of kind of being in a semi-depressed status because you know you've been running,” says Juston Drake. “Seeing all these storms, constantly driving around, constantly on this high that you're on now with. And it's just over.”

Even as chasers wrestle with how to best deal with the mental and emotional costs, they say they wouldn’t change a thing.

“I can only speak for me personally,” Juston says, “I would be out there doing this whether I made money off of it or not.”

This is a sentiment that most chasers share. There is a draw to extreme weather and getting in the middle of it. So what are the motivators here?

Chasing as an Addiction

“There’s actually a strong correlation between chasers and addiction,” says physician Jason Persoff.

Jason Persoff’s a physician at the University of Colorado who has been storm chasing for 25 years. He provides a free counseling service for chasers in distress, and says that the chasing addiction may be closer aligned with a gambling addiction than a dependency on drugs.

What Jason sees as the getting-down-to-it, real-talk motivation for some chasers, isn’t money, science or even public service…it’s a feedback loop of addictive behavior.

A lot of people delude themselves into thinking that they’re providing a vital public service and in fact, we are as a group a hazard.
— Jason Persoff

“I think a lot of chasers rely a lot on the feedback from not only the community but the public,” he says. “In a general sense, their value as a chaser is tied to the quality or the intensity of the footage that they get.”

This feedback loop plays right to a chaser’s ego. Jason says some people have even had to bow out completely from chasing because of the damage it’s done to their self-esteem.

For others – like with Kelley Williamson – it can push them to take bigger and bigger risks.

People described Kelley Williamson as a thrill seeker; he was a farmer who raced cars and blew the doors off the community with his early videos when he came to storm chasing later in life. He parlayed that success into his own show with The Weather Channel in 2016 call Storm Wranglers.

Kelley also livestreamed all of his chases, and on March 28th, 2017 at 3:30pm he chased his last storm. That’s when he ran a stop sign at high speeds in his SUV and crashed into another storm chaser, 25-year old Corbin Lee Jaeger. Kelley, his partner, and Corbin all died in the crash.

“A lot of people delude themselves into thinking that they’re providing a vital public service and in fact, we are as a group a hazard,” says Jason Persoff.

While some chasers are no doubt contributing to better understanding the science behind storms and tornadoes, according to Cheryl Sharpe a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman Oklahoma storm spotters – people who park themselves at a safe distance to observe storms – are generally more helpful. “A few storm chasers provide some helpful information during severe weather events, but are not particularly helpful, overall,” she writes.

“The reason we do this is for one reason and one reason only: we really like seeing severe weather,” says Jason.

But it’s not just chasers that love storms and severe weather; it’s most people. Major networks know it too. Reading through some of the Weather Channel’s original programming is pretty instructive: Why Planes Crash, So You Think You’d Survive, and Weather Gone Viral: First-Hand Accounts of Surviving Treacherous Conditions.

The truth is, people tune in the spectacle of other people’s tragedies with some mix of horror and excitement. Some folks even pay thousands of dollars to go on Storm Chasing tours – heading out with an experienced chaser to check storms out up close.

Jason Persoff says if the community doesn’t start getting more self-critical and open to change, we can expect to see more Kelley Williamsons out there. “Many of us in the chaser community have been amazed that so few chasers have been killed, and more to the point that chasers haven’t killed more people,” he says. “So Kelley Williamson’s death with his partner, and taking the innocent life of Corbin, that’s a shot across the bow. We’re going to see more chaser deaths.”

But regardless of how many people are tuning into live-stream or YouTube, the extreme weather is going to keep coming. The hope is that the people who are rushing into the eye of the storm can see what they’re doing.

“I think we’re gonna have an explosive, maybe even a record amount of tornadoes this year,” Randy Hicks says about the 2018 chasing season. “This may be my last year but it’s gonna be a great year. I think we’re gonna have an explosive, maybe even a record amount of tornadoes this year.”

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Jimmy Gutierrez, Sam Evans-Brown and Taylor Quimby with help from: Hannah McCarthy, Erika Janik, and Justine Paradis.

Special thanks to Tony Laubach, Lanny Dean

Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions, and Borrtex. 

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.