When my cell phone comes to life with a severe weather warning from the National Weather Service, I'm ready to take cover. Tornado warnings send me looking for a sturdy basement or bathtub. Flash flood warnings send me scrambling for a bit of higher ground.
That's the idea of the alerts — to protect the public when weather turns dangerous. But not everyone hunkers down — some grab their cameras and head for their cars, to chase the storm.
Thanks to Hollywood interpretations like 1996's Twister, I've imagined storm chasers to be adrenaline junkies out to feed their rush by facing down a tornado. But in talking to two people who have stalked plenty of storms, I learned that it's not like that — at least, not completely.
Jeff Stoecklein is a Denver landscape architect by day, but will drop what he's doing to chase storms with his wife Tina. He grew up in western Kansas, where extreme weather was commonplace; Tina, who grew up in Colorado Springs, had less.
"When we first started dating," he recalls, "she was terrified."
But after time chasing — including capturing what he calls a tornado of a lifetime near Campo, Colo., in 2010 — she now gets upset if she's not able to chase with him.
When they go out, Stoecklein shares real-time reports with the National Weather Service, providing a different view of the storm than radar does. He's also contracted with KKTV Channel 11, giving the local station exclusive rights to his photos and video.
Stoecklein sees supplying his material to the news station as a public service, since images provided by chasers can give the public a greater respect for the severity of a given storm. (If you'd like to see his live streams of storms, he posts at chasertv.com.)
He works with a kindred spirit of sorts in Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist for KKTV. Bledsoe grew up 45 miles southeast of Limon, where a single event sent him to a career in meteorology. On June 6, 1990, Bledsoe was on the family ranch and watched as massive clouds started to build; they looked different to him somehow.
Later, a tornado ripped through the heart of Limon, and while no one was killed, more than a dozen were injured and the town suffered historic damage. "I watched from afar and didn't know what was going on," he recalls.
Since then, Bledsoe's chased his fair share of storms. He's also watched as technology has helped draw out more and more people into the field. And two aspects of the situation today bother Bledsoe.
For one thing, there's the pervasive lack of accuracy. During the May 21 hailstorm, for instance, Bledsoe saw many photos of "tornados" popping up on social media. Very few, he says, were actual tornados.
More concerning to Bledsoe is the potential for chasers to be injured, or worse. In May 2013, three members of the experienced TWISTEX team — "celebrity" chasers featured on the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers — were killed outside Oklahoma City while chasing.
While the actual weather poses a threat, so does simply getting to the storm. Chasing often involves driving on smaller, remote roads, and an increase in traffic alone can pose a hazard. When people are driving recklessly to catch the clouds, the risk intensifies.
Stoecklein agrees that if a storm hits a populated area, the last thing emergency crews need is to be responding to traffic accidents on the way to the real emergency. "I'm not one to push the limits," he says, "at least not on purpose."
So if you give chasing a go, consider two bits of advice. Stoecklein suggests newbies start with the National Weather Service's Skywarn training, a free, two-hour course that imparts a basic understanding of storm behavior. (Find a local training at stormready.noaa.gov/contact.htm.) Bledsoe also suggests being trained in CPR and first aid, in case you end up being a first responder when a storm hits a populated area.
In the meantime, when weather like the May 21 hailstorm hits, you may want to stay inside. For what it's worth, Bledsoe will probably be doing the same thing — nowadays, he's usually stuck in the studio, providing updates to viewers.
But, he vows, "At some point in my life, I will make up for lost time."
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