In Living

Terrifying and beautiful. (PHOTO: Jennifer C. Brindley)

In Living

The El Reno tornado from last week that took the lives of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young. (PHOTO: Jennifer C. Brindley)

In Living

A tornado touches down in Girard, Ill. (PHOTO: Jennifer C. Brindley)

Local "storm chasers" share insights, close calls

"Storm chasers" range from professionally trained photographers and meteorologists to thrill seekers with cell phones. Regardless of the level of one's expertise, it's dangerous work, a reminder made clear last week when esteemed storm researchers Carl Young, Tim Samaras and his son, Paul, died while following a massive tornado in Reno, Okla.

For some, the appeal to chasing storms is the rush of adrenaline, the chance to capture a sellable image or video – or at the very least something worth posting on social media. But for others, the reasons for tracking weather go beyond excitement or a quick buck.

Some are fascinated by the patterns – or lack thereof – in nature and their work helps the public understand the destructive power of storms as well as how to stay safe if one occurs.

"I prefer to chase for research as that is purposeful," says Allison Silveira, a Shorewood-based meteorologist.

Silveira has tracked storms on many occasions. Most of it was done for her own interest, but she was also on numerous chases in a scientific capacity for the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) where she worked as a scout and which required her to find a good location for a mobile radar unit and a mobile mesonet (weather instrument) driver.

She has seen three or four tornadoes and countless severe supercell storms spanning Texas to Kansas.

Her first chase was during the May 3, 1999 storm in Oklahoma and Kansas that included 66 tornadoes.

"It which was a big wake-up call about the humanitarian side of tornadic outbreaks. Those of us in the car, once we saw the tornado and its destruction, could feel the pendulum swing from our initial fascination with the phenomenon to a very visceral natural disaster," she says.

Her second "successful" chase was during another Oklahoma-based storm on May 8, 2003. At that time, very few people had smartphones and the networks were even more unreliable.

To get a position, Silveira says she and her colleagues would call a "nowcaster" – someone at a computer viewing radar and other diagnostics – to determine starting position, and then navigation once the storms developed.

"We had some misinformation about where to position ourselves, and the tornado developed less than a half mile from where we were located. We had no intention of being that close to the storm, and it was very scary," she says.

Silveira says most trained meteorologists are very aware of the tragic nature of tornadoes and tend to resent the glorification of chasing storms.

"Generally speaking, storm chasing is not about tornado interception, it's about viewing the storm in its entirety, which means being a safe distance from the storm itself," says Silveira."There's nothing like witnessing nature's masterpiece with your own eyes, like going to a concert versus listening to an album.

Jesse Anderson, originally from Janesville, was traveling through Europe for the past nine months. Prior, he lived in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood while attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Anderson is a freelance photographer and prefers the term "severe weather photographer" even though "storm chaser," he says, is accurate.

"When we identify dangerous situations as part of the storms, we report them to help keep people aware, and in turn, safe," he says.

Anderson and his storm-chasing partner took numerous storm spotter training courses. They also independently study meteorology. They have chased a couple dozen storms and tornadoes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

"We learn something new every time we chase," says Anderson.

Anderson's scariest experience was in rural Minnesota while tracking "rain wrapped" tornadoes. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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