W5: An insider's view of extreme storm chasing
Published Wednesday, October 4, 2017 9:38AM EDT
It has been unrelenting lately: the scale and scope of natural disasters in Puerto Rico, The Caribbean, Mexico, Florida, and Texas -- and that’s not a complete list by any means.
We had no way of guessing that would be the backdrop when last spring our editorial team decided that storm chasers would make an interesting documentary.
There are a growing number of them, particularly younger thrill seekers, signing up for “tornado tourism” or simply making regular trips to parts of North America to film whatever they find on their own. The prize is that selfie shot with a dark storm cloud behind them, or video of a twister to post or perhaps sell to mainstream media.
Our W5 team was in Oklahoma interviewing people who had experienced the darker side of the growing storm-chasing craze when an opportunity opened up. We were in the living room of a mother whose son had perished chasing a massive tornado. He was an amateur and the end of his life was horrific. His three-tonne truck was lifted with him in it, and thrown aside. He had no chance of survival.
That morning I had heard on television of a hurricane that had suddenly formed in the Gulf of Mexico and the weathercaster’s warning was unusually dire. She was visibly shaken by what she knew, warning that Harvey was gaining strength rapidly and would stall over south Texas.
“There is a catastrophe heading this way and no one can get ready in time for it,” she said. “I’ve never seen something so dangerous form so quickly.”
After we finished our interview we had to make a snap decision whether to try to head into the hurricane zone. Two storm chasers from Regina whom we had already filmed earlier in the summer had texted our producer, Paul Haber, with a proposal: “How about we come down and hurricane chase?”
We considered the idea carefully. It would mean almost 10 hours of driving south from Oklahoma in bad weather, we’d need to shop for provisions and rain gear, and we’d need a plan to get out quickly -- not always possible in hurricane zones.
Meantime, the storm chasers Greg Johnson and Chris Chittick had to plot how to get from Regina to Texas before the region’s airports closed.
Our plan had us meeting up in Waco, Texas near sundown, and then using the chaser’s expertise to navigate us to a safe hotel to spend the night.
We originally aimed for San Antonio, but Greg suggested we try to reach a place more to the east: Victoria, Texas. There was one hotel taking guests for the night, so we quickly booked it and turned our vehicles into the hard driving rain.
As midnight approached, listening to radio reports, we heard the eye of Harvey was now scheduled to pass over Victoria at 2 a.m.
The storm chasers had led us right into the middle of the strongest hurricane to hit Texas in decades. It’s what they do, I realized a little late. But I had also been through a couple of big hurricanes before and I knew being on the road isn’t where you want to be when a Category 4 passes overhead, so I’ll admit I was more than a little worried.
We made it in time. Spent a night in a four-story cement hotel that was swaying in the wind.
And stayed awake most of it to hit the road at first light with the storm chasers.
What happened next is a wild ride you’ll be part of in this week’s episode.