(Click here to view my CV.)
I’ve always had a keen interest in tornadoes, seeded as a child by my mom’s fear and respect of tornadoes. In the 1940’s, my mom’s sister survived a rare and violent tornado while working as a summer camp counselor in rural Pennsylvania. The camp was destroyed, but all the campers survived when an alert counselor recognized the approaching danger and moved all the campers to a ravine. My aunt remembers the entire camp passing over her head. My mother has since then been terrified of tornadoes. Hence, as a child, we frequently would head for the basement.
When I was six, I witnessed damage from a violent tornado that ripped through a neighboring town during the historic Palm Sunday 1965 outbreak. I vividly remember seeing shredded trees and debris through the family station wagon windows. This left a big impact on me. In later years, I had a short-lived weather club in a friend’s tree house. We basically read the local paper and plotted Ohio tornadoes on a map. One Christmas I received a weather instrument package and came to the realization that I was more interested in the gadgets than the forecasting.
While in high school, I had an earth science teacher friend drive me to do damage surveys. Once I obtained my driver’s license, I drove myself many miles performing my own damage surveys. I was essentially trying to emulate a childhood hero, Dr. Ted Fujita who pioneered early tornado research through damage surveys.
Post high school, I became a paramedic and worked in a Cleveland area Emergency Room. An x-ray tech friend told me that his parents from Oklahoma used to sit out in their lawn chairs to watch tornadoes pass by on distant storms. Excited by this prospect, I planned my own “lawn-chair” trip, but instead moved to Los Angeles. LA wasn’t a good fit and the weather was boring. I decided to go to college so I moved back to Ohio and enrolled at Ohio State University.
While at OSU, I learned that there was such a thing as storm chasers, although they were far and few between. I saw one of the first pioneer chasers, David Hoadley, on a National Geographic program, looked him up and called him. Hoadley had written an informal chasers manual which he was happy to send to me. I also subscribed to a fledgling newsletter called Storm Track. I started to look at schools specializing in meteorology and through department visits even got to meet my childhood hero, Dr. Ted Fujita, at the University of Chicago. I left OSU, transferring to the University of Oklahoma (OU) because of their proximity to and their reputation for severe weather meteorology. I started at OU in 1987 and in my first month, had my first real storm chase as a student chaser.
During my early chasing years, most chasers were students. Our carload of students would leave the school, only to meet up with other student chasers later underneath the wall cloud of a storm. These were the days of limited communications including no cell phones or Internet. We made our forecast and then left for our target area. To get updates, we would have to stop and then called back to the school’s map room for information via a payphone. Back then we chased by visual clues and experience. As a student, I was involved in a few programs which included placing instrumented pods, called, “Turtles,” in the path of tornadoes.
After a few years at OU, Dr. Howard Bluestein, famed pioneer researcher, asked me to join his research team. This was an honor being the only undergraduate on his team. With Bluestein, I worked with a portable Doppler radar. The radar is very crude by today’s standards, but allowed us to measure wind speed spectra inside tornadoes. Several years later, I was Bluestein’s driver when we operated the University of Massachusetts’ W-band mobile radar to gather fine-scale details in storms. It was during these years that I participated in project VORTEX, the first large scale tornado research project.
Without funding, in 1996 I ran my own informal project for CBS, constructing the first ever pod designed to shoot video inside a tornado.
Dr. Josh Wurman came to OU a few years before I left. Wurman, using borrowed and surplus parts, basically slapped together the first DOW truck. When Wurman successfully had proven that valuable data could be obtained very near tornadoes, he received funding via the NSF and OU to build DOWs 2 & 3. With two new vehicles, Wurman was looking for additional crew members to fill out his expanding team. It was then that I started a long term working relationship with Wurman. Over the years, I have done seasonal work with Wurman, including storm chasing, keeping his DOWs operating and performing upgrades. I was instrumental in helping to build DOW5 (the rapid-scan, 1993), DOW6 (2008), DOW7 (2009) and helped with DOW8 (the new rapid-scan, 2010).
To date I have seen or collected data on perhaps two hundred tornadoes ranging from small, short-lived ones to mile-wide giants which, travel many tens of miles. My greatest “chasing” moments include a close encounter with the half-mile wide violent Red Rock, Oklahoma tornado of 1991, collecting a world-record wind speed on the F-5 Bridgecreek-Moore, Oklahoma tornado of 1999 and on the same night, documenting one of the widest tornadoes ever, the F-4 Mulhall, Oklahoma tornado. One tragedy was documenting the large F-4 tornado that wiped out the small farming community of Spencer, SD. One of our more harrowing moments included being chased by a large violent tornado traveling at close to 60 mph down a dark country road. Not all memorable moments include tornadoes though. During one event in 2004 while driving DOW3, we got caught in a supercell downdraft that rocked and damaged our 13-ton truck with 175mph winds!
Working with CSWR and its staff has been very rewarding. Our group has a very can-do philosophy. Many times we’ve worked long hours, seven days a week in order to complete projects by their deadlines. When technical problems arise during field projects, we figure out creative ways to fix the problem, often working into the night, in order to get us up and running again for the next day’s operation.
In addition to working for CSWR, I worked with other meteorology projects as seen in my CV.