The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 19, 2013

Storm chasers go looking for trouble

By Robb Murray rmurray@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Call them crazy. They won’t mind.

They understand that running into a storm might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. And when tornado sirens sound — and authorities are advising people to take cover — they accept that it wouldn’t be inappropriate for people to give them looks of incredulity.

Comes with the territory.

But they want people to know that, while they may be storm chasers, they’re not a bunch of reckless weather cowboys out looking for a thrill. Their work has a purpose, they say. And if the weather ever cooperates this spring, they plan to be out there doing the purposeful work they’ve done for the past few years, helping meteorologists at the National Weather Service accurately predict the paths of severe weather events.

“We’re not just our there gawking at the storms,” local storm chaser Jeremy Den Hartog says. “What we’re doing is helping provide ground truth for the National Weather Service.”

Hartog, Erik Schmitt, Jeremy’s wife Cindy, Jordan Manderfield, Ben White and Pete Wachtel are part of a group of storm chasers that, come spring each year, gets ready to chase what others do their best to avoid.

They’ve been chasing storms since 2006 (seriously since 2008). Hartog does the forecasting. Schmitt and others handle driving duties. Whoever is sitting in back is in charge of recording the chase on video or shooting photos with a digital camera.

Why do they do it? Why run after — or into — a storm when the smart move would be to take cover?

They say they each caught the severe weather bug when they were young. Whether it was Schmitt watching a tornado roar through the Mapleton area or Hartog seeing a similar scene near Chandler, they say the bug them early and they’ve been hooked ever since.

“Just seeing what Mother Nature can do firsthand is pretty powerful,” Schmitt said.

Speaking of seeing things up close and personal, the gang says there have been a few times when they’ve been a little too close.

“Yeah, we’ve been close. We’ve been inside of one,” Hartog says.

Now, as storm chasing stories go, these guys will be the first ones to tell you that when they found themselves inside that storm near Mound, Minn., in 2009, they may have made some decisions that, in retrospect, may seem unwise.

But they had no information to go on. There were no tornado warnings or watches issued. It seemed safe enough at the time to drive to the top of a hill they figured could give them a better look at the oncoming storm cell.

And then ...

“Once we got there,” Hartog said, “the storm dropped down on us.”

They call it a learning experience.

What’d they learn?

“If you can’t see what’s coming, you should be a little more cautious,” Hartog said. “In our attempt to get a better vantage point, we got a little too close.”

It was over after a few seconds, and no one got hurt. And they lived to chase other storms. Storms such as the one in southwest Iowa in 2011.

“That was one of our more memorable days,” Hartog said.

They’d been chasing all over the region that day when a storm developed that kept dropping tornado after tornado as it rumbled along. They arrived in one town three minutes prior to the storm’s arrival, and listened to it rumble through. Listened? Yes, because it was dark, and the only way they could see the twisters was when the lightning flashed.

Much damage was done that day, and they spent a good chunk of their time helping people recover from the storm, including a guy who saw the storm destroy the home he’d built himself in the 1940s.

As far as expertise goes, the members of the group are not trained meteorologists. They say they’re self taught. But they claim to be pretty good at knowing where to be when severe weather develops. At their website, majorleaguestorms.com, they’ve got a bevy of photos documenting their travels. And this year, when they head out to chase twisters, they’ll be live streaming their chase on their site.

And while this season so far has been rendered a little slow because winter refused to mosey on for much of the spring, they say the conditions could be ripe for a big year, storm-wise.

“Peak for tornadoes is mid-June,” Hartog said. “Being so cool late in the season, it will keep the upper atmosphere cool, which could produce more storms. If I had to guess, I’d say the last week of May and into June will be pretty active.”