The moment, almost 20 years later, remains crystal clear in the mind of Tommy Self.
He was a volunteer firefighter in the tiny central Alabama town of Townley, about 10 miles west of Jasper. The department responded when an EF-5 tornado ravaged Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties on April 8, 1998.
As Self picks up the narrative, this is how he became a storm chaser:
“My department assisted with search and rescue in the Concord area (near Birmingham). I knew right then because they didn’t have hardly any warning, it was at night. I had a small child pass away in my arms. And I knew right then what I wanted to do as far as making a difference.”
According to the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, 32 people died in the storm.
“I don’t know how I would feel if a tornado was to hit some school and someone was to have my child pass away in their arms,” Self said. “I would want to know that person did all they could to protect that child. When I pulled the rubble back and I was carrying this child to the ambulance. And she just quit breathing in my arms. I was overwhelmed.
“There have been more times than I could count – even back on April 27, 2011 – when I just dropped to my knees and started crying. The devastation of the tornadoes, the lives that they take, the property damage, it’s just overwhelming. That’s what pushes me to get up and do it again.”
Storm chasers interviewed by AL.com said they are driven to the danger not for the thrill of the chase but to serve as eyes on the ground for meteorologists at the weather service and television stations.
Mike Wilhelm chases storms in north Alabama, communicating with the weather service forecast office in Huntsville as well as WHNT Channel 19. As eyes on the ground for the weather experts whose vision stretches only as far as radar, Wilhelm describes it as “ground truth.”
“If I’m successful with what I’m doing as much as I can be,” Wilhelm said, “they’ll be able to say trained storm spotter Mike Wilhelm spots a tornado at such and such a location. Obviously, if I’m showing that (as he livestreams video), that’s huge.”
Said Self, “You don’t want to toot your own horn but if not for people like myself getting out and reporting what’s happening, some of these people wouldn’t even know what’s going on. Sometimes, a lot of storms go unwarned.”
The cause, of course, is not entirely noble. There is the business aspect of selling videos they capture as they chase, Self and Wilhelm said.
But both said the monetary aspect of chasing is secondary to the desire to help.
“I’m out there as a public service to the National Weather Service, to the local EMA offices, to let them know what I’m seeing in real time,” said Self, who lives in Tuscaloosa and feeds information while in the field to meteorologists in Birmingham and Huntsville. “And if I get video to sell, that’s a bonus on top of that.”
Wilhelm, who lives in Huntsville, first became fascinated with the weather during the 1974 tornado outbreak and that interest has never waned.
“One thing that social science has shown is that when people see something or have ramped up language based on somebody seeing something, then they are more prone to act because of the false alarm ratio being so high with warnings and then nothing happening,” Wilhelm said. “My ultimate goal is to be a public service, to let people know.”
It’s a dangerous ambition, of course. The sharp reminder came in 2013 when Tim Samaras – a longtime chaser and considered among the tops in the profession – died along with three co-workers in a tornado in Oklahoma.
Self said he has taught himself to read weather radar and he remains in constant contact with meteorologists while chasing storms. He’s also attended storm spotter classes given by the weather service.
Storm chasing should not be confused with amateur hour, Wilhelm said.
“It concerns me a lot,” he said. “More and more all the time, there seems to be a lot of people that think, `Well, I’m going to get my 15 minutes of fame on TV or YouTube.’
Self said he has tried to make himself invisible as a storm chaser.
“I’ve had wannabe chasers try to follow me,” he said. “I’ve taken all the decals off of my vehicle, even my sponsor logos and the TV station logos because people see me and they try to follow me. I don’t want to get anybody killed.”
So do they ever get scared chasing storms?
“While there was definitely adrenaline going and some concern – heightened awareness – it’s not really what I would call scared,” Wilhelm said. “I would be more scared if a snake came up beside me.”
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