I admit it: I’m a little trepidatious (like that new word?) about my first hurricane chase.
Although Irene would not be the first hurricane I’ve been in. In 1991, I was on Nantucket Island having a reunion with dear friends I’d lived in England with, and we weathered Hurricane Bob. As a bona-fide weather weenie, I was thrilled. I remember running out onto the docks as the storm came in. The two black-on-red flags whipping. The wind whisking my Harlem Bad Boys baseball cap, a trophy hat of which I was grossly and inordinately proud, into the rising storm surge. Then sitting in our rental house while the power went out, drinking increasingly warm G&Ts and watching in amazement as the Category 3 gale uprooted mature oaks and sent them flying across the narrow sand-blasted street. I remember that when I took the ferry back across the Atlantic to the mainland, the boats were piled up in sticks in the harbor parking lot like so many Tinker Toys and the leaves on the trees were prematurely brown as if it were fall–blasted by salt water.
Since then, I’ve logged six years of stormchasing with professional storm chase company Tempest Tours, who this past summer, God help them, allowed me to graduate to being tour hostess, driver and guide. People have formed from this activity the mistaken impression that I’m either brave or crazy. I’m neither. Ever since seeing a tornado at age four in my grandmother’s southeast Minnesota hometown, I’ve just been in love with storms. Awed by their power, fascinated by their capriciousness. Respectful of the terrible damage they can do. I funneled all of this–pun intended–into my second novel, THE STORMCHASERS. The book is about a bipolar man who chases tornadoes when he’s manic, but the fact that I made atmospheric instability the context testifies to my love of storms.
Chasing with Tempest, I’ve chased my own tornadoes. I’ve even caught a good few.
But this is my first official hurricane chase.
I wasn’t going to do it. I was just going to drive to Wichita, Kansas, home of my beau, award-winning extreme weather photographer Jim Reed, and spend time with him before he launched himself into what will be his 18th hurricane. This is Jim’s 20th year photographing extreme weather. Every season, in all weathers, Jim has been out documenting tornadoes, hail, droughts, blizzards, ice storms, hoar frost, rainbows, and hurricanes. This will be, he says, his last. (As if I believe that.)
Still, as the 2011 season moved inexorably from spring to summer to late summer and we sat with our feet in the baby pool and talked hurricane possibilities, I became aware that I realllly, realllly wanted to go.
Even though part of me didn’t. And doesn’t. Hurricane chasing is not the same as tornado chasing. There’s no freaky, otherworldly connection between earth and sky. Just a LOT of rain and blowing wind, often strong enough to kill you. You don’t get to photograph the beast and stay in a motel afterwards and, if there’s nobody immediately around who needs help, have a chaser’s triumphant steak. My mom lived through four hurricanes in South Florida, and she said her greatest triumph after Fran was grabbing the last three-day-old blueberry bagel at a Dunkin Donuts. “You sit in a hot black box,” she said. “That’s what hurricane shutters do. There’s no power. You go back to the Stone Age. People are like animals. You’re thinking of going into a Cat 4? I’d run like hell from a Cat 4. You’re taking your life in your hands.”
I know all this, but I don’t *really* know it. I haven’t experienced it. Writers can be experience junkies, and my main response to my mom’s tale? Jealousy. It may be sick, but there it is. I just want to SEE it. I want to know. No matter how many projectiles I may have to duck, how bad my hair is (and for a former Jersey girl, that’s really sacrificing something), how many days I have without makeup, without a hair dryer, without a shower, without electricity. No matter how miserable it turns out to be. At least I will know it’s miserable. And I’ll write about it and use it and I won’t do it again.
Jim has been tracking Irene for upwards of a week now, when it was just a little numbered “invest” off the coast of Africa. As of this writing, Irene–now a named hurricane–is tracking over Puerto Rico. “It’s going to be a bad night there,” Weather Channel meteorologists are dolefully proclaiming. Forecast models, all except one rogue, show Irene tracking toward Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Florida, where my brother lives. South Carolina, where Jim owns a house and his mother lives.
Tomorrow, unless the models change radically, we will pack Jim’s black Moutaineer, Severe Weather Research Unit # 2 (# 1, a famous red Ford Explorer he owned and chased in for 20 years and over 300,000 miles, was totaled by a teenager during a Montana blizzard).
We’ll put in camera equipment I can’t possibly begin to name, and helmets, and Jim’s wetsuit, and my hastily purchased hiking boots and quick-dry clothes, and non-perishable snacks, and extra water, and batteries, and BandAids and towels and dog food. And my black Lab, Woodrow. Yes, Woodrow the Stormchasing Lab, who has his own Facebook page, is coming with us.
Woodrow has seizures, and he can’t be kenneled, because most of his seizures happen at night. Left alone in a kennel, he could seize and be dead by morning without proper medication. I tried to find care for him here in Wichita. I didn’t have time. He’s coming with, and my number one job, in addition to driving safely, is to keep Woodrow safe.
Scary stuff, right? I think so. I heard my mom’s warnings. I know hurricanes kill hundreds and destroy thousands of people’s lives. Why, my mom asked, would we seek out a force like that? All right, go, she said finally, resigned. I just hope you’re safe.
I seek it out because I want to see and know. I want to share the experience with others, perchance to educate and warn. I want to do this and bring myself and Jim and my dog home safely.
For now, I have to go get a good night’s sleep before we check tomorrow morning’s models and load the car. I’ll be posting for all three of us–me, Jim, and Woodrow–on Facebook and Twitter and this blog. Please stand by. And follow along.
(P.S.–Jim is now running around the house trying out his new tiny video camera, which he has strapped to his head with a special harness. Now I’m REALLY scared. ~ JB.)