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An Interview with Weatherbug's Ryan Towell

Jamie Jones @ 11:07 PM

Originally by Andrew Freedman, September 2004

This is the second in a series of interviews with Washington-area weather professionals.

Andrew Freedman: What is the philosophy behind your hurricane chasing? Are you focusing on research interests or a news angle, or something different?

Ryan Towell: The hurricane blogs this year have focused on each event as a news story. Covering the preparation before the storm, the events during and the aftermath. When it comes to hurricanes, I really don't refer to covering them as a "chase". It is so much different than chasing storms or tornadoes in the Plains. In a hurricane, you can try to position yourself in a good spot, but often times in the end, the hurricane will or will not chase you down.

A.F: How have you balanced your excitement for the storms with empathy for the storm victims?

R.T: I've been both a Meteorologist and working in media for over six years. I've witnessed just about every type of weather disaster imaginable first hand. It is not at all difficult for me to maintain an appropriate balance. I know that lives are disrupted and sometimes ended by these violent storms. You cannot help but be affected by that.

A.F: How has the hurricane season gone so far? What were some of the most harrowing/interesting moments?

R.T: Most living persons have never seen such an active hurricane season, with so many direct hits to the United States. Charley was the first hurricane that I experienced first hand. Never would I have imagined that I would be repeating that experience, or something very similar to it again and again so soon.

A.F: How would you describe the various storms you've encountered thus far this season?

R.T: Most of my storm experiences up until this year involved severe storms in the Plains and Midwest. I grew up in Illinois, away from hurricane territory. My first experience with Charley was both exciting and somewhat terrifying. I had seen video and read accounts from those going through hurricanes, but I had no idea of how I would react. To watch radar and see the eye coming so very near, that was really something. Frances was such a long, drawn out affair. Everyone was just so ready for it to end so they could get back to their lives. Ivan was somewhere in between. Neither fast nor slow. By the time I was in position for Ivan, I was neither nervous nor overly excited. I knew what to expect. By that point I was also suffering a bit of hurricane fatigue.

A.F: How did the last minute changes in Charley's track/intensity affect your chasing on that storm (assuming you did chase that one).

R.T: I was sent to Fort Myers the day before landfall. I rode the storm out at the Cape Coral Emergency Operations Center. We made no changes to our plan during Charley. The eye moved within 15 miles of us as it came onshore.

A.F: Any theories as to why Florida is getting hit so hard this year?

R.T: Florida was, until this year, lulled into false sense of security in regards to landfalling hurricanes. The number of hurricanes that hit the state since the late 1960's was fairly low. Much below the average in fact. Residents were not taking the threat of hurricanes too seriously before this year. With a persistent pattern of ridging just to the north and above normal sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic, Florida didn't stand much of a chance this season. Attitudes toward hurricanes in Florida and surrounding states has obviously changed and in profound ways.

A.F: This year political bloggers were officially welcomed to the national party conventions for the first time, giving them a new sense of legitimacy, and now here you are as severe storm bloggers. What is it about a blog that lends itself to covering things differently, and allows you to convey the experience of a hurricane. What are the drawbacks?

R.T: A blog allows for faster, more personal and sometimes less formal information communication, than say TV, radio or newspapers. This is an asset when covering a rapidly changing weather situation. A lack of editing or limited proofreading is certainly a drawback of this type of medium.

A.F: What's your biggest fear as a chaser?

R.T: To get myself into a situation where I feel I am not safe and have no control over what is happening.

A.F: What do you say to the millions of Americans out there (clearly not weather freaks) who think you're totally crazy for doing this?

R.T: Well, I'm generally not standing on the beach or out in the open when things get really dangerous. I've seen this take place many times over the years by overzealous television reporters. Not only is this unsafe, but it is also setting a bad example. There will come a time when one of these reporters is either severely injured or killed doing this. Because I am a Meteorologist, I have more respect for the power of Mother Nature. I know how to stay safe and still get the story.

A.F: What do you enjoy most about chasing hurricanes?

R.T: I've enjoyed meeting such a hugely diverse group of people while covering each storm. The stories you hear out in the field are just unbelievable.

Some logistics:

A.F: Do you seek to experience the most intense part of the storm as it comes ashore or stay around the periphery of the worst conditions? Is that somewhat dependent on the storm's strength (i.e. you'd seek the eye of a Cat 2, but not a Cat 4)?

R.T: Generally we try to position ourselves within 50 miles of where it looks like the eye wall will come onshore. I like to stay in an area that has the highest population concentration, yet is close to where landfall is forecast.

A.F: What do you have in your chase vehicle (e.g. what meteorological equipment, emergency supplies, food, clothes, etc) How do you keep informed of the latest storm developments on the road? Where do you stay if you're in a location being evacuated?

R.T: The WeatherBug Storm Chase truck is equipped with wind direction and speed, temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and rainfall instrumentation, lap top computers, satellite delivered data, satellite phone and cell phones. Supplies in the truck include rain gear, first aid kits, high-energy snack foods, bottled water and the like.

A.F: How do you prepare for situations such as no open gas stations and restaurants?

R.T: We make sure that we keep our gas tanks and our stomachs topped off before the storm hits. Afterwards, it is a matter of luck whether we can find gas stations and or restaurants that are open. It often involves driving away from the hardest hit areas.

A.F: And finally, any chance a fellow blogger could get in on some of this chasing action? Things have been a bit boring here in the D.C. area ;)

R.T: I'm sure that WeatherBug would be happy to add more eager members to the staff. I'll send you an application!

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