Dig Baton Rouge

Thrill of the Chase: Louisiana Storm Chasers look to bring stronger weather awareness to the state

Louisiana’s weather is almost unpredictable. From sweltering heat during the day to a dangerous thunderstorm at night, the general public is almost never prepared. But the Louisiana Storm Chasers assist in making that uncertainty a little more clear for Louisiana’s residents.

The Louisiana Storm Chasers serve as a branch of meteorologists and storm spotters who relay information back to the National Weather Service about potentially dangerous weather conditions. As a secondary goal, the Storm Chasers look to educate the general public about how to take precautions in severe weather conditions.

Each member of the team is either trained by the National Weather Service through special classes or have a degree in meteorology from a college or university. Its founder, William Singleton, is part of the former.

In 1996, the natural disaster film “Twister” made its big screen debut. A young boy living in Texas at that age, Singleton found himself amazed by the storm chasing efforts of Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s characters. As he grew older, his interest in dangerous weather led to a curiosity in meteorology and storm tracking.

“As a kid at school, we would sit outside in the mornings or during recess,” Singleton said. “If bad weather was coming along, all the other students would run inside, but teachers had to come get me because I would sit there and look at the sky in awe.”

After making connections with meteorologists and other weather experts, Singleton began to learn what it really took to become a storm spotter.

“For me, it was all about how weather works,” Singleton said. “What goes into producing rain versus a tornado and what dynamics are involved in determining that takes a certain skill that I wanted to have.”

He later enrolled in a NWS SKYWARN class where the public is taught how to spot and analyze weather. He acquired his storm spotter certification in 2010 and has served as a part of the Southeast Louisiana Storm Spotters ever since.

Through his time in Louisiana, Singleton has observed that the state’s residents are “very weather unaware” compared to Texas and Oklahoma. Because of the fluctuating weather and previous experiences, he says many residents won’t evacuate in times of dangerous storms or take proper precautions.

“Lightning can hit you 20 miles away, and a lot of people here don’t realize that,” Singleton said. “This is a place where anything can happen at anytime. Sometimes these storms are nothing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

That safety is key when storm spotting and chasing. While Singleton finds fun in storm spotting and chasing, he says the most important thing is the safety of civilians and other storm chasers. If a storm passes through an area, it is the responsibility of those chasing it to stop and check on those living in the affected area. Many chasers are EMS certified and will assist those in need before continuing the chase.

Singleton said those who are often in videos of vehicles in the middle of storms are untrained storm chasers who have placed themselves in serious danger. Even chasers and researchers who have gone through the proper training and precautions can find be caught in a deadly storm.

Three members of tornado research team named Team Twistex died in May 2013 after being pinned by a multiple-vortex tornado. Two men were ejected from their vehicle and the other was crushed as the car was thrown half a mile with him inside.

“One moment their tracker was on the map and the next it wasn’t,” Singleton said. “They found their car flipped over and crushed.”

Singleton’s car, better known as his storm chasing vehicle, is outfitted with flashing hazard lights, CB and police radios and a computer where he tracks the storms as he approaches them. He uses the radios to determine which routes he can or cannot take when following a storm. Occasionally, Singleton will have a co-pilot with him, but he said he’s often alone when on the job.
The team is spread out around Southeast Louisiana, so most of its communication is done through phone calls or Facebook messages. Singleton says them being so separate actually allows them to track more of the storms and relay information back to the NWS.

“When the NWS sends us out or we see something and report back to them that they should issue an alert, it’s a good feeling,” Singleton said. “Not because we found anything, but because now people can start preparing accordingly.”

Eventually, Singleton said he would like to gather his team and become even more involved with the NWS. For now, the team is still focused on making Louisianians more weather aware.

Photo by Sean Gasser.

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