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Into the vortex: Storm chaser lives on edge to warn others

By Brandon Evans | Published Saturday, May 25, 2013

A car buzzes down a flat, straight stretch of North Texas highway. Darkness covers a swath of the horizon as the driver races to the edge of oblivion.

Extreme storm chaser Jason McLaughlin chronicles tornadoes as they reach down like the dark fingers of a vengeful god, reappearing for moments at a time, carving chaos out of order.

COMBING THE SKIES - Extreme storm chaser Jason McLaughlin, 31, has spent 13 years chasing and documenting tornadoes. He uses social media to provide warnings and updates on storms and tornadoes while out on location. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

COMBING THE SKIES – Extreme storm chaser Jason McLaughlin, 31, has spent 13 years chasing and documenting tornadoes. He uses social media to provide warnings and updates on storms and tornadoes while out on location. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

For 13 years the 31-year-old McLaughlin has chased storms. Armed with only a smart phone, a laptop and a live-feed dash camera, he follows and tracks some of the most dangerous storms on Earth.

“I’ve seen a lot of amazing things and a lot of destruction, unfortunately,” McLaughlin said. “But as devastating as it is, there is still a beauty to it, too. Being out there and seeing these catastrophic storms – it’s jaw-dropping to witness. Sure, it can be dangerous, but I’m trained. I know where to be and where not to be.”

McLaughlin juggles chasing storms with teaching mathematics at Bridgeport High School. He studies forecasts in an effort to know as much as possible about when and where possible tornadic storms will hit.

CAPTURING A CYCLONE - A few of the images  Jason McLaughlin has taken include these (from left) from Cherokee, Okla. in 2012; Rice, Texas in 2010; and Midlothian, Texas in 2012.

CAPTURING A CYCLONE – A few of the images Jason McLaughlin has taken include these (from left) from Cherokee, Okla. in 2012; Rice, Texas in 2010; and Midlothian, Texas in 2012.

“I really have a good idea several days ahead of time if we’re going to have severe weather,” said. “As a teacher we get personal days, and I save them up so I can always take half-day afternoons so I can go chase the storms.”

When the tornadoes struck Shawnee and Moore, Okla., on Sunday and Monday, he knew from studying models when and where they would most likely hit. He had posted warnings days ahead of time.

“Forecast models are pretty consistent,” McLaughlin said. “You can sometimes tell up to 10 days out. On the Moore tornado – I posted on that a week before, on the two days we had them in almost the exact spot that they occurred … The signs were all there a week ahead of time on forecast models. You can look at the wind profile and plot the direction and speed. The maps I posted a few days ahead of time were almost identical to the paths they actually took.

“Once you get used to the signs, especially when you’re using high-definition radar, you can look at the models and have a good idea well ahead of time.”

Despite being forewarned, many people still don’t heed warnings and get caught in dangerous situations.

“Even in Moore, the other day, they were announcing public warnings three to five days ahead of time of severe weather possible Sunday and Monday,” McLaughlin said. “Why people don’t heed warnings, I don’t know. Its kind of like hurricanes. People are given mandatory evacuation [orders] because they are going to drown if they don’t. But many still don’t leave.”

With the conditions ripe for twisters, McLaughlin has been busy of late. He was chasing the tornado on Wednesday, May 15, in north Wise County between Alvord and Sunset. He was out again two days later when a tornado was spotted in Eliasville, southwest of Graham.

Last Sunday in Oklahoma, he saw a tornado grow before it barreled through Shawnee. And he just missed the Moore tornado when he headed out to chase a storm south of Norman.

“I was in Moore, and I knew to stay there,” he said. “But another storm started forming south, and I went south. I was still only 10 miles away, and I could have been there, but for some reason my car kept telling me to go the other way.

“The hotel I was staying at was only a mile away from the path. I could have just stayed in the hotel room and seen it from my window.”

He’s witnessed scores of tornadic storms over the years, some of them spawning dozens of individual tornadoes. He chases them not just because of his own curiosity, but also to warn the public. A storm chaser for local CBS affiliate Channel 11, he appears live on the air when severe storms strike. And his footage and expertise have appeared on numerous cable weather and science and nature programs and documentaries, nationally and worldwide.

“I like to be there because I’m fascinated by the weather, but then the whole time I’m out there I’m constantly posting to Facebook and Twitter,” McLaughlin said. “I’m able to get warnings out to the public faster because I’m right there on the ground. You think about how powerful the tornados at Granbury and Moore were. Instead of six and 24 [fatalities], just think about how many those would have killed without any warning. If those had occurred 15 to 20 years ago, it could have been much worse.

“I don’t like to see the destruction of property, but it’s going to happen whether I’m there or not. At least if I’m there, I can help warn people. It’s the ground truth of what is happening.”

He used to search for storms in a marked storm-chasing vehicle. But after people hoping to watch a tornado up close started following him, he’s learned it’s better to be incognito.

“If people are following me, they could get put in a bad situation or put me in a bad situation,” McLaughlin said. “I try to be hidden when I go out … That’s the problem with the general public out chasing storms. People are sightseeing so much that sooner or later we’re going to have a catastrophic event where a whole row of spectators are going to be wiped out. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

And despite his knowledge in predicting and tracking tornadic storms, the nature and purpose of twisters remains a mystery.

“That’s the one thing I don’t know,” he said. “That’s the question everybody asks. ‘Is there some sort of equilibrium the atmosphere is trying to set with itself, or is it just a natural disaster that happens?’ That’s one of the many things nobody knows about tornadoes.

“Every time scientists and chasers think we know about tornadoes, something completely different happens. There is so much we don’t know and so much we may never know about tornadoes.”

Follow McLaughlin and his storm and tornado updates and warnings at www.facebook.com/northtexasweather.

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