The Life Of A Storm Chaser
It’s Josh Morgerman’s favorite time of the year: the peak of hurricane season.
You wouldn’t know it at first, but Josh Morgerman has a strange hobby. A cheery brand consultant, he lives in Los Angeles, stays in shape, and seems exceptionally sane. But for the past 20 years he’s spent his free time chasing cyclones and documenting his experiences on his blog iCyclone.
“It’s like the serial killer in me,” Morgerman says. “It’s like an addiction.”
He chased his first storm, Hurricane Bob, in 1991, when Morgerman was interning in Washington D.C. “I threw a couple hundred dollars and some clothes in a duffel bag and jumped on a train,” he laughs. “I was literally racing this hurricane up the east coast trying to get to Eastern New England before the core of the storm hit.” He was too late. By the time he made it to Providence, Bob had already passed. He kicked at some debris on the ground and promised to beat the next hurricane, cyclone, or typhoon (the names change depending on which ocean they’re in).
And he’s been catching that next one for decades. Though he’s not a scientist, he’s got the sort of insights one can only gain by leaning into wind that would carry away Anderson Cooper.
Now, hurricane season is upon us, and Morgerman took a little time off from monitoring weather reports to talk to MAXIM about his favorite storms.
What’s with the impulse to chase storms? Childhood trauma?
Storm chasers are born this way. When you’re really young, you see a thunderstorm and it gets you excited, but you don’t know why. As you get older, you have this fixation on violent weather and you just feel this need to be in it. I don’t think the need develops – it’s innate.I grew up on the east coast so hurricanes are what I knew. They are beautiful creations. When you look at the satellite and radar imagery, it’s this gorgeous, perfectly symmetrical swirl. There’s almost like this natural craftsmanship that is just amazing, and then on the ground there’s this incredible build-up.
You know days before that a hurricane is coming and there’s this sense of anticipation. It builds to this climax.
So how do you time it?
Usually I sense a chase coming about a week or ten days before, thanks to the computer models. They start to show some indication that a cyclone is forming and whether or not it’s going to be chase-able. At that moment it’s almost like I switch into a slow adrenaline drip, where I start to be constantly alert; I’m continually checking the computer models and the satellite imagery obsessively. And as it leads up to the chase time – the time to make a decision – I find myself sleeping and eating less. Finally, I need to make a decision, and that means suddenly jumping on a plane and going somewhere.
It could be anywhere. A chase always takes me to some strange corner of the Earth that I haven’t been to before. Then it’s a matter of navigating unknown territory, trying to get to the exact center of the storm when it’s going to come ashore. I shoot for that part because the inner core, that inner ring around the center, is where you get the really violent wind.
You want to be in the most intense part of the storm?
Usually there’s a lot of wind and rain, and then boom, once you get in the inner core that’s when things just go nuts. The winds just start screaming and stuff is flying through the air with this roaring sound. If you hit the eye, all of the sudden everything will just stop. It’ll be calm out – you might see the sun – and that’ll last from a half hour up to a couple of hours, and then the other side of the storm hits and winds blow from the opposite direction. As soon as the storm starts to move away, after days of just running on pure adrenaline, I totally collapse; I just sleep and eat a lot. Then I deal with the data. If the storm hits somewhere in the U.S. or Mexico, I send it to the US National Hurricane Center and they actually use it to analyze the storm afterwards to figure out exactly what happened. If it’s in another territory I may just submit it to the general scientific community.
How do you film the experience?
The iPad is basically my best friend – it has everything on it. You can get satellite imagery, radar, data, navigation tools – I’ve been chasing for 20 years and I don’t know how I did it without this. [Laughs] That’s become one of my main pieces of equipment. That aside, I obviously use video camera and I typically take a couple. Usually on a chase I really try to get in the storm – really get in the wind and rain and shoot it as it’s coming at me – I’m not in a safe place. Because of that I usually trash one or two cameras while on a chase. I am also a weather nerd and I do bring weather meteorological devices with me for measuring air pressure, and then afterwards I take that data and graph them.
You were there last year when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. What was that experience like?
To see the city get flattened and the carnage afterwards, it was beyond anything I had ever experienced. I had trouble processing it. I was in shock for a couple of days. Once I was back in California, I sank into a really profound depression from what I had seen, the suffering. That one really rattled me.
I look at chasing as an extreme sport. People who do extreme sports get injured, they break bones, they risk their lives, and I accept that. I always say to people, ‘If I die in a hurricane, don’t feel sorry for me because I deserved it.’ [Laughs] I’m good at this. I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve chased a lot. But, even so, there are variables that you can’t control. I’m at peace with that.
You took video footage of that storm that was shown all over the world. Did that surprise you?
The typhoon was a historic event. It’s one of the biggest natural catastrophes that happened in the world from the last century. We got this very graphic footage inside of the city as this cataclysm happened. It was a privilege to document history, as horrible as it was; it was a very big news story. Everyone wanted that footage because it was very dramatic. I sent video from inside of the hotel in the city while it got demolished.
I sent the data to the entire community of cyclone scientists. There was no other air pressure data from the core of that typhoon, so it was really beneficial to them.
Was there a point during the storm when you thought you should stop filming and just try to help?
The bay just rose up like a tsunami and swept the downtown area. We suddenly couldn’t be chasers anymore. I had to throw my camera down, jump in the water, and pull people out of flooded rooms or they were going to drown. I’d never been in that situation before. I thought people were going to die in front of me. It was really intense.
I’m happy to say that no one in our hotel died. There were injuries, but no deaths – but thousands of people within a mile radius of us died. It was a really ghastly event.
That wasn’t your first big storm. Tell us about another chase.
One of the scariest experiences I had was when I was in Mexico, in Chetumal, way down in the tropics. It’s a small city, not a tourist destination; no one spoke English. A hurricane was coming across the Caribbean – Hurricane Dean. It was my first ‘Category Five,’ the top of the intensity scale. My whole life I had always been looking for that extreme experience and no storm was ever strong enough for me. I always wanted something bigger. And this one, as it started to approach, was like a giant bowling ball. I suddenly had this feeling like, ‘Ok, this looks really serious.’ At that point I got pretty freaked out. If I could’ve pressed a magic button to transport myself back at home in L.A., I would have.
One thing I realized from that experience – and this is the twisted thing about chasing – the scary chases, the ones that freak you out a little bit, those are the ones that you look back at the most fondly. Those are the ones that you’re like, ‘Wow, I was on the edge, I was in it, I was front row.’ It’s almost like a masochism. Those are the good chases. If I wasn’t freaked out during it, it’s just like yeah, whatever, it was cool but just another chase in my log book.
Photos by Earth Uncut TV