Sheets of endless rain pelting the ground, 335 mile-per-hour winds roar in your ears, the sky darkens as the flood waters begin to rise — the ferocity of a hurricane is on full display. These conditions are so inhospitable that they are, in fact, a threat to survival. It is estimated that 51 people died as a result of Hurricane Florence.
But what of the select group of individuals that see the looming red mass of a hurricane on a radar screen and drive into it?
Storm Chasers are a group of people who track storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes and attempt to be right in the thick of the action. Some have scientific backgrounds and others just have a passion for meteorology. Their purposes for embarking on this dangerous task range from data collection to simply seeking a thrill.
One storm chasing hobbyist, Logan Giles ‘20, posted in the Fairfield University Class of 2020 Facebook group on Sept. 10 asking, “Anyone want to chase/film Hurricane Florence along the Delaware coastline this weekend?” The post received a considerable amount of attention when compared to other posts from this page, garnering nine likes and 10 comments.
In response to this attention, Giles booked room 304 in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library and set a meeting time of 8 p.m. on Sept. 12 to discuss the details of the trip with curious students. As the clock struck eight, only one person had arrived.
Giles anticipated that the seven people who had conveyed an interest to him would come to the meeting. He was frustrated at the lack of attendance, but undeterred from his mission.
“If I wasn’t 20 and wasn’t in school,” Giles enthused, “I would be in North Carolina.”
Armed with a printout of relevant information, Giles explained that his personal goal was safety. His proposed trip would only go as far south as Fenwick Island, Del. which is around 420 miles north of Wilmington, NC. Wilmington was hit hard by Hurricane Florence, receiving 26.58 inches of rain.
Safely out of the hurricane’s main path, the purpose of the trip was to raise awareness and collect data about the coastal beaches. Giles, hailing from the Washington D.C. area, first became interested in weather after following snow storms in 2010. Dubbed “Snowmageddon,” the D.C. area was hit with massive amounts of snow, ranging from 24 to 36 inches during February 2010.
His parents were initially wary of his new hobby, “First off, they [his parents] would rather I not do it,” however, Giles explained, they came around to the idea. “Eventually they said it’s fine, just be safe.”
Branching out from snow storms, Giles followed other storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which caused $62 million in damages. Recently Giles has been after tornadoes, including this past summer when Giles spent nine days storm chasing in the Great Plains.
The trip began in late May and started in Dallas, TX where he and a group of chasers drove approximately 3600 miles and traveled through 16 states. During this trip Giles, “saw the best storm, chased it for about 5 to 6 hours…this was a massive storm,” in the Oklahoma panhandle region.
This trip to chase Hurricane Florence was not supposed to be like his trip out to the Great Plains.
“I knew it was going to be a dead weekend,” Giles explained, ”I chased because I wanted to chase.”
The one person to attend the Sept. 12 meeting was Daniel Epstein ‘20. Epstein had never been on a storm chase, but once saw a hurricane while at the beach and was interested to learn more.
Still hoping that other students would want to accompany him on the trip, Giles posted again in the Facebook group. He set another meeting for Sept. 13 at the same time and in the same room as the previous meeting and added, “You will not be able to come otherwise as there will be key details tomorrow.” No students besides Epstein attended the meeting.
On Friday, Sept 14, Giles and Epstein headed south towards Delaware and travelled to Fenwick Island as well as Ocean City, Md. The pair of Fairfield students were well out of the way of any serious danger, “The nearest evacuation zone was in Chincoteague, Va. which is about 130 miles south… we were pretty far away from that,” Giles added.
Giles described the scene as an overcast day at the beach “There was no rain at all,” Giles elaborated with a casual tone, “the wind, it wasn’t awful because the storm was way too far down south, so the winds were probably around 25-30 miles per hour, which isn’t too bad.”
Epstein, a first-time Storm Chaser, remarked, “I certainly enjoyed the experience of my first-storm chasing adventure, although we anticipated for more catastrophic events, but the impact in Delaware and Maryland was insignificant compared to the rain faced in North and South Carolina.”
Giles collected some data about wind speed, but did not share his data with any type of organization. As the hurricane did not make landfall where he was, he judged the data to be not that valuable. The tide, however, was more remarkable.
“The seas were probably the roughest part in terms of the beach,“ added Giles.
Giles also explained that within Storm Chasers as group there is a culture. Different people chase different types of storms, the most common storms chased are tornados.
“Chasers don’t like to share stuff with other people,” elaborated Giles, “because they want the one shot that will get them a lot of money.” The money “shot” Giles explained are of, “big wedge tornadoes:” the awe-inspiring image of a dark funnel of clouds touching the earth.
As to the risk involved in storm chasing, Giles was dismissive, “The thing with storm chasing is that people think it’s dangerous, I understand that, you really just got to be safe about it, just don’t be dumb.” When asked if he was ever scared while storm chasing Giles retorted, “I haven’t gotten to a point where I need to be.”
On Oct. 2, Giles once again posted in the Facebook group alerting students to the tornado warning. “FYI. Heads up tonight everyone,” he captioned a photo of a map with watch areas highlighted in yellow along with information about the impending storm.
In regard to his future storm chasing plans Giles beamed, “I want to be at the eye of the hurricane, that’s my goal.”