Wild weather’s wonders spark pursuit

David Arkin

Severe weather involving tornados and lightning can lift fish out of lakes, snap utility poles like soggy toothpicks and force cows to scatter like bowling pins in all different directions.
So it’s no wonder storm chaser Jerome Provencio says he might be a little bit crazy.
And you can’t really blame him for feeling that way.
If you chased dangerous and sometimes deadly storms and tornados for fun, you might feel a little crazy, too.
“I guess you have to be a little crazy to do this,” said Provencio, who serves as the city of Grady’s emergency medical services director, when he’s not chasing storms.
Provencio is one of about a dozen or so in Curry County who live for tornado and storm chasing.
“Tornadoes are just so fascinating,” Provencio said during an interview this week. “They are a bit scary, but they are so fascinating.”

With a little help from his friends

Without a group of dedicated storm chasers, discovering what kind of weather is approaching the area and how best to prepare for it would be difficult for the area’s emergency officials.
Ken De Los Santos, emergency management director for both the city of Clovis and Curry County, said he relies heavily on his group of spotters.
“We don’t necessarily have a role call or anything like that,” he said. “Spotters will just go out and tell us what they are seeing. Of course, depending on the storm, we will give them a heads up before the storm develops.”
This is important for De Los Santos because only so much can be detected on radar.
“When we look at the system on the radar we don’t know exactly what’s going on and what it’s doing. But when we have a spotter out there it adds to the entire picture.”
The details that spotters provide Santos are particularly important.
“There are different things that spotters will call in with,” Santos said. “They will call in and tell me about hail or if they see a funnel cloud. With the funnel clouds they will tell me the rotation in the clouds that they see. They may say that we are getting a downpour of rain. Anything that they see with a storm system they will call and report.”
Santos said once he receives updates from storm spotters he calls the National Weather Service and notifies them on dangerous weather occurring in eastern New Mexico.
“The information we get from storm spotters determines whether we come out with more warnings or announce a flash flood or tornado warning,” he said.
Santos though doesn’t just notify the National Weather Service. He also lets the city and county – the two agencies he directly works for – know about severe weather.
“We have a network of people who we notify through e-mail,” he said.

The things you’ll see

Provencio, who said he has found “about six or seven funnels” in eastern New Mexico during his five years of spotting storms, particularly remembers an experience in 1997.
Provencio was in the middle of a harvest area and some “pretty bad weather” was approaching.
“We were trying to get the truck dumped,” he said. “We had one from about a half mile away actually skip along and skip over an elevator. It knocked the elevator to its side by eight feet.”
Amy Sellers, who has been spotting storms for a good portion of her life, said an experience spotting a storm in Lubbock when she was a child still sticks out in her mind.
Sellers, 33, said she and her family were chasing a storm in Lubbock where a definite funnel cloud had been spotted.
She remembered the storm coming out of the sky and hitting a lake.
“There were fish coming out of the water,” she said. “I was like ‘oh my God, there are fish coming out of the water.’ I thought it was a neat thing.”
Many of the storms that Sellers has spotted over the years involved lightning, she said.
“I’ve seen some amazing things that lightning can do,” she said. “When you are chasing storms you will see all sorts of stuff. I’ve seen lightning hit a field with cattle. The cattle were running in all different directions. I’ve also seen lighting spilt a pole in two.”
Provencio said the size of hail that he’s seen on some of his storm-spotting experiences, has blown him away.
“We have picked up a few hail stones that we kept in the freezer to show people,” he said. “They have been anywhere from the size of a golf ball to a baseball.”
The number of storms that the different spotters in the area seek each year varies, depending on what severe weather arrives.
Last year, Provencio said there were several consecutive days when he was chasing storms.
“The year before we didn’t go out at all,” he said. “But last year we had four storms if three days we were chasing.”
Santos said there have been a couple close calls during the last few years in Clovis, but a tornado hasn’t touched down in the city. However, tornado warnings and severe weather that included wind gusts over 50 mph graced the Portales area in June. The weather prompted flash flooding and severe hail in Roosevelt County.

Nice hobby

To an average person, storm chasing may seem a little out of the ordinary.
But for those who do it, they couldn’t imagine their life without it.
“It’s really not anymore crazy than what a firefighter or police officer does,” Sellers said. “It’s a benefit to the public. You are the eyes and the communication to the community. I’m still alive, so I guess I can’t be that crazy.”
Santos said storm spotting is a way that some people give back to the places they live.
“The spotters that I have are from all different backgrounds,” Santos said. “Some spotters are amateur radio operators, so I guess it is a way that they feel they can serve their community.”
But for storm chasers like Sellers, it’s not just about providing a service to her community, but it’s also an exciting hobby.
“It’s just really interesting,” she said. “This is something I have been doing all my life. The adrenaline that it gives us is great. When you see clouds forming you know it’s fixin’ to hail.”
For Sellers, storm spotting isn’t something she just does when Santos asks her to check out approaching weather.
“When clouds start forming I wonder what they are going to do,” she said. “It’s interesting and you always almost want to prove yourself wrong. Even if I’m not doing it in the capacity that I’m doing it now, I will still be watching. I’m always watching the weather.”

Living for weather

In addition to the excitement that comes with storm chasing, the unpredictability of weather plays a big role in what makes storm chasing so enjoyable for those who do it.
“I think one of the things that amazes me in this area is you can watch the weather and then the next day it’s something totally different,” Sellers said. “It’s so unpredictable. It’s almost like people are going to get a present if the weatherman was right on the money. It always makes you want to prove him wrong. It drives a little bit of adrenaline in people.”
Provencio agreed that the mystery concerning weather is what intrigues people.
“We don’t have any control over weather,” he said. “There is a big thunderstorm and then it fizzes out. I think the unpredictability and the total lack of control people have about weather is what interests so many.”