“It’s an adrenalin rush, watching Mother Nature at her most spectacular yet dangerous state,” says Horsham Downs dairy farmer and serial storm chaser Jamie Haultain.
“There’s nothing like it. The adrenalin has been pent up through the entire day and released over a couple of hours in the evening.”
Jamie spent two weeks in the last half of May chasing storms in the US and returned in time to milk the 245 cows on his parents farm.
When people find out what he does, they always ask how dangerous it is.
“I say it’s as dangerous as we let it be. People either think I’m nuts or say they want to do it themselves.”
This trip, his sixth, started out from Dallas-Fort Worth – “Generally you clock up close to 800km per day in the car. Most years we cover the states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota. Less often Missouri, Arkansas, North Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming. Most days we see incredible storms.”
People come from all over to chase storms and there are a lot of Kiwis and Australians, many doing their own chasing.
“I’ve seen about 20 tornadoes. They really are the icing on the cake. Storms don’t produce tornadoes all the time and sometimes you can miss one by a matter of minutes.”
Some tornadoes last hours, but often they are only on the ground for five minutes.
The season runs from April to August; most people chase in May and June. April is a bit early and very far south, he says.
“July can often see you up into Canada as the season moves north as it progresses and things warm up.
“People ask what it’s like. There’s a lot of waiting around in Walmart car parks and living on fast food! It’s sitting in a car all day to get a few hours of decent chasing. You start out in a town in the middle of nowhere, on the road from about 8am and reach the target zone by around 2pm. Then you refine your position and jump onto all the best storms that have developed.
“At the end of the night, once the storms have decayed – which can often be not until midnight – you then reposition to a town that is in the direction of where you need to be the next day. Some days can clock up over 1000km in the car.”
Another common question is how dangerous chasing storms is.
“It can get very dangerous but the most dangerous aspect really is all the driving of long distances on the road. We always stay a safe distance from the storms and have an escape route.”
When he first began he did it through a tour, paying big dollars – about $3000+ for 10 days, without flights and meals.
“Recently I’ve teamed up with other Kiwi nutters and we do it ourselves. We have a driver and a navigator and the others in the car get a day off. It’s the navigator’s job to watch the storm out the window, watch it on computer radar, follow the road network and place us in the best possible position to park up and view the storm safely.”
They normally are a couple of kilometres from the storm or tornado – “…as close as possible without putting ourselves in danger.”
On a number of occasions he’s been very close to small tornadoes. “They can spawn very quickly and if you’re under the storm you need to be keeping an eye out.”
Hail is another danger. Tennis ball-sized hail is common with the storms and it can blow out all the windows in the car.
In terms of health and safety and insurance, Jamie says a waiver is signed on payment of joining a tour.
“When we go on our own there are no insurance issues. You buy travel insurance and you’re covered. Same with car hire insurance – we’ve returned cars with dents from hail and cracked windows and because it’s such a common thing over there they don’t ask questions.”
The cost of chasing storms depends on whether it’s part of an organised tour or not.
“There are some great motels in most towns. When I do my own thing with other kiwis we pay about $1400 for the flights, then budget on $150 a day to cover food, accommodation, petrol and car rental. This year I did 10 days chasing, and the total cost for the two weeks was about $2600.”
He would love to go most years but it’s not always possible. “And it’s not something you could take the family on. The kids ( Five, three and one) would never survive the long day in the car.”
But for now it’s all about milking cows – there’s always another storm trip to think about.
Jamie shared his photographs with us –
This was taken in 2010 on a trip with Silver Lining Tours. We saw something like seven tornados this day. This pic was taken just off an interstate highway in the Texas Panhandle, if I remember correctly. That tornado was coming right at us. We had about 1 minute to jump out of the tour vans, take a pic and get back in. The storms were moving close to 100km/hr that day so very hard to keep up with. It is also why the picture is blurry, I didnt get time to set the settings correctly.
This was taken in 2018 in Childress, Texas, on our first day of chasing. Not long after this storm dropped baseball-sized hail on the car and smashed the windscreen and placed big dents all over the car. This storm stucture is really good and is a sign of a very strong storm.
I think this picture is in Nebraska, but can’t remember fully. It was from the 2018 chase year. I took it to show what a tour party looks like. It happens to be the tour company Silver Lining Tours (who I have been with three times)
This is the town Cactus in the Texas Panhandle in 2008. This was my second time over there, and we went to survey the damage ater watching a tornado go through this town during the night a few days earlier. Sadly one person died in this tornado.
This is of our trip in 2018. We are all Kiwis. I’m taking the pic.