The Life of a Storm Chaser

Jim Reed's new book on extreme weather events looks to drive public awareness of the coming climate crisis.

The-Life-of-a-Storm-Chaser
The-Life-of-a-Storm-Chaser

Crouching under a carport in Port Charlotte, Florida, award-winning photographer Jim Reed records a desperate good-bye-and-I-love-you into a rolling camera for his mother. He hopes it'll comfort her when he's gone. Around him, 140 mph winds tear homes apart -- uprooting trees and turning cars into toylike projectiles. He's been caught off-guard: What began as an assignment to document the effects of Category 2 winds on palm trees turns out to put Reed and meteorologist partner Greg Zamarripa in the eye of Hurricane Charley of 2004.

Suddenly, the sky quiets, filling with a bright light. "This is it," Reed thinks. "This is heaven." The ominous southwest side of the eye wall -- off in the distance -- will soon whip the storm back at them. Pounding on doors, Reed and Zamarripa attract the attention of a family with a tornado shelter, where they ride it out. And through it all, Reed captures footage and stills that hit national outlets the next day. "We walked away with a heck of a story," Reed says.

He understates the case. But Reed -- who's survived the direct landfall of 15 hurricanes, including that of Katrina, which he captured 70 yards from the water in Gulfport, Mississippi -- is hardly cavalier. Storm chasing stirs up associations with yee-hawing, tire-spinning cowboys, actual or self-anointed. Not Reed, who dislikes adrenaline rushes. They turn his stomach and -- no great asset for a photographer -- make his hands shake. Instead of hooting and hollering at the weather, Reed, in a way, worships it. "I go out as if I'm going to some sort of spiritual service. I try to be as respectful and reverent as I can."

His tax form reads, "Photographer, Writer, Storm Chaser." And STORM CHASER: A Photographer's Journey (Harry N. Abrams; November, 2007), bears the fruit of that labor. Clouds take on the color of blood oranges in one image -- and the texture of melting, drippy marshmallows in another. Each image is like some oracle of Greek mythology: Beautiful, seductive -- and full of bad news about what's to come. In the nearly 200-page tome, Reed's writings -- as well as those of politicians, climatologists, and researchers -- further the photographer's agenda to drive public awareness of the climate crisis.

Reed grew up in Springfield, Illinois, where severe weather was part of life. He remembers a particularly bad flood, for instance, and a 1978 storm that uprooted his favorite backyard trees. But not every little Springfieldian grows up to chase Category 5 hurricanes. Reed's connection to this subject runs along more spiritual lines. When a terrifying tornado hit 11-year-old Reed while at camp -- church camp, no less -- Reed had what he describes as a calling: "I took it as a sign that I'd be taking pictures and writing about weather. I ignored it for a while," says the USC fine art graduate, who initially worked in commercials and film. "But I think your calling always comes back."

In the case of certain storms, Reed says, an experience of oneness with the universe overcomes him. "There are some storms where you just connect," he says. "You think you've been shooting for 10 minutes, when in fact it's been three or four hours. It's very spiritual and very moving. You're interacting with a power that's so omniscient, inspiring and terrifying that it changes you."

The book's cover image was like that. Firing off three frames amidst the turmoil of a supercell thunderstorm, Reed captured the award-winning image, in which an enormous, swirling bowl of Hiroshima-reminiscent sky dominates -- emitting a lone, crisp bolt of lightning as if an afterthought. "It was a moment of serendipity," he says. "The colors came together. The shades, textures, and light just all came together. And a storm like that recharges me. Because so many storms take a lot out of you."

Among the prices he pays: Reed is currently undergoing treatment for PTSD, a problem several other storm chasers have alluded to privately. "There's a dark side to storm chasing," he says. "I still have nightmares about Hurricane Charley. I still have flashbacks of Katrina. I just have a feeling that we are not meant to see, smell, hear and go through these extraordinarily tragic events without being impacted."

For the psychic toll, a sense of purpose compensates. "I want people to begin paying attention to weather on a regular basis, not just when it's popular or trendy," he says. "Based on what I've seen, I think America is grossly under-prepared for what's coming. And I have reason to believe that the largest, most challenging storms haven't even arrived."

STORM CHASER: A Photographer's Journey
By Jim Reed
US $35.00 / CAN $42.00 / U.K. £ 17.95
Harry N. Abrams
192 pages with 175 full-color illustrations
ISBN 10: 0-8109-9392-9
ISBN 13: 978-8109-9392-1

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