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Storm Chaser Relishes Severe Weather

Meteorology: Enthusiast makes a career of pursuing tornadoes and other phenomena since childhood.

September 15, 2002|CARYN ROUSSEAU | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — His car windshield is cracked. The tail lights are splintered. The hood is cratered with hundreds of dings.

"Every little possible thing on the car is damaged," Scott Blair said proudly. "This car's been through hell and back."

It's just one of the hazards that go with being a storm chaser.

Blair, who is studying atmospheric sciences at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, chases storms across his native Arkansas and the Midwest during the spring and fall. He started watching the Weather Channel at age 4 and began chasing at age 13 while riding in friends' cars.

Now 21, Blair is accustomed to the strange looks when he pulls up at a stoplight and people see his battered car. Seven antennas jut from the roof, and electronic devices pack the front seat.

"Some people think I chase UFOs," he said.

The gizmos put Blair in touch with truckers, other chasers and the National Weather Service. Everything he needs for storm-chasing is mounted within an arm's length of the driver's seat.

"You don't want to be reaching for things when you're in a storm on the road," said Blair, who claims that he has seen 22 tornadoes.

He chases because severe weather fascinates and challenges him, and the information he gathers can help people.

"Chasing is a hobby, but through our hobby, we can help save lives," he said. He regularly uses a cell phone -- also within reach -- to send reports to local weather service offices.

Each August, Blair invites storm enthusiasts from surrounding states to his parents' Little Rock home to talk about the weather.

Their cars -- dotted with dents and boasting broken windshields -- line his driveway. The two dozen chasers from Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas share videos from the spring chasing season and plan this fall's forays.

A large yellow road sign in his driveway greets his chasing friends. It reads "Tornado Zone."

They share a cast-iron pot of homemade jambalaya, kept warm beneath a makeshift lid: another road sign reading "Hurricane Evacuation Route."

Sitting in the living room, the chasers gawk at each other's videos. Just like Blair, they easily remember the dates of major storms. The comparisons fly across the room -- Jan. 21, March 1, April 2 -- and are remembered like family birthdays or anniversaries.

Blair said he plays host to these gatherings to bring the chasing community together.

"All chasers are friends," he said. "It's this real close community. Everybody helps each other out."

Videos from Tulsa storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski catch everyone's attention. Even though the black-and-white picture is grainy and shaky, you can hear the hail hitting the roof of Piotrowski's truck.

"See it suck the trees right out of the ground," he tells the group.

They nod in understanding. They've all seen it before.

Piotrowski and the other chasers rack up damage and miles on their cars, although they don't bother repairing the dings and dents.

"Chasing's not cheap," said Blair, who has 90,000 miles on his 1996 Ford Taurus. "You're talking the thousand-dollar range. But it's something we love, something we do with a passion, so cost isn't a consideration. I don't turn any insurance claims in. This would just happen again."

Blair's primary travel season stretches from April through May, with shorter chases in late September and October. "We go out in force, take our vacations, whatever we need to do," he said.

John Robinson, the severe warning coordinator for the weather service at North Little Rock, said he doesn't advocate chasing, but he appreciates the information.

"We don't tell them to go out there," Robinson said. "Yes, we want the reports, but we want them done safely."

Robinson said Blair and his chasing colleagues work independently of government storm chasers at the National Severe Storm Laboratory in Norman, Okla. Those scientists chase severe weather for research projects.

Blair is happy to help save lives, saying there's only so much the meteorologists can do at a desk.

Besides, he said, "I really can't live without chasing."

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