“Twister,” a 1996-released fast-action drama, tells the tale of Dr. Jo Harding, played by Helen Hunt, as she travels the countryside, dodging wind-hurled objects, a Holstein among them, while confronting her biggest fear: tornados.
Tom Purdy, as a young boy living in the center of Janesville, too, had developed a fear of storms. A 1999 graduate of Parker High School, and today, a bouncer at a downtown Janesville tavern and eatery, he is a trained storm spotter and has cultivated skills as an amateur storm chaser and freelance photographer. His subject of choice: extreme and beautiful weather and its atmospheric architecture, he said.
His subjects grow with vigor, and their incursions, fleeting. To find them requires constant vigil. Purdy tracks them using a radar app on his phone. With over seven years of storm spotting and chasing experience, he has learned to construct his own forecasts using National Weather Service (NWS) models, and can, with some accuracy, he said, predict where storms and cloud formations might develop. His skills sharpened over time. When he started, he said: “I didn’t know the difference between a shelf cloud and a wall cloud.”
In reality, Purdy said, in his opinion, storm chasing is more about patience than drama.
“It’s a lot of boring; it’s a lot of driving in a car. There might be 20 minutes of a storm. I have a big love-hate relationship with it,” he said.
A trip to South Dakota
Describing himself in his twenties and early thirties as a typical Wisconsin young adult, he recalled summers spent at backyard bonfires cultivating friendships.
During that time, a friend invited him to travel by car to South Dakota. The two hoped to attend a party, he said.
They were just outside of Rapid City when they encountered what Purdy described as “huge hail and flooding.”
Recalling the storm, he said: “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
Its structure and alteration of the sky made it different from a Wisconsin storm, Purdy said, adding: “I became mesmerized.”
Purdy and his companion were both trained weather spotters. Purdy had taken a two-hour course offered by the NWS about a year earlier, in 2010, he said.
Rusty Kapela, a NWS warning coordination meteorologist stationed in Sullivan was Purdy’s instructor. Kapela had enjoyed a 36-year career with the weather service before retiring in 2013, according to online biographical information.
Kapela was one of many whom, Purdy said, helped cultivate his understanding of weather.
From spotter to chaser
“As a trained spotter, you are taught some basics about storms and then you send in reports to the National Weather Service. You might look at snowfall counts and rain rates, and severe storms,” Purdy said.
He took the course because “I thought it was cool and it was free,” he said. The NWS teaches it each spring.
As a youth, Purdy said: “I was scared, so it seemed like we had a storm every night. I just wanted to learn more about storms.”
After completing the course, “I thought I was a badass,” he said. Describing himself as a bit of a thrill seeker, when he was a youth, he thought he might like to be a firefighter. Today, he said, “I’m the most down-to-earth person you’ll ever meet.”
Learning about storms replaced fear with intrigue and curiosity, he said. He found an old camcorder in the car while facing the storm in South Dakota and took a few stills. Later, he purchased a Canon XTI and began exploring its features. The two interests merged, forming what is now his life’s passion, he said.
“Storm spotting is different from chasing. Spotters have one or two spots where they watch. When they see weather, they report it to the National Weather Service. A storm chaser chases a storm and the ultimate goal is tornadoes,” Purdy said.
The NWS trains spotters with the understanding that they don’t advocate dangerous behavior. Chasing is an unsanctioned amateur activity, Purdy said, and while he enjoys the thrill, his ultimate goal is pictures, many of which have appeared nationally through such media outlets as: First Weather, The Weather Channel, Weather.com, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS, he said.
Even with training, he said: “in some situations you go into you still get nervous. There’s always a fear factor when you are sitting face-to-face with some of the most powerful things on Earth.
“I have seen death and destruction.”
Forming a team
In 2012, Purdy said, he met Jason Schwartzlow, of Edgerton, whom he described as his best friend and trained storm-chasing partner. The two met through Facebook.
A few years his senior, Purdy said Schwartzlow has been instrumental in helping him learn.
Together, they have been all over the Midwest and beyond, Purdy said.
For chasers, he said, the activity is often consuming.
“I’m hooked on it. We live for this. I spend the whole year waiting for spring and summer. I spend a lot of time driving around looking at clouds,” Purdy said.
Purdy described himself as largely self-taught, reading articles and watching YouTube videos about weather, but, he said, connections made through Milwaukee Area Skywarn® Association Inc., a spotting group, have helped further his storm awareness and understanding.
While he has gained some recognition in recent years for his photography, he said: “I don’t like attention. I like to let the work speak for itself.”
He is often asked by area camera clubs to share his expertise in shooting weather-related photographs, he said.
Weather and safety
Storm spotters and chasers begin monitoring the skies more closely in March, but April, May and June in Wisconsin are the most active months, and June is the peak. The season lasts through September. Between 4 and 7 p.m. is primetime for storms, Purdy said.
During each storm season, he chases and photographs hundreds of weather events.
Annually, about a dozen storms are severe, he said, adding many he photographs are intriguing because they have “cool structures.
“You can get a lot of lightning even from a garden variety storm,” he added.
Eighty percent of the storms he tracks are found within southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and a majority of those storms are found in Rock County. Three or four a year in Rock County are among those Purdy considers “big,” he said.
“We are not immune from severe storms. In Rock County, it’s not if, but when,” he said.
Still, he said, Rock County is well watched.
“There are quite a few spotters around,” he added.
Considering the question of climate change, Purdy said he did not have proper expertise to address the issue. He defined climate change as a study of long-term events, while weather is more about what’s happening in the moment. He photographs moments surrounding weather events, he said.
His observation: “Weather is inconsistent,” he said.
Addressing safety, Purdy recommended those interested in watching and reporting about weather begin by taking the NWS free spotter training class. Riding along with experienced spotters is also good for beginners, he said.
Those engaged in outdoor activities should know where to seek shelter in a weather-related emergency and everyone should have a weather radio, he said.
According to Purdy, in Rock County, weather systems in place to help alert the public are continuously improving and “very accurate.”
“Warnings are no joke,” he said
“Listen to what’s being advised and have an action plan,” he added.
For more information about spotter training, visit the NWS website: https://www.weather.gov/grb/spotterschedule.
To learn more about the Milwaukee Area Skywarn Association visit:https://www.facebook.com/groups/milwaukeeskywarn/
Purdy sells prints. His work can be viewed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TomPurdyWI.