Penn State's Storm Chase Team applies classroom lessons in the field

"They presented a plan that stressed safety - and education," Bill Syrett, a senior lecturer and manager of Penn State's weather observatory, said of the Storm Chase Team.
"They presented a plan that stressed safety - and education," Bill Syrett, a senior lecturer and manager of Penn State's weather observatory, said of the Storm Chase Team. (SUSAN SNYDER / Staff)
Posted: May 13, 2014

A rainy week? Yum. A super-cell thunderstorm? Better yet, a tornado? That's the trifecta.

"Vacation of a lifetime!" gushed Matt Flournoy, 21, as classmate Brad Guay, 19, nodded in agreement.

Meet the departing and incoming presidents of one of Pennsylvania State University's newest clubs: the Storm Chase Team, or PSUChase (pronounced "sue-chase") for short.

Twenty-three members of the club, all meteorology majors, left Sunday for a 10-day trip to the Midwest, where they will hunt tornados under the guidance of Jason Berry, a professional storm-chaser based in Indiana. And yes, for many of them, it will be their summer vacation, one that will be very much on the fly.

Their aim is to follow the weather. Which means after landing in Angola, Ind., they will get a hotel, wake up the next day, look at the weather maps, and go where they think they have the best chance of observing a tornado up close. Then they'll bunk down for the night wherever they can, sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

They'll probably stay much of the time in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Although there's a thrill to chasing a tornado, the point of the exercise is for the future meteorologists to learn. They've studied how storms move and function, and now they want to see what they've learned in the classroom play out in the field.

Nevertheless, Flournoy said he was beginning to feel the weight of the task.

"I'm convinced we have the tools and knowledge to stay out of harm's way," he said. "But there's always that if."

Students also had to get buy-in from a higher authority: their mothers. Didn't help that they left on Mother's Day.

"My mom will never be completely OK with it, but she's accepted it," said Guay, a sophomore from Barrington, R.I. "The No. 1 priority is safety."

Penny Rawlings buys that. Her son, Mike Levine, a freshman from Harleysville, is going with the club. She sat and listened to Guay and Flournoy describe the trip while she waited for her son to finish his last final.

"I think it's more dangerous getting behind the wheel of a car," Rawlings said. "This has been a fantasy of his forever."

Penn State's club formed last summer, but only after getting approval from the university - and that was no breeze. The group and its adviser had to convince the university's risk-management department all would be fine when the students go tornado-hunting.

They had to meet several conditions, including promising to stay at least a mile away from a twister, carrying the appropriate insurance on their vehicles, and using only drivers with flawless records, said Flournoy, a junior from Pepperell, Mass.

"I thought there's no way this club is going to get started," said Bill Syrett, senior lecturer and manager of Penn State's weather observatory. "But they presented a plan that stressed safety - and education."

The students' enthusiasm, he noted, was a prime selling point.

"You can't fight a tidal wave," Syrett said, discussing the club with Flournoy and Guay on Thursday afternoon on the sixth floor of Walker Hall, the Meteorology Department hangout.

But how does one stay safe when trying to get as close as possible to the kind of storm that knocks buildings flat and leaves death and destruction in its wake?

"You don't want to end up in the area of hail and rain where you can't really see what's going on," Guay said. "You want to know the motion of the storms and stay out of their way."

Club members plan to begin their hunt for storms in eastern Oklahoma, where current weather models show potential for strong storm activity, Flournoy said.

They will do that with the aid of updates from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center. Once they find a storm, they will rely on a radar scope app to monitor its movement and will have maps at the ready so they can plan their best viewing routes and their escape. They'll be traveling in four cars and a big van.

Few in the group have ever seen a tornado, though they have done some informal storm-chasing. Guay is one of the lucky ones.

He and a few friends covered 1,100 miles in 30 hours in Ohio and Indiana in November. The group came within 21/2 miles of a tornado tearing through Kokomo, Ind.

"It definitely gave me a new appreciation for severe weather," Guay said. "To hear the sirens go off was chilling, and then to see the tornado pass by and then in the following minutes hear all the reports of damage coming in - it gives you a new perspective."

Club members describe a fascination with storms that began when they were young and that led them to major in meteorology.

Flournoy says Twister, the 1996 disaster drama in which Helen Hunt heads a storm-chasing crew, gave him the bug. After that, he'd find himself glued to a window whenever a storm went by.

"I've always loved weather," said John Vittorio, 23, a graduating senior from Levittown who conceded he's never even been close to a tornado. "I remember sitting out on the front porch with my dad in the summer, just watching the storms."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Kat Kobylt, 19, a sophomore from Exton. "It's amazing to so early in my college career be able to apply what I've learned and see it with my own eyes."


ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

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