WOODSTOCK – It was fear that ignited Brett Wright’s interest in storms.
As a kid, he’d hide in the basement while the thunder crashed outside. Back when he was about 12 years old, he associated the rumbling with tornadoes. Research put his mind at ease.
“I learned the basics of tornadoes, and it gave me a sigh of relief that not every thunderstorm produces tornadoes,” said Wright, 23, of Woodstock. “They’re actually quite rare.”
The research to alleviate his fears grew into a desire to make weather his life. Wright is now a junior at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies meteorology and, for the last year and a half, has been chasing and photographing storms with a group called the “Tornado Titans.”
Reporter Shawn Shinneman recently caught up with Wright to talk about what got him into storm chasing, whether the craft requires insanity and how a scary experience in Oklahoma City turned into a viral YouTube video.
Shinneman: When did you learn about storm chasing or start to get interested?
Wright: Back in 2010, I added a few people in Northern Illinois [University] on Facebook that were storm chasers because I really wanted to see a tornado. I hadn’t seen a tornado. I thought I did, but I probably really didn’t. So I ended up adding a couple people, and they took me on a chase. That’s when I met my current roommate, [Tornado Titans member] Brandon [Sullivan] through them. And that’s how I started getting into chasing.
Shinneman: True or false: You have to be somewhat insane to chase storms.
Wright: Well, you have to have a little bit of nuttiness to chase storms because you’re chasing something that could kill you. So you have to have a little bit of a loose screw. But if you do it right, it’s pretty safe.
Shinneman: But then you hear about [veteran storm chaser] Tim Samaras, who died in the same storm that you were chasing (the May 31 Oklahoma City tornado that killed 22 people). Does that make you think twice about what you’re doing?
Wright: Actually, no. Most people, it would probably make them think twice, but not so much for me. A storm like that is extremely rare for all that it’s done.
It made me realize that on a real high-precipitation supercell like that, with a huge area of rotation where any type of vortices could touch down at any minute – or any second – that you kind of want to stay a little bit farther away from those type of storms.
Shinneman: And your video from that generated a ton of views on YouTube. I just looked at it; it’s over 775,000. In hindsight, do you look at that as a success because you generated some attention for your group and for what you’re doing as a storm chaser?
Wright: It kind of set a bad example, but we weren’t the only people that were very close.
That barn blew away, and it ruined our day. If it wasn’t there, we would have been able to get away and be fine with no damage. But that barn was placed there, and it blew apart. It was really insane what happened. I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on during the moment.
Shinneman: What is it that makes you do it? Is it the enjoyment you get out of it, the rush you get out of it?
Wright: We call in warnings to the National Weather Service and Spotter Network reports, and that’s helpful, especially if you’re the only people on the storm. It’s extremely helpful to be able to report tornadoes and also hail and other stuff like that.
But I get a great deal of enjoyment looking at something so rare and beautiful. You could be a billionaire and not get to see the awesome stuff we get to see.
Shinneman: What do you see in your future plans? Do you want to keep doing this for a while?
Wright: Oh yeah, I plan to be chasing the rest of my life. I have my fiancee with me; I want to get her into storm chasing, too. She likes it, so I’d like to get her first tornado with me. But I plan on chasing the rest of my life, for sure, and hopefully become a meteorologist in the near future.