President George W. Bush toured tornado-battered parts of the U.S. South on Feb. 8, promising to aid the region to rebuild after the worst onslaught of twisters in nearly a quarter-century killed 58 people. In hardest-hit Tennessee, 28 people were killed, along with 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama, emergency officials said.
Tornadoes are considered a deadly nemesis to some, but are highly prized by others, like local resident Brian A. Morganti, storm chaser.
Morganti is an avowed weather enthusiast and resident of Bernville, Jefferson Township. In his free time, Morgnti is a storm chaser, passionate in his pursuit of severe storms. Morganti says that if he can see a tornado, he can keep out of danger. In fact, Morganti said there is much more danger a storm chaser faces-like lightning and spending long grueling hours on the road driving each day.
"I have been actively chasing storms throughout the Plains states since 1997," Morganti said. "But my passion for the weather and photography goes back to my childhood years."
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Morganti was always fascinated by thunderstorms and would await their return each spring. He began reading everything he could about them at an early age, even building a weather station to help forecast their occurrence.
"I took the liberty of giving myself a day off from school each spring when I was certain there would be big storms to monitor. By my early teens, I also became interested
photography and captured my first crude images of lightning on black and white film."
The storms in the skies over southeastern Pennsylvania were not the magnitude of those pictured in Morganti's books - the awe-inspiring supercells of the Great Plains! He promised himself that one day he would plan a trip to the Plains in order to witness those marvelous storms firsthand.
Many people could be considered storm watchers, but very few of us would consider storm chasing as a vocation. For Morganti, photographing storms is the combinination of his two great passions.
"I think everyone if fascinated by storms to one degree or another... even if they are afraid of them! I've just taken it to the next level in wanting to experience and photograph the most powerful storms on Earth," Morganti said. " No two storms are ever the same, so I always find myself wondering what the next one will be like."
After 30 plus years of making excuses, Morganti says that he finally made the decision to go. During the winter of 1996, he subscribed to the now defunct StormTrack magazine, as well as a couple of storm related newsgroups.
"I spent the next year studying and preparing for my first storm chase trip to the Great Plains. Fortunately, my wife Nancy supported my enthusiasm and even served in the position of "chase driver" during the last weeks of May 1997," Morganti said. " We even got to see our first tornado on May 25 near Anthony, Kansas!"
Nancy Morganti told everyone that that she "didn't want Brian going alone and driving around with his "head in the clouds". However, once out there, she found herself enjoying the serenity of the storms and the small towns that are scattered throughout the plains states. Since then she has joined her husband about every other year for at least part of the season.
Since he began chasing storms, Morganti has racked up close to 100,000 miles in pursuit of severe storms. Several of his photographs have appeared in Weatherwise magazine, The Old Farmers Almanac Calendar, and The Weather U.S.A. Calendar.
"During the last few years, I've made two trips to the plains each season. More specifically, a trip to the southern/central Plains each May, has been followed by a trip to the central/northern Plains during June or July," Morganti said. "Since 2001, I've had the pleasure of working for the premier storm chase tour company Tempest Tours as either a tour guide or a tour director."
Tempest Tours was founded in 2001 by Martin Lisius, an avid storm chaser and the owner of a storm video production company (Prairie Pictures) from Arlington, TX. According to Morganti, Tempest is one of a few elite storm chase tour operators that take guests from all over the world on an expedition to pursue supercell thunderstorms and with some luck, tornadoes. The six or ten day tours run for the months of May and June and generally have from 6 to 16 guests each. There is no guarantee of a tornado intercept, but the storm chaser guides and drivers will do everything possible to assure as many supercell intercepts as possible, and that means driving an average of 500 miles (often much more) each day.
"We start with a complete weather briefing each morning to review not only today's severe weather prospects...but the next few as well. A normal day finds the tour leaving their motel around 10am each morning, driving a couple hundred miles or so to the target region and then being in storm "chase mode" until well after dark," Morganti said.
Since they have no idea where they're going to end up each night, reservations are not made until the last moment based on where they "think" they might end up and where they "might" need to be for the following day's activity. The only hotel reservations made in advance are on the arrival and departure day of each tour (in either Dallas, Oklahoma City, or Denver). On day's when severe storms are not going to occur, they try to find something interesting to visit such as a national park, small town museum, or a national weather service office. "Since a lot of the guests are from outside the U.S., they don't mind seeing another part of the USA ," Morganti said. "I've worked as a tour guide or staff member since the company was founded and get a kick out of showing like-minded folks their first massive supercell thunderstorm and/or tornado."
Some of the guests return each year and consider this part of their vacation (or holiday, as it is called in the U.K.). With very few exceptions, storm chasers are hobbyist and take what is called an annual "chase vacation" that lasts from one to three weeks. There are perhaps 200 or so "hard-core" plains storm chasers who take the hobby very seriously and do this each spring. Going on a storm chase vacation for the first time is done best by going with a tour group staffed by experienced storm chasers.
"If one is properly educated, equipped, and prepared to intercept severe thunderstorms it can be done relatively safely, but things can and do change very quickly in a severe storm environment," Morganti said. "After 11 years and hundreds of severe storm intercepts I am still learning. "
Morganti has now expanded his chase adventures to photograph lightning storms in Arizona and New Mexico during the summer Monsoon season, and to face down hurricanes head on in the DELMARVA Peninsula. Morganti says his quest to seek out and experience the "worst" and the "best" Mother Nature has to offer will continue for as long as he lives.