Saturday, September 8, 2012

Introducing Justin Pletsch ~ Storm Chaser!

I have always had a fascination with weather. If I'd been a little better at my studies I probably would have done something with that, as well as all the other things I wanted to be. At any rate I enjoy watching weather clouds, and the formations during a storm.

Today I want to introduce to you a colleague and friend, Justin Pletsch, who had an interesting summer chasing storms. He sent me pictures and his story of the chase one day, but I told him I think an introduction is in order. Because aside from being a crazy bus driver (as am I), he does something even more crazier than driving around NIU avoiding students who seem to want to walk out in front of a 12 ton bus. He chases storms, and does so for a company. Well, I'll let the introductions begin and get out of the way aside from my questions.

ME: First of all, Justin, where are you from?

JUSTIN: I was born in Sterling, IL, and grew up in Prophetstonw, IL, which is about 50 miles east of the Quad Cities. My family and I eventually moved to Gridley, IL, when I was in 5th grade, and then we moved to Normal, IL, when I was a freshman in high school.

ME: Tell us when you became interested in weather, or what one weather event made you excited and want to study it?

JUSTIN: I was always fascinated with weather, but the event that really kick-started my interest happened when I was 6 years old. It was a perfectly clear day, and then everything took a turn for the worse one summer evening. We saw a tornado a few miles away from our house in the country, and my dad was able to film it. While he was filming, our neighbor's tree across the street was struck by lightning. Of course, I thought this was SO cool! But we all ended up retreating to the basement.

ME: Smart move. Okay, everyone knows what a storm chaser is, or I hope they do, but why are they important? What do they do to help us study weather?

JUSTIN: Storm chasers are important because they are sometimes the only way people know of impending danger. Take my personal experience form April 9, 2011. I went chasing with three other people, and we ended up in Mapleton, IA, to seek shelter under a gas station awning from ping-pong sized hail. Even though it was really dark and the sirens were blaring, the lady attendant at the gas station didn't know what was happening. We explained that she needed to take shelter immediately. Sure enough, the gas station power went out, and a tornado formed 200 yards from our location!!! Luckily, no one was killed in that town (which was demolished in this storm), and the worst injury was a broken leg.

In addition, storm chaser can provide information that Doppler Radar is unable to pick up (i.e. size of hail, rainfall rates, whether or not a tornado is on the ground, etc.). Keep in mind, the radar can only detect rotation and/or hail within a storm, but it can't actually detect if a tornado is on the ground, or the size of the hail.

Also, storm chasers are usually the first people on the scene after a devastating storm plows through. Any storm chaser worth his salt will provide first aid to people who need it until help arrives. Plus, we might be the only ones able to pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1, because storms that leave a path of destruction behind often leave people in shock.

ME: So true. Okay, now tell us a little bit about the people/group who hired you to go out and do such a crazy, dangerous job over the summer, and where are they based, and anything else you wish to tell us about them.

JUSTIN: I went on my first storm chasing trip in 2009 with a company called Tempest Tours (TT). This company was founded in 2000 by Martin Lisius, who is also the president of TT. It is based out of Arlington, TX, and they lead tours from the middle of April to the middle of August. The tours leave from Dallas, Oklahoma City, Denver, and Phoenix.

Anyway, I was completely enthralled with my first chase/trip that I knew I wanted to go back again. My next opportunity to go again came in 2011, when my parents decided to send me on another storm chasing adventure as my graduation gift.

My third trip came this past summer, but this one was different. After much persistence, I was able to score a driving position for my trip this year, and I was paid to do so.

ME: Tell us, do you recommend this to anyone?

JUSTIN: Please keep in mind that storm chasing is EXTREMELY dangerous, and it should not be attempted unless you have the experience or go with someone who is experienced. Also be aware that you will need to do quite a bit of driving, which is the primary hazard with this activity. In fact, it isn't uncommon to be on the road from 9 AM until 1 AM--just to give you an idea.

In addition, you will have to deal with other chasers who may not be following the rules of the road when on the scent of a massive storm. This can post problems, especially if you get caught in torrential rain, very large hail, hurricane force winds, or worse--the tornado itself! Wildlife also poses a threat, such as fire ants, snakes, cows,, and other creatures. Also, a storm chaser's diet is quite unhealthy, considering breakfast is the only good meal you might get the entire day. Otherwise, you will have to settle for fast food, or a questionable sandwich from a gas station in the middle of nowhere.

In the end, you need to have a health respect for Mother Nature, if you want to live to tell your tale. The best way for someone to experience storm chasing, no matter how much experience you have/don't have, is to go with a company like TT. They are professionals, and they will never intentionally put you in harm's way. For those who want to shop around, I would also suggest looking at Silver Lining Tours, as they are the only other reputable company out there.

ME: Well, thank you Justin for this interview!

And just to reinforce the warning, I wanted to share a photo from one of his companions who was happy to also share his picture and story about it:
"This is a picture of the vehicle I was in on June 20th, 2012 while chasing a storm near Chugwater, WY. We were filming our 3rd tornado of the day from about 2-3 miles away when the storm unexpectedly started heaving bowling balls at us. We got out of there fast, but not before the vehicle took some major hits, including 2 windshield impacts, one baseball-sized and the other 5 inches or more in diameter (we couldn't stick around for exact Needless to say, this was one of my greatest chases to date. Can't get much better than 3 tornadoes and 5-inch hail in one day!"

REMINDER: my next post up will be Justin's actual storm chasing event from this year. He has some wonderful pictures I want to share with you, so please do watch for it!

You can visit Tempest Tours at


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