Category Archives: Profile

‘Extreme Challenge’ pays Wichita and Tornado Alley a visit

Jesus Calleja, star of the Spain-based television show “Extreme Challenge” (“Desafio Extremo”) was in Wichita with camera man Jesus Emilio Valdez late last week shooting footage for an episode of the popular series.

He toured the damage in Oaklawn and spoke with survivors of the April 14 tornado, and stopped by the newsroom to discuss tornadoes with me.

He will be traversing Tornado Alley in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle 2, or TIV2, with Sean Casey, the maker of the IMAX film “Tornado Alley.” Ironically, they’ve come during one of the quietest Mays Tornado Alley has seen in years, but I told Jesus not to worry. They’ll be here for several weeks, and there’s bound to be action somewhere on the Great Plains. That means he could well pass through Wichita more than once.

Jesus is used to difficult challenges, having climbed the highest peaks on several continents. He’s also gone swimming with sharks, ridden in grueling bicycle races, traveled to the North Pole and visited erupting volcanoes.

This photo of Calleja and Valdez is from Calleja’s web site. Calleja is on the right.

For all the challenges he’s taken on, Calleja sounded nervous about getting close to a tornado. He joked more than once that the idea was “crazy.” I told him that he would be in good hands with Sean and Valley Center storm chaser and meteorologist Brandon Ivey, who works with Sean.

I’ll be interested in hearing his reaction if he happens to get close to a large tornado. If that happens, he’ll realize it’s unlike anything he’s ever been through before.

The episode is scheduled to air in about nine months.

Miss Ohio’s cause? Lightning safety, not world peace

When Ellen Bryan tells people that her adopted platform as Miss Ohio is lightning safety, they usually think it’s a joke – and then wait for her real answer.

But lightning safety is no laughing matter to Ellen, whose older sister Christina was struck and crippled by lightning on June 13, 2000. Christina, who had just finished her junior year in high school, was picking up golf bag stands on the driving range at the golf course where she worked when she was struck by lightning after a thunderstorm had seemingly ended. Her injuries from the lightning strike were so severe she is unable to walk or speak.

Photo by Valerie Carnevale

“Even without her being able to talk, you can know what she’s thinking just by looking at her eyes,” Ellen said.

Christina went on her first flight since she was injured to watch her sister compete in the Miss America pageant last month. Though Ellen didn’t win, she reveled in the experience.

“I just have been enjoying every experience” as Miss Ohio, she said.

She began competing in pageants as a student at Ball State because a professor told her it would be a good way to learn skills valuable in her intended career as a broadcast journalist.

“It’s helped me grow a lot,” she said.

Now that she’s back home, she’s back to her duties as Miss Ohio – which include promoting lightning safety and awareness.

She preaches the slogan “When lightning roars, go indoors” to anyone who will listen. If you can hear thunder, you’re within range of a lightning strike, weather officials say. It’s not safe to go back outside until a half-hour after you last hear thunder.

Ellen admits her own family didn’t take lightning very seriously until Christina was hit.

“You want to take it seriously, but you never imagine that someone you know will be struck,” she said.

Ellen has talked to more than 3,000 students, more than 100 businesses and countless civic organizations. A public service announcement on lightning safety created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration features Ellen and Christina.

It can really grate on her when she’s on a college campus and storms are threatening and students are strolling along as if nothing is going on. A thunderstorm rolled through one day when she was at Harry Potter World in Florida.

“Nobody moved,” she said. “Everybody just stayed outside. I kept running into buildings.

“It was very frustrating,” she added. “Even the parks department didn’t come on and say ‘We have a storm.’”

But word seems to be getting through somehow: Lightning deaths have plummeted to record lows in recent years.

Even though she calls the decrease “exciting,” Ellen vows to remain vigilant with her message.

“When I see people that are still out in thunderstorms, you just know your work’s not done,” she said. “You have more to do.

“There’s never going to be a cure for lightning. We’re not going to be able to stop it from coming down.”

She’ll continue to urge lightning safety and awareness once she relinquishes her crown. A 2011 graduate of Ball State, Ellen hopes to land a job as a television broadcaster soon after her Miss Ohio reign ends. One day, she said, she’d love to be an anchor on The Today Show.

No matter where her career takes her, she said, “I’ll always be drawing back on the pageant experience.”

Something else won’t change, either.

“I’ll always be talking about Christina’s story,” she said.

Her sister, she said, embodies the message “Never give up. You can take whatever life throws at you.”

Ellen set up the Lightning Safety Awareness Fund through the Mercer County Civic Foundation in Celina, Ohio. Checks should be written to the Mercer County Civic Foundation, with the memo line saying Lightning Safety and Awareness Fund.

The Mercer County Civic Foundation
119 West Fulton P.O. Box 439
Celina, Ohio 45822

Saying farewell to a legendary storm chaser

I never met Andy Gabrielson in person. Oh, we swapped tweets now and then about footage he’d shot chasing severe weather, which was often riveting. I always figured one day our paths would cross, and I’d finally get the chance to ask him how and why he seemed to get so close to so many tornadoes.

Andy was a legend in the storm chasing community for that. Many praised him for it. Some criticized him for it, not just for the dangers it posed to him but for the possibility that it might encourage others to take such risks. His footage was featured often on national television, including The Today Show and The Weather Channel.

It was hard not to be mesmerized by the footage he shot, though. And I respected Andy because he understood a key part of what he was doing was reporting what he was seeing to weather officials and authorities – and helping victims if he could.

I feared that one day he would get too close to a tornado and become one of its victims. But it wasn’t a tornado that took Andy’s life earlier this week, at the all-too-young age of 24. It was a driver going the wrong way on I-44 near Tulsa, Okla., as Andy returned from storm chasing in Texas.

Andy will be laid to rest in his native Minnesota on Saturday. Acclaimed fiction author and storm chaser Jenna Blum has written her own tribute to Andy, and I wanted to share it:

A Tribute to Andy Gabrielson: What a Young Stormchaser’s Death Might Teach Us About Life

I regret to say that my first reaction upon being informed of my dad’s death was to wail, “No! Not him! Why him? Why not…” and I then named other candidates I apparently deemed more deserving.

I learned later this is a fairly common reaction to a beloved’s death—to want to put others in their place. In fact, it’s frequent enough to be universal.

Also universal is our outrage when somebody dies too young.



And randomly.

Stormchaser Andy Gabrielson’s death was one of these: the death we all fear. Abrupt. Shocking. Unbelievable. The brain embolism. The blood clot in the lung. The fall in the shower. The rare deadly germ picked up by casual handshake.

But wait, you could say: didn’t you say “stormchaser?” So this Andy Gabrielson person died stormchasing. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say.

Actually, no. Andy Gabrielson died as the result of a head-on collision, a driver driving the wrong way down Interstate 44 outside Tulsa, near Sapulpa, OK, in sunny conditions, in broad daylight.

Andy was two weeks away from his 25th birthday.

He has a three-year-old daughter.

I didn’t know Andy very well. Like many chasers, we had crossed paths and missed each other by inches countless times. We had exchanged text messages. And, like many other chasers, I was always behind Andy on any given tornado intercept. On August 7, 2010, when I was chasing in Wilkins County, MN, with Extreme Tornado Tours director Chad Cowan (then a guide and driver for Tempest Tours), we were a mile away from a spectacular-looking, extremely destructive EF4 elephant-trunk tornado, shooting its structure.

Andy was about 200 yards away, right next to the tornado’s debris ball. He was one of the first to call it in and to help the family whose farm was destroyed.

Later that month, when we were chasing the Hayfield, MN tornado on August 13, we got within about 200 feet of the tornado. I was driving. At one point we were literally across the road from the tornado, and on Chad Cowan’s video of this chase, you can hear me say, “I’m not getting any closer. I’m not pulling a Gabrielson on this thing.”

Every time I went chasing, any time I looked at a radar grab of a tornadic supercell and saw one Spotter Network dot in the bear cage, I’d yell “GABRIELSON!” Because it always was.

Andy was, at such a young age, already legendary in the chase community for always getting his shot, always getting up close. Wherever there was a severe storm, you could be pretty sure Andy was on it.

Some of us worried that the extremely-up-close-and-personal footage Andy provided to The Weather Channel and numerous other media outlets would encourage young chasers—or worse, civilians who had enthusiasm but no severe weather knowledge—to take similar risks. When Mike Bettes of The Weather Channel wondered this aloud, the issue caused an imbroglio in the chaser community. (The Weather Channel routinely bought and showed Andy’s footage.)

Yet Andy, ever strikingly articulate, consistently told his audience what responsible chasers do: Don’t try this at home. He also emphasized the public service chasers perform, frequently calling in storm reports before anyone else.

And really, it was not Andy’s job to make sure other chasers and civilians didn’t follow his lead. That responsibility belonged to those individuals—and the media outlets that bought and showed Andy’s adventurous footage in the first place.

Andy’s job was to do what by all reports he loved to do best: chase with unparalleled passion and skill.

And this, from everything I’ve seen and heard of him, from his live stream to other chasers’ admiring comments, is exactly what he did.

Until the driver going the wrong way down I-44 took his life.

What are we to learn from this kind of senseless death? The death of somebody not only young, not only passionate, but on his way to becoming a legend in his own time? The father of a little girl?

That’s not for me to say. That’s for greater minds to figure out.

But even I can say that maybe, if Andy’s death teaches us anything, it’s this:

Do what you love to do. Do it skillfully, respectfully, passionately and well.

Drive safely and defensively. Stormchasers cover thousands of miles of road a year. Last year I put 15000 miles on my Jeep. Any of us could probably tell you that the biggest risk in chasing is other drivers. One of the biggest risks of living in America today is other drivers. Texting and talking on cell phones has only made us worse. Please, drive safely. Pull over and report others who aren’t.

Finally, as Twister Sister Peggy Willenberg said on Facebook when she learned of Andy’s death, “Savor every moment of your life.”

Thank you. We won’t forget you, Andy Gabrielson.

Sean Casey and his TIV2 of ‘Storm Chasers’ fame set for Kansas Cosmosphere appearances

His tornado intercept vehicle is equipped with composite armor, steel, and bullet-proof glass.

It weighs more than seven tons and in tests withstood winds of 250 miles an hour.

Yet, during the worst tornado outbreak in decades last April 27, seasoned storm chaser and film maker Sean Casey found himself reluctant to place what is called the TIV2 directly in the path of the massive tornadoes that were devastating Alabama and Mississippi.

“We were being very cautious that day,” said Casey, who was shooting for the long-running Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers” that he appears in, and also gathering footage for a movie.

“You don’t really want to go into a tornado that’s picking up a lot of debris,” he said. “Even though we have armor, a tree trunk with a root ball going 150 miles an hour would do us real damage.”

Casey will be in Hutchinson for a series of appearances Friday and Saturday with the TIV2 at the Kansas Cosmosphere, where his IMAX film “Tornado Alley” has been showing for several months now.

He’ll give rides in the TIV2, share stories about making the film and talk about memorable chases he’s been on.

Each time he watches “Tornado Alley,” a film that took him eight years to make, he notices different things. During his most recent viewing, he said, “I was just appreciating the beauty that’s in the film.

“These images are incredible,” he said. “There’s always more to see with these tornadoes.

“Every tornado is distinct, so it’s a real challenge” to capture them on camera. “It’s thrilling.

“It’s a force of nature that’s so powerful…I’m a little scared of being mesmerized and not shooting.”

Casey is already working on a sequel to “Tornado Alley,” shooting footage with both IMAX and 3D cameras. At times during those long years of shooting footage for the IMAX film, Casey fretted about whether he would ever capture the kind of footage that would make the film a must-see.

But he’s gotten much better in recent years, Casey said, and having a meteorologist in the TIV2 — Brandon Ivey of Valley Center — has made a big difference.

“Things are happening so quickly out there,” he said. “When things get really hot and heavy, you have seconds to decide how to play the tornado.”

With 548 confirmed tornado deaths so far this year, 2011 ranks among the deadliest for tornadoes in U.S. history.

There were an estimated 361 people killed by tornadoes in April, and the Joplin tornado of May 22 killed 157 people.

The death and devastation prompted soul searching for Casey and the other chasers involved in the television show.

“You definitely have to reflect upon what you’re doing,” he said. “To be in it just for the chase, it became very hollow.”

A siren was added to the TIV2 so the crew could warn people where they were of the approaching danger.

“Mentally, you had to adjust,” Casey said. “We realized we needed to really be active as far as warning people…and when you witness destruction, to lend a hand.

“Once we got into that mode, we were reinvigorated by being out there.”

The teams involved in “Storm Chasers” realized they were in a position to help, he said.

“I think the teams grew up a bit,” Casey said.

In fact, he said, if there’s one thing he’d like to add to his chase crew, it’s a rescue vehicle — something stocked with supplies that can help victims in the immediate aftermath of a tornado strike.

Casey hasn’t heard yet whether “Storm Chasers” will be picked up for another season. Even if it’s not, he said, “we’ll still be chasing.”

There is the movie sequel to shoot — and there’s the inescapable lure of Mother Nature’s might.

“I’m always driven to do more,” he said. “You want to do better…you want to keep chasing something that you feel passionate about.”

Jenna Blum: Best-selling author and “weather addict”

Jenna Blum got hooked early.

She was four years old and visiting her grandmother in Caledonia, in southeastern Minnesota.

“At night, while everyone else was asleep, I looked out the window and saw my first tornado,” she said. “It turned me into a weather addict.

“To me, it’s about the learning curve: the more I learn, the more I keep wanting to learn.”

For the past six years, she’s been chasing storms in Tornado Alley – at first trailing behind Tempest Tour groups and now serving as a guide for the company. She made storm chasing the driving force of her second book, aptly titled “The Stormchasers,” which was released in 2010 and just come out in paperback.

The book allowed her to merge two of her greatest passions, she said: writing and storm chasing.

“The Stormchasers” is about a bipolar man who chases storms when he’s manic, and his sister who chases him and tries to keep him safe.

“The storm is a natural metaphor for mental instability,” Blum said. “Like severe weather, the moods appear to come from nowhere, cause devastating damage to those it touches, and then vanish.”

Blum splits her time between Boston and Minnesota, and she said her friends in New England paid little attention to tornadoes.

Until this spring.

Tornadoes have struck city after city this spring – including the Springfield metropolitan area in Massachusetts. As she was pursuing a developing thunderstorm on the Great Plains with Tempest Tours, Blum was hearing from friends in Massachusetts about the tornadoes touching down there.

“People were scrambling to figure out what to do,” she said. “One of my friends actually asked, ‘Can I drive downtown?’ during the tornado.”

Another said, “My basement is too creepy. I’d rather ride it out upstairs.”

That experience prompted Blum to write an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe about how to respond to the threat of severe weather.

“People just need to have more situational awareness,” she said. “They don’t know what to do or they don’t have adequate shelter.”

With a death toll of more than 525 people – the highest in 75 years – this tornado season has emphatically driven home the point that people need to be alert and prepared no matter where they live, Blum said.

She was in Wichita Monday for “Three Chasers” – a book signing that also included severe weather photographer Jim Reed and Mike Smith, founder and chief executive of WeatherData, the Wichita based private forecasting service that is now a subsidiary of AccuWeather.

When she’s not chasing storms or on the road for speaking engagements, Blum teaches master novel workshops for Grub Street Writers in Boston and writes in the rural Minnesota town where her mother and grandmother grew up.

It’s like a witness protection program for writers, she joked, and she plans to hole up there for a while later this summer to begin work on a third book.

Her first book, “Those Who Save Us,” was a New York Times best-seller. It explores a woman’s efforts to learn more about her mother’s past as a woman living in Germany during World War II.

Like “The Stormchasers,” Blum’s first book delves into how people deal with the upheaval that comes when events much larger than themselves disrupt their lives.

“I find that very compelling,” she said.

Video of Reed Timmer pursuing a tornado

In my story elsewhere on the Eagle’s website (and in Monday’s paper), Reed Timmer talks about tangling with a large tornado in Minnesota last summer.


Here is video of that pursuit. It’s pretty dramatic stuff.

There’s another weather blogger in town

Mary Elizabeth Sauer isn’t quite sure when her interest in weather started.

“I just automatically picked it up,” she said. “I don’t know why. I figured since we’re in Tornado Alley, then I should actually find out more about weather.”

She pays attention to forecasts, studies daily conditions, toured the National Weather Service office next to Mid-Continent Airport this spring, started her own weather blog

Oh, by the way: she’s 10.

And, yes, she wants to be a meteorologist when she grows up. When she went to the Kansas State Fair last month, Mary had to have her photo taken in front of the KWCH green screen and give a “forecast.” That’s her on the right, with her younger sister, Anna.


“I thought it was annoying for a long time, because she would get so worked up about severe weather,” said her mother, Dawn. “Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, she reminds me not to take a shower or give baths or talk on the phone.

“I’ve been surprised at how much she wants to read about it and learn about it. I’m trying to work that into our home schooling curriculum this year.”

The weather blog was actually her mother’s idea.

“She writes so much, and there’s all this paper lying around the house,” Dawn Sauer said. “My idea was to have it all in one place.”

Mary Elizabeth likes to offer observations on her blog – as well as plenty of safety tips. A storm that struck her southwest Wichita neighborhood on the Thursday before Easter only intensified her interest.

“We think it was a gustnado, but we weren’t for positive,” she said. “There was a wall cloud rotating. It was puzzling us….at first we thought it was a microburst, but it wasn’t.”

“I just remember seeing the dust flying through the air, and I was freaked out.”

Strong storms still scare her, she admits. But they also fascinate her. The more she learns, she says, the less scared she’ll be – and the more she can help other people stay safe.

“There’s always something that surprises you during storms,” she said.

Stormy weather as therapy


When she was a student at Brooks Institute, a prestigious photography school in Santa Barbara, Calif., Robin Lorenson was often asked what she wanted to do with what she was learning there.

“I’d tell them, “I want to be a storm photographer,’” she told me. “All my instructors were like, ‘Why are you here?’”

She was, after all, studying the industrial science of photography – not how to take pretty pictures of storm clouds. But Lorenson said she enjoyed the instruction nonetheless.

“Weather is my passion, but photography is also my passion,” she said.


Her training at Brooks has been valuable since she returned to her home state of Kansas and began photographing weather, she said.

“It’s helped me immensely…it’s been unbelievable,” said Lorenson, 29, a native of Salina.

She will be showing examples of severe weather that she has photographed over the past year or so during Final Friday tonight. Her show will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Picture Framing & More, 323 N. Mead, in Old Town Square.

She saw her first tornado on May 8, 2008, on the high plains of western Kansas – a landspout that gained notoriety among storm chasers and others because of Lorenson’s video of weather photographer Jim Reed running toward the stationary tornado in the final moments before it dissipated.

“I was like, ‘It’s a landspout, this is awesome! Oh, my gosh! What’s he doing?’ when he took off running toward it,” Lorenson said of Reed, with whom she had an internship while taking courses at Brooks.


Her most memorable storm chase came later that same month, when she and Reed were driving through northwest Kansas. Multiple tornadoes had touched down near Quinter in Gove County. They were returning to Hays, convinced the violent weather had ended for the evening.

“It’s dark, and all of a sudden we get a report of two tornadoes heading north, and lo and behold they’re within a quarter mile of us – and I can’t see them,” Lorenson said. “That struck a nerve.”

Her father committed suicide when she was 12, Lorenson said, and she found solace and healing in being outdoors and losing herself in studying the weather.

“It was my way of spending time with him,” she said. “It helped me cope and deal with everything, sitting outside in the wind and rain.”

But that night, she said, “my coping mechanism turned into one of my triggers.”

She worked through those emotions with the help of a therapist, and hopes to find a way to use her weather photography as a way to help others heal.

Catching up with ‘Tornado Girl’

Last Final Friday, I went to take a look at an exhibit featuring the landscape and weather photographs of Katherine Bay, a Mulvane native who now calls Wichita home. The Eagle first wrote about Katherine back in 2002, when she gained national attention for being a teenage storm chaser.

Since then, she has traveled tens of thousands of miles documenting tornadoes, hurricanes and other forms of severe weather. She’s worked with National Geographic, Twentieth Century Fox and numerous national television networks.

But she tells me her most popular photograph is one she shot right here in Wichita, in the back yard of a condominium near 21st and Ridge.

It’s a photograph of twin lightning bolts taken earlier this year. She captured it during “four hours of constantly taking pictures,” she told me. “Four hours. I’m out there with a cable connected to my hand
that goes to the camera and every five seconds taking a picture.”

She went through 32 gigs of memory in her photo card that night. That’s “quite a few shots,” she said with a chuckle.

Most of them didn’t have a thing on them. She didn’t realize she’d captured the twin bolts until she was going through the images some time later.

“People seem to love them,” she said.

While she was given the nickname “Tornado Girl” a few years ago, she confessed they aren’t her favorite weather phenomenon to photograph.

“People see tornadoes all the time now. Everybody shoots tornadoes now…well, if I see a tornado I’m going to shoot a tornado…but I like the structure of the storms better than I like the tornado.

“The lightning is probably one of the hardest things to shoot and to get a really good shot of…but it’s also my favorite to shoot because it is the most challenging. You have to work at it to get it.

“I do find it to be the most rewarding when you shoot all day and you get tired and you don’t look at the images for weeks and you finally go back and you find that one shot you didn’t have any clue you even took.”

More of her photographs can be seen on her Web site,