By ANGELA SYKORA - email@example.com
FOX LAKE – Two days before speaking to fifth and sixth-graders from Stanton Middle School in Fox Lake, Jesse Walters was chasing tornadoes in Oklahoma on May 9, having made the 14-hour drive by himself.
It’s what he lives for.
“It’s something I recommend everybody try once,” he said.
Naturally, the students were enthralled with Walters’ tales of storm chasing.
Assistant Principal Rachelle Peters said the students peppered Walters, a 1995 Stanton graduate, with questions like how many tornadoes he’d seen, how many hurricanes he’d been in and which storms were the most powerful.
“At the end, they got to see his storm chasing car and they thought it was very neat. The kids were really into all its cool features,” she said.
Walters’ modified, all-wheel Subaru Outback — a vehicle he highly recommends for any would-be storm chaser — is equipped with a weather radio and radar data provider, LED lights, laptop, PA system and other gear.
“It’s decked out, but it’s not armored,” he said. “They always ask me if it’s armored.”
Though Walters has a day job working at a warehouse for demolition, he is always ready to hit the road when severe weather is predicted. Luckily for Walters, his longtime employer is pretty lenient knowing how passionate he is about storm chasing.
Sometimes Walters makes the trips alone. Other times he joins a group of chasers.
“We usually try to plan things 10 days out. We look for signals for conditions then refine the area we want to go,” he said.
The chasers’ destinations are typically Great Plains states including Oklahoma, Kansas, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Texas.
“It’s tornado country,” Walters said. “All the ingredients come together perfectly here.”
Tornadoes can happen anywhere, though. “I’ve chased tornadoes in California, New York and Canada,” he said.
When a rare tornado passed through the Grayslake area on Aug. 2, 2015, Walters was storm chasing in central Wisconsin and missed the local action.
A chaser is born
Even as a young child, Walters remembers watching Chicago meteorologist Tom Skilling report the weather on WGN-TV and fantasizing about giving his own forecast.
When he was 11, Walters’ parents bought him a storm chaser video that included commentary from legendary chaser Gene Moore, whom he would later befriend.
“It was because of him I found out what storm chasing was,” Walters said.
When he got his license at age 16, Walters began chasing local storms, but it wasn’t until he was 18 that he really went the distance.
“I saw my first tornado on May 3, 1999. I was driving blind toward Oklahoma City on my own with a weather radio and an atlas, By the time I got there, there was a high risk chance for a tornado,” Walters said.
“I saw an EF5 tornado, which is pretty rare. It was just luck," he said.
Seeing a tornado with your own eyes is a much different experience from watching it on television, Walters said.
“You smell the earth, feel the moisture, hear the roar. I’m still scared to death of them. I think it’s a healthy fear," he said. "Every time I get near one my hands are shaking so bad I can hardly hold the camera.”
Walters classifies that tornado as one of the worst he’d ever seen, though he didn’t see the residential devastation or learn about the deaths until he was safe at home.
Beyond the chase
In 2012, Walters formed JW Severe Weather, an organization initially for storm chasers and weather enthusiasts to share their videos, photos and experiences.
After seeing footage of the destruction caused by an EF4 tornado that struck Hattiesburg, Miss. on Feb. 10, 2013, Walters changed the mission of the organization to focus on immediate response, research, relief, rebuilding and education.
With nonprofit status, the more than 30-member group can apply for grants, accept donations and purchase tax-free supplies.
“I saw a video where the tornado had gone through town and the chasers were like, ‘Should we stop filming or keep going?’ That’s when I said we can do more than storm chase," Walters said.
Tips to stay safe:
Walters advises residents to check their local forecast daily for the threat of severe weather and have a response plan.
“The National Weather Service in Chicago is very good and has easy-to-read graphics,” he said.
When a tornado warning has been issued, Walters said it's best to seek shelter in the basement or the most interior room of a home, usually a closet or bathroom –preferably in the bathtub. Everyone should cover their head and body with blankets or even a mattress pad.
“Flying debris is the biggest thing that’s going to kill you,” he said.
Walters said anyone who's in a vehicle during a tornado should out of the car and lay in a ditch or the lowest point of ground, covering themselves with whatever they can find. Never park under a viaduct or bridge because the wind accelerates there.
“That’s not safe by any means,” he said. ”That will suck you out and throw you around.”
Visit www.jwsevereweather.com for more information.