Do The Twist(er): Local Musician Chases Storms For Fun and Profit
Hank Schyma doesn't come off as insane. Not at first. He speaks clearly and eloquently about being a storm chaser, and as you're talking with him, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing.
Hank Schyma, front man for Houston band the Southern Backtones, has been chasing storms for more than a decade and says he's determined to keep doing it, despite the recent deaths of storm chasers in El Reno, Oklahoma.
Then you watch the videos. You watch as Schyma points a camera at a tornado, a black vortex of more than 100 mph of wind and power that is heaving and whirling along, ripping apart whatever is in its path. And there's Schyma following alongside it, narrating what's going on outside the window of his car in a voice that sounds as if he stole it from a National Geographic special.
Schyma, 41, the front man for the long-running Houston rock band the Southern Backtones, once found himself at the end of a closed dirt road in South Dakota with nothing to do but watch as a mile-wide funnel cloud moved toward him. He'd been motoring alongside the thing, shooting footage as he peered out his windshield, trying to see through the rain, when he skidded to a halt as the road ended. All he could do was sit there, helpless, surrounded by wheat fields, and wait to find out if he was going to die in South Dakota. The funnel cloud spun itself out into nothing right before it got to his car, but that was just luck. He doesn't take people chasing with him anymore, in case his luck ever runs out.
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"What happens is you live, and this happens every day. You think, 'I could die,' and the first time you freak out, and later you hear yourself on camera, and you sound freaked out, so you learn composure," he said.
Schyma has been chasing storms for more than a decade. He was there when a mile-wide twister ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013, and he was one of many storm chasers on hand when a 2.6-mile-wide tornado touched down near El Reno 11 days later.
"It's weird. You see your dream and it's right there in front of you, and then it turns around and kills people," he said.
It's a tricky thing, loving the sight of these storms and knowing how destructive they can be, working after a storm has passed to clear debris and search for anyone who might be trapped. His passion for weather and the monster storms it spits out was sparked years before that, when he was just a kid.
Growing up in Houston, he was fascinated by the emerald-green thunderstorms that would send jagged shards of lightning down from the sky. When his family moved to Dallas, he was living at the southern end of "Tornado Alley" and was so eager to see one of those long black funnel clouds, like the one that swept through Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, that he'd run outside looking for a twister to appear every time weather forecasters sent out a tornado watch.
He didn't realize then what a tornado actually is. It was just a wonder of nature to him, not this monstrous thing that could sweep through and destroy entire towns, reshape the landscape and kill people. He just wanted to see one.
At 12, Schyma got his first camera and started snapping pictures of lightning during storms. He read everything he could get his hands on about meteorology and severe weather. He learned how tornados form and how a stretch of the Great Plains is uniquely suited for these happenings -- the perfect mix of jet stream, pressure and landscape for creating tornados of incredible strength and size.
Later, working as a freelance cameraman for KHOU, he met and struck up friendships with metorologists Neil Frank, David Paul and Mario Gomez. They didn't exactly become his mentors, but Schyma would buttonhole them whenever he could and ask as many questions as possible while trying to learn the business.
He didn't have any equipment for tracking storms back then. His goal was just to see one of these things up close. Paul gave him a tip on the location of a brewing storm near Dodge City, Kansas that led to his first encounter with a tornado. Schyma arrived just in time to see it, and as he watched the funnel cloud slide out of the storm, he was hooked. In May 2002, he sold footage of a twister to a TV station for $50. He'd dreamed of chasing tornados, but he never thought of making money doing it until he had that first bit of cash in his hands.
He now divides his time between performing with the Backtones and working for TV stations, spending months out of the year chasing storms on the Great Plains. He sells his footage to cable outlets like CNN and The Weather Channel.
Martin Lisius, chairman of the Texas Severe Storms Association, noted that the culture of storm chasing has changed since the early days of the 1970s, altered by shows on Discovery Channel and National Geographic and by the movie Twister, which he speaks of with exasperation in his voice, even though he was a technical adviser for the 1996 film.
"It's like trying to deal with a wild lion. This is nature and they're unpredictable, even to experts," Lisius said. "The chasers that survive are the ones that adapt to that."
Even though he earns money from his exploits, Schyma tries to model his behavior after that of the old-school chasers who risked their lives for a purpose, not just for the thrill of facing a tornado, the ones who eschewed gadgets, gizmos and oversize vehicles.
He knows storm chasing is dangerous work, that it's risky to go find the beginnings of a bad storm and sit in the middle of it to see if the churning clouds above him will spill out a funnel cloud. Like all chasers, Schyma counts on being able to get out of the way when a tornado approaches. He tries to stay away from cities, where there'll be a lot of other vehicles trying to chase or outrun a storm. Still, a blown tire or a wrong turn can be a life-ending mistake, which is what makes storm chasing such an insane pursuit. And yet Schyma persists.
"You're running for your life every time. You're literally running from death," he said. "It happens so often that you start to become cocky. That's where we have to constantly remind ourselves this thing will kill you. You will die if you aren't careful."
This story originally appeared in our print edition as a sidebar to the national feature The Dark Wall: Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras's Last Ride. Check it out for the harrowing tale of the biggest tornado ever recorded.
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