Oklahoma storm chasers prepare for tornado season
As a child, Spencer Albracht always tried to catch a glimpse of severe weather and tornadoes. Fast forward a few years and you'll see nothing has changed.
Albracht, 21, of Edmond, is a storm chaser and spotter. He travels across the state to observe storms, collect data and photograph weather conditions.
“I always wanted to know what's going on. What's behind them? I'm really big on knowing how something works. That's a thing that has always thrilled me (whether) it be the kitchen stove or severe weather,” Albracht said.
Like many storm chasers, Albracht is prepared for tornado and storm season this month. Last April, Oklahoma had 50 tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.
Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist in the weather service's Norman office, said Oklahoma had 119 tornadoes in 2011, making it the second highest year in state history. The highest number was 145 twisters in 1999, he said.
“This time last year, we only had a handful,” Smith said. “It only takes one day to rapidly increase those numbers.”
This is Albracht's first season back since surgery last spring and continuing health problems. Albracht said he started noticing a change in his body last year when he lost 60 pounds and he couldn't absorb any nutrients from food.
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In May, he had surgery to remove an abnormal growth in his stomach. Then he was diagnosed in February with Crohn's disease, an illness that affects the intestines.
Even though he has to deal with the disease daily, Albracht said he hopes to chase storms this season.
“This will be my first year going forward with it. It's been my goal to be able to have the ability to go out and storm spot,” he said. “I've reinvested money into my equipment to make sure it's accurate.”
Thrill of the chase
Albracht said his interest in storms started when he was a toddler and grew throughout the years. One of the first encounters he had with a twister was when he was a third-grader in Sayre.
Albracht said his mother, who worked for an ambulance service, was called out and he was sent to a neighbor's house to take cover. Instead, he was curious and looked outside to observe the weather.
“The sky was churning. You just saw funnels and all sorts of things going on. It was a dark green, fluorescent green sky,” he said. “It was an amazing experience for me.”
More than spectators
Often, storm chasers are seen as paparazzi, waiting for a tornado to make an appearance so they can cash in on photos and video.
It's unfortunate that some chasers are interested only in that aspect, Albracht said.
“I never want to see a tornado unless it's in the middle of a pasture,” he said. “That one photo isn't worth the devastation.”
Storm chaser Derrick James, 22, of McAlester, said those type of chasers put innocent people at risk.
“I can understand chasing to save lives and research,” he said, but photo chasers just clog up the roads and make it difficult to maneuver around.
During six years of chasing, James said he's never seen a tornado hit a house, but if it did, he would do the right thing and try to help those affected by it.
“Oklahoma is mostly country. Most of the time it will be in an open field,” James said. “You have to track that and see if it does go into a populated area.”
Based on weather conditions the past year, some storm chasers predict 2012 will be a busy storm season.
Smith says it's difficult to tell at this point.
“Scientifically, I don't see anything that you could nail down that it's going to be a more active tornado season,” Smith said. “Our goal is to be ready and get people ready when it happens.”