A tale of the chase: the Hattiesburg tornado

February 13, 2013

Technology

John Sibley

John Sibley

It is one of the lasting images of the recent Hattiesburg tornado.

Almost a half-million people have clicked on the 5 and-a-half-minute YouTube video of a stormchaser racing down Hardy Street, only to be cutoff by an EF4 tornado as it plows into the south side of the University of Southern Mississippi campus.

Harrowing, awe-inspiring and scary.

But for John Sibley, that drive down Hardy Street was his passion. “I love chasing,” Sibley, 27, said Tuesday from his Mobile, Ala., home.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm developed over Marion County near Pickwick and tracked into western Lamar County before lifting. It reappeared in northern Lamar County, producing the tornado that touched down west of Oak Grove and tracked through Hattiesburg and Petal before ending in Perry County. It left 82 people injured. About 570 homes and mobile homes were damaged or destroyed. About 100 apartments were left uninhabitable.

Sibley’s day started near Brookhaven as the storm came through central Mississippi. There were several tornado warnings during early afternoon, but nothing that seemed promising for video. Then he spotted the storm developing in Louisiana.

“It was a small super cell, and we watched it closely on radar because we wanted to make sure it was going to do something,” said Sibley. “It was about 20 minutes away from me, but there was another storm to my west.

During this time, he was staying in touch with Brett Adair, a fellow storm chaser with the Live Storms Now network in Birmingham who was helping direct him.

“When it was south of Columbia, we heard a report of damage. At that point we went that direction,” said Sibley. “It was about two miles south of Highway 98 when I saw the wall cloud front of me.”

“I remember saying to Brett, ‘the wall cloud is getting closer, closer — oh shoot, it’s turning.’

The turn took it parallel to U.S. 98, and on a direct path to the USM campus.

“I always try to stay on the east side of a tornado, because that’s the best line of sight,” said Sibley. “But this was a low-precipitation super cell. This was a textbook Kansas supercell.”

Now Sibley is heading east on U.S. 98 with the storm on his right, trying to watch it and the road.

“And I’m just trying to keep my camera on it,” he said. “If I can keep the camera on it, then the weather service and other outlets will see it on our online website.”

As the image streamed on the livestormsnow.com website, even The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore took notice with a tweet: “Watching John Sibley’s stream with a large tornado on the ground!!”

“I heard about that,” said Sibley. “That’s was great that he mentioned us.”

Unlike many amateur videos, Sibley said few words during his video. “Emotionally, you have to treat storm chasing like a combat zone.” And Sibley knows about combat zones. He is an Iraq War veteran and also volunteers with the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that shows respect at funerals of fallen American soldiers.

When he arrived at the Hattiesburg debris field, he stopped to offer aid, which is normal for storm chasers.

“I spent seven years in the military with a medevac unit,” he said. “I told the responders I was experienced, but they said they had things under control.

“What you can’t see in the video is that two ambulances and a fire truck were riding right beside me, waiting for the storm to clear the area on Hardy Street. They were right there within 45 seconds of the storm hitting.”

Sibley and four others form the LiveStormsNow network. “Brett is sort of our incognito leader and his wife Rachel helps with the marketing and gets our videos to the networks.

“I started this in 2001 as a hobby, and I’ve just been doing this so long I’ve just got a knack for it.” He is currently using the GI Bill to pursue a meteorology degree at the University of South Alabama.

“I work at other jobs, and I use what I make chasing to break even, and I don’t have a lot of sophisticated equipment. All I have in my truck is a used laptop and my cameras.”

He also freelances videos in other area, such as sports and news and special events.

“We upload the film, then Rachel offers it to the networks and they look at it,” he said. “We put low resolution version out on YouTube for the general public. So if you see the pixilated low-resolution version on television, then you know they ripped it off.”

He would not disclose amounts, but said the prices vary per event. “A large weather event will pay more than a hailstorm,” he said.

So do the images ever mentally resonate with him after a day of chasing?

“I try not to think about it,” he said. “That’s when it can get to you. I saw the Hattiesburg video, only to make sure it uploaded properly, but I haven’t really watched it. And I don’t read the comments online, because a lot of people don’t like what I’m doing.”

Sibley calls the Hattiesburg tornado one of his top three chase outings, alongside the 2009 Murfreesboro, Tenn., tornado in 2009 and the 2007 twister in Enterprise, Ala.

“Enterprise was not that impressive at a distance, but when it hit that high school it was pretty bad,” Sibley said of the tornado that killed eight students at Enterprise High School.

Two people died in the EF4 Murfreesboro tornado, but it was by far the closest encounter Sibley has had.

“We were stopped on the interstate, when all of a sudden the tractor trailer next to us disappeared,” said Sibley. “We said ‘oops, here’s the tornado.’ ” The truck was actually blocked from view by the heavy rain and edge of the tornado. “The edge of the tornado was about 15 feet from our vehicle.”

But what about the impressive outbreak of April 27, 2011?

“I was in Baghdad, deployed for a year,” he said. “I was up at 4 a.m. watching the CNN feed and saying ‘Wow, look at that one.’ I was kicking myself for missing that one, but my commanding officer reminded me that I was doing something much more important.”

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