14 February 2012

Chaser Profile: Rob Hurkes


1) What is your name and where do you live?
Rob Hurkes, and I live in Minneapolis, MN. Born and raised.

2) Do you have a website or a brand name that people identify you as?

I have a web site that will eventually house weather software that I've written (http://www.capbreak.com/). Eventually I'll have my blog up, but I analyze past events way too much to make good progress. At the moment it's just a single web app for displaying tornado reports (http://www.capbreak.com/StormData.aspx).

3) What got you interested in weather?

Humid summer days as a kid, playing with all the other kids in the neighborhood. Dark clouds would appear, the sirens would go off, and our parents would rush out to bring us inside. Then it was just rain and wind for a few hours. I always wanted to know what was so dangerous outside.

4) What is your favorite aspect of weather?

Supercells as a whole - they're like giant, unpredictable, living, breathing, beasts. The tornado is the prize of the day, but I love hail and cool-looking wall clouds almost as much.

5) When did you first start chasing?

I went out a few times in the early 2000s and drove into cores of tornado/severe warned storms, never to any success. My first 'real' chase that I was prepared for was 4/5/2010.

6) What do you see chasing as... a hobby or a business?

Definitely a hobby.

7) Who do you credit for getting you into chasing and what have they done to further your career?

Howie Bluestein in his socks and sandals sparked something at an early age. I would occasionally catch a PBS special or something on TV, run to get a VHS tape, and then record maybe the last 20 minutes of the show. I'd wear the tapes out, or accidentally record over them with bad 80s music videos. My then-girlfriend/now-wife bought me Jeff Piotrowski's 'Tornado Terror' in 2006 which turned it from a general interest in weather to me wanting to chase.

8) Do you have any chase partners?

I'm chase-married to James Seitz. We have absolutely nothing in common except for weather, and we bicker like a married couple. He's patient, has been chasing for something like 19 years, can read the sky like a shaman, is religious, and doesn't get along with technology. I'm pretty much the exact opposite, so we teach each other a lot.

9) What is your most successful chase?

May 21st, 2011. We didn't have data most of the day, and no one was expecting anything really good to come of the day. Saw 10 tornadoes, had a few close intercepts, got to see horiztonal vortices, and the scenery was stunning for most of the show. It was an extremely laid back chase, and we were the only chasers on our road for several of the tornadoes. The only mistake we made was getting too close to the Ada tornado. If you see the structure+tornado shot that Melanie Metz got, you'll know what I mean.

10) What is your most terrifying moment?

My first close experience with a tornado or a powerful storm was 5/10/10 Wakita, which was pretty eye opening- you don't really get storms like that in Minnesota. We ended up hook slicing (which I love doing) but on that storm it wasn't really a good idea. There was 5" hail and RFD that knocked down power lines and road signs right next to us, and I thought we were going to die. Aside from that, any time you lose control is terrifying. We made the mistake on hopping on I-80 on March 22, 2011, trying to outrun and reposition on the Desoto/Winterset tornado. Two truckers decided to block traffic from going faster than 35mph to keep people 'safe', and kept us and many others in the hail core with 1.5" hail while a tornado was just to our south tracking alongside the road.

11) About how many tornadoes have you seen?

Probably close to three dozen.

12) What do you think about people who chase for sales and the need to get up close and personal with Mother Nature?

That's fine as long as they don't affect my chasing. I'm lucky enough to have a job that gives me flexible time off and enough money to chase when I want. I personally don't want to bring money into chasing because I worry that my priorities will change, and my enjoyment of weather will suffer. Getting up close and personal is just a natural progression to me, as your skills increase. Once you feel 40mph inflow, you want to feel that 80mph inflow.

13) Describe your dream chase.

I love the terrain and scenery of South Dakota and southern Minnesota, so something in that area. Also, the lack of a circus atmosphere. It would be amazing to get a big HP beast from birth to tornadogenesis all from a single time-lapse position.

14) What is your favorite set up to chase?

Warm front setups really click in my mind, so they're fun for me. I like that the hail is usually softer and smaller on the summer HP storms, so I can play with fire a little more. They tend to look more 'evil' too. Dryline chases annoy me the most, as I don't have the patience to sit on the dryline all day, watching turkey towers go up. Also, it really sucks to bust on a dryline, because that usually means I have at least a 10 hour drive home with nothing to show for it.

15) Which state has brought you the most success? Least success?

Oklahoma has been the most successful by far, which is strange for a Minnesota chaser I think - half of my tornadoes are from Oklahoma. Minnesota and Kansas have been cruel to me. I've clawed my way to a few grungy tornadoes in Minnesota, and I have more tornadoes in Colorado(2) or Arkansas(1) than I do in Kansas(0).

16) Do you want to pursue a career in meteorology? Would you ever chase locally for a t.v station?

Nope. I'm fairly settled in my career, and it also works with chasing rather well. I don't ever want chasing to resemble a job in any way.

17) What do you see chasing as being like in 5-10 years?

Gas prices will continue to surge, so people will have more partners, and chases will be vetted much more thoroughly. I'm not really excited about any of the new technology that's coming out, because I don't see how it would improve the important aspects of today's chases.

The cancellation of 'Storm Chasers' will slow down the surge of people new to the hobby, but it also implied waning interest in weather by the public. It seems that a lot of chasers are becoming more reclusive, with groups splitting and moving to more private communication channels. I can see this being frustrating for someone looking for human advice, but if you're OK learning from a book, this is the best time ever to start chasing.

18) Despite all the deaths and destruction in 2011, are you looking forward to chasing in 2012 knowing you can run into a Tuscaloosa or Joplin?

Scenarios like that are rare enough that I don't ever expect to come across them. I tend to stay away from big cities while chasing, just because the traffic and visibility is usually horrible. After experiencing Mapleton up close and personally, I feel a lot better prepared for the next disaster scene. Key to this is knowing when to help, and when to get out of the way.

19) Is there any point in time where you had no desire to chase anymore? What caused that and what gave you the power to move on?

Mapleton's destruction took the wind out of me for a little over a week. I got in a nasty fight with my chase partner after busting on May 24, 2011 and said I never wanted to chase again. The next day I was chasing storms in Minnesota by myself, so I guess it's just a part of who I am.

20) How long do you plan on continuing chasing?

I guess I don't see an end because weather always has things to surprise you with. I can see myself in a retirement home hobbling outside when the sirens go off, fighting off the orderlies trying to sedate me and bring me inside.

21) Outside of chasing, what do you like to do?

I'm a beer snob, I like cooking, and I like computer stuff like programming, gaming, etc.

22) What kind of music do you like to listen to on the chase or in general?

My partner likes horrible music, so we don't listen to music when we chase. I love classic rock, and lean towards the more progressive bands. Pink Floyd is probably the best band ever, and the best music to chase with. This is a scientific fact (Doswell/Lemon 1988).

23) What is your favorite professional and college sports team?

What are sports?

24) Do you have a family or pets?

I've been married a few years to my wife, and I have a border collie. The dog gets incredibly upset when she sees the chasing bags/gear get loaded up.

25) Tell me 3 things that someone outside of chasing may not know you for.

1) I have severe dust allergies, so you may see me snort steroids out of a bottle while on a chase
2) I love cooking and eating Vietnamese food
3) I'm loud, obnoxious, opinionated, and joke around a lot if I know you. If I barely know you or have just met you, social anxiety usually keeps me pretty calm and reserved.

26) If you have kids or plan on having them... would you like to involve them in your chasing?

Kids are in the plans in the next few years. I'll involve them when they're old enough to be legitimately interested, and can hold their bladders. There won't be any hook-slicing, core-punching, or late-night fording of flooded roads, though.

27) Do you have a job and what do you do?

I'm a software engineer at a software company.

28) How do you feel about people who say they chase tornadoes for the sole purpose of saving lives?

There's this concept that storm chasing is heroic and does all this great science and saves lives. Yes, there are a lot of people out there that are performing real science and trying to improve public safety - this group of people can safely make the claim that they want to save lives. I don't think any of them would ever say it's their sole purpose, though. They all love weather, when you really get down to it. There is, however, another subset of people that has emerged in the last few years. They tend to spend more time working on their image than they do learning how to forecast or navigate a storm. I mean, realistically, if you ripped the top off of a Wal-mart weather station and posted some wind speeds from 10 miles NW of a possible tornado on your blog, you're not doing science and no one cares about your data. All chasers deal with 'chaser guilt', and I think this group of people doesn't have the toolset to rationalize an enjoyment of severe weather for whatever reason. So the easy answer is "I chase to save lives".

Chase however you want and for whatever reasons you want, but I personally don't see myself connecting with people that fall into the latter category at a meaningful level. If your sole purpose is to save lives - become a fire fighter, a police officer, or a doctor.

29) If there was one event in history that you wish you were around for to chase, what would it be?

I've always been obsessed with the Windsor tornado (May 22, 2008), so it would have to be that day. If you were really on your game or lucky, you could have seen the 10 or so CO tornadoes, driven for 4 hours to KS, and then still been able to make it in time for the Quinter tornado-fest. No one did this that I know of, but it's still neat thinking that it was possible.

30) Do you only chase severe weather or do you chase hurricanes and winter weather as well?

Isn't a hurricane just like RFD with palm trees? No thanks.

31) Do you go to a college or university, if so, what do you major in?

I graduated from UMN with a degree in MIS. So not weather/science related in the slightest.

32) What do you expect in 2012?

I expect my first EF-4 after narrowly missing 6-7 of them. I just hope it's in the middle of nowhere and doesn't hurt anyone, like Bowdle.

"Shut up and chase" is a good mantra that I try to follow now. I would rather see 1000 amazing storms than get recognition for a single one of them. Learning from the past is the key to future successes. Be humble, be true to yourself, and don't make compromises for things that you are passionate about.

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