02 February 2012

Chaser Profile: Zach Elliott


1) What is your name and where do you live?

My name is Zach Elliott, and I live in Norman, OK.

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

Yes, my chase partner Stephen Jones and I run weatherstorm.net together. We have a website as well as a Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook presence where we share news, blogs, etc. Stephen started the page many years ago as his own personal website, and then we just decided it was a cool domain name for us to start our chasing site.

3) What got you interested in weather?

I don’t think there was a particular event that sparked my interest in weather, I guess growing up in the Midwest, you’re constantly surrounded by wild weather and I started to get interested in tornadoes and severe weather at an early age.  When I was 8 years old, all I wanted for Christmas was a NOAA Weather Radio and weather books.  I had a large collection of VHS tapes that featured tornadoes, from Nat Geo specials, to DirectTV Pay Per View specials on tornadoes (Tornado videos on PPV? Awesome!). My interest started to wane in High School as I started to look at other career choices, mostly in engineering. Then after Greensburg in 2007, my interest in weather (and in particular storm chasing) piqued again. Then in 2008 a tornado struck in Soldier, KS, only about 20 miles from my house, leaving a fatality. After this event I knew that weather was my calling. I constantly researched weather in High School and always went nuts when there was any sort of severe weather risk.

4) What is your favorite aspect of weather?

Well obviously severe weather is a favorite of mine, but I also really like winter weather. Again, growing up in the Midwest, especially in NE Kansas, we got a ton of snow growing up, and even ice storms. Waking up in the morning and seeing a fresh coat of snow on everything is one of my favorite things in the world.

5) When did you first start chasing?

My first chase was April 5th, 2010 in Southern Kansas near Wichita. Completely marginal day that ended being a blue sky bust.  I had no idea that I’d end up chasing my freshman year of college.

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

As of right now, it’s definitely a hobby. I do have a broker and we do have a web presence, but I don’t chase for money. My top priority when chasing is getting good tripoded HD video for the web later, and not necessarily getting video up fast for money. I have two part time jobs that provide me with my income for living, and so chasing is merely just a way to spend that income, I don’t care if I make a buck chasing in 2012, I just want to enjoy it while I can.

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

Well, I would say that Reed Timmer was the first exposure that I got to real storm chasing. Finding his videos on Youtube really got me interested in chasing.

8) Do you have any chase partners?

Yes, my freshman year I got a random Facebook friend request from another incoming OU Meteorology Freshman, Stephen Jones. We started talking and eventually started meeting up and he taught me about forecasting, because I knew absolutely nothing about forecasting and targeting.  Shortly after meeting for the first time, we went on my first chase. We’ve been best friends ever since and have traveled thousands of miles together. We make a really good team and the dynamics between the two of us have led us to great success on multiple occasions.

9) What is your most successful chase?

Definitely November 7th, 2011 in SW Oklahoma. The forecasting for that day was definitely easy by comparison to other days, but the decisions we made early in the chase really sealed the deal for us and helped to get us in the perfect position. We ended up getting “played” by the first storm that went up across the river and went West of Altus, so we had to rush back east. We saw the Tipton tornado in it’s final stages from the highway before we turned south, and then once we turned south, we were able to sit in one place and watch the entire storm just rotate and start lowering and then drop a beautiful tornado. Sitting there watching that storm drop a tornado reminded me why I chase and how important timing can be. We ended up following that storm through the Wichita Refuge and seeing it again when it got close to Fort Cobb. Over the course of the day we saw 6 out of the 8 confirmed tornadoes that day.

10) What is your most terrifying moment?

April 8th, 2011 we were chasing in Northern Oklahoma with Colt Forney, Kevin Rolfs, and Scott Peake and we had a decent night when a storm blew up near the OK/KS border and we shot north. We watched the storm drop a cone tornado and then we followed it into Ponca City, OK.  We got far enough ahead of it and we saw on radar that it was dying, so we stopped at a smoke shop and hung out under the front porch of the shop. We were out there for about 10 minutes (not looking at radar) and didn’t realize the storm was beginning to rotate again.  We were joking around as the storm got closer and we noticed the wind was shifting around quite a bit, we convinced ourselves it was just RFD, but after the power went out, we heard an ominous roar. Stephen walked around to the north edge of the building and screamed “TORNADO” we went around and saw in the lightning a tornado about 100 yards to our north. That moment, although we were safe in our location, was the most scared I’ve ever been while chasing.

11) About how many tornadoes have you seen?

17 tornadoes over two years.

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

I think if they want to do that, then it’s their own prerogative. It’s not my cup of tea, but if they want to get up close just for video sales, go right ahead. I think a tornado from ½ mile away is much more beautiful and more worth it to me than 50 yards away.

13) Describe your dream chase.

Drive to target zone the night before, wake up (sleeping in) in the morning and see that data suggests you’re in the middle of the prime area. Have a nice lunch and then right after lunch a supercell goes up about 5 miles south of our location. The road network is a paved grid and we follow the storm as it drops multiple tornadoes over a long distance, not hitting anything.  The chase is over by sundown,  and  we just happen to find a steakhouse open past 8pm to enjoy a steak with fellow chasers. That’d be my perfect chase.

14) What is your favorite set up to chase?

I honestly don’t feel like I’ve been chasing enough to determine my “favorite” type of setup. I think I’ll need a few more years under my belt before I can determine what yields the best chase for me.

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

Oklahoma has brought me the most success. I’ve seen 7 tornadoes, 1 on May 10th, 2010 and then 6 on November 7th, 2011. It’s a tie between Kansas and Texas for my least success. Those two states have been examples where I’ve chased but not seen a tornado.

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

Well, I’m currently attending OU majoring in Meteorology, but with a minor in GIS. My future plans will probably not be a job that focuses 100% on Meteorology, but be a mix of GIS and Meteorology and maybe Computer Systems. I don’t plan on doing any sort of forecasting job, as I just don’t enjoy forecasting day to day weather. I would consider chasing for a local TV station, as long as I had some say in where I chase. I don’t know how I’d feel about someone telling me where I should go.

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

I think because of the cancellation of Storm Chasers and the rising fuel costs, I think the traffic jams of the past may be eliminated. I forsee a lot of people who just chased because they saw it on TV not chasing anymore, but the people who are out there who have a true passion for it will continue to chase. I also forsee more competition for video sales and live stream sales, people getting even closer in order to get that stream on the news.

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?

Yes, the death and destruction in Joplin and Tuscaloosa is horrible, but I understand that as long as large cities are in tornado-prone areas, situations like that may happen again. I am completely content with stopping chasing to help out a destroyed town as long as I’m needed. I plan on getting first aid training at some point so I know how to properly take care of the injured until emergency personnel can get to the scene.

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.

No, I have not ran into that yet.

20) How long do you plan on continuing chasing?

As long as tornadoes exist, I plan on chasing.

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

I enjoy working on cars and collecting vintage Mac computers. I enjoy spending time outdoors and spending time at the lake.

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

-I generally listen to new rock and alternative. My favorite band is the Foo Fighters.

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

-I don't watch sports at all, so I have no preferences.

24) Do you have a family or pets?

-No family yet, but I do have a 3 year old Corgi named Toby.

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

-I drive a Station Wagon
-I did a lot of astronomy in high school and am still very interested in it, hoping to see a solar eclipse on May 20th, 2012.
-I spend most of my free time at school or work using Google Maps and virtually travelling.

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

-I plan to have kids eventually, once i'm graduated and get financially secure, and I do plan on introducing them to chasing at some point, probably when they're old enough to appreciate the power and beauty.

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

-I actually have two jobs, I work as a Mesonet Operator for the Oklahoma Climatological Survey and I also work for Weather Decision Technologies as a Support Specialist.

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

-I think it's pointless. Are you really going to drive thousands of miles just to call in reports? I think a lot of people use the "Saving lives" line just to justify chasing to people who may not like them doing it, or just want to feel good about themselves.

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

-Probably the 1966 Topeka Tornado. It was only one tornado, but that tornado is a big interest of mine and I would have loved to see it in person.

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

-Winter Weather, not so much. I'm not gonna drive hundreds of miles just to film snow. Hurricanes it would depend on strength and if I had the time. I wouldn't drive out to the East Coast for another Irene, it would have to be a substantial landfall for me to justify going.

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

-Yes, University of Oklahoma with a major in Meteorology and a minor in GIS.

32) What do you expect in 2012?

-I expect less chasing because of school and work, but I plan to work hard in school and get better grades, and also spend a lot of time with my wonderful girlfriend Monica.

*May 10th, 2010 Yukon, Oklahoma tornado... his first photographed tornado

November 7th, 2011 - Snyder, Oklahoma tornado

What Zach has to say:

When I started college I had no idea that I would be thrust into the world of storm chasing so quickly, but it’s been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve met a lot of amazing people while chasing and that really keeps me going. My family has been very supportive of me and my mom and brother have even went chasing with us in Iowa on April 9th, 2011 and saw tornadoes with us.  While I know I can’t chase every setup and see every tornado, I feel so blessed and fortunate that I’m able to get out just a few times a season, and I’m also fortunate to have a great friend and chase partner, Stephen, who’s helped me realize how awesome storm chasing is and how much I want to keep doing it in the future. 

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