Local Storm Chaser Risks Life For The Perfect Shot

photo by Hank Schyma
As hurricane season is warming up, another season, the tornado one is winding down. Peak season is April, May and June. While most people take cover at the sound of a tornado emergency alert, Houstonian storm chaser Hank Schyma takes to the road.

If you’re unlucky enough to get caught in a weak tornado, it would sound something like this …

"I’m escaping the tornado. Its right next to me … oh god, here we go. This is the tornado. Oh god, oh help me …"

That’s storm chaser Hank Schyma, scrambling desperately in his 4Runner to escape a mile wide F1 tornado in Cooperton, Oklahoma earlier this year.

office
Hank Schyma's storm office

The tornado literally chased him down the road. It’s hard to imagine Schyma in that situation as he sits in the safety of his home in Midtown surrounded by cameras and maps, the tools of his storm chasing. But here’s how it happened:

"The tornado just did this freak figure eight maneuver and it was like your worst nightmare. I kept moving out of its way and it kept changing direction, it would not stop chasing me. The whole things on video."

On YouTube to be exact, because Schyma recorded the entire thing on his iPhone. That’s what he does in peak tornado season. He’s a professional storm chaser and he’s good at it.

"But still, I’m an idiot. I got hit by a tornado."

Well most of the time. You see the closer Schyma gets to the twister, the better the pictures and videos. Those videos are then sold to local TV stations, or The Weather Channel. He’s been chasing storms for ten years and has caught 48 tornadoes on camera and video. But why chase them?

"I got involved with storm chasing the same reason anybody got involved with anything, for some reason there was a pull towards it. My thoughts as a child, were in my lifetime, because I live in Texas, there’s a good chance I might see one tornado if I watch every thunder storm that passes through."

As a result of watching those storms Schyma can now pretty much tell which ones will produce a tornado.

"The majority of the violent tornadoes are these breed of thunderstorms called super cells and what they do is they rotate because of the conditions in the atmosphere the entire thunderstorm is spinning."

Schyma’s not drawn in by the adrenalin rush of storm chasing, he’s just mesmerized by the look of the twister itself.

"They’re devastating; they’re beautiful; they’re terrible; they’re incredible and most of them don’t hit anything."

But when they do, they can be pretty destructive. That’s never a good storm chasing day.

"You don’t want to see that ruins your whole day and you can’t chase the tornadoes because soon as you see it hit something, you’ve gotta stop and help the people days over, now you’re part of the search and assist team. It changes your elation to just disgust."

As tornado season winds down, Schyma plans to go back to his other career, as lead singer of local Houston band The Southern Backtones. But that doesn’t mean he ever takes his eyes off those storm clouds across the U.S., and should a worthwhile tornado appear, he’ll be back on that road.   

"It’s so much fun and it’s so rewarding. Just as long as I can keep doing it, that’s all I care about." 

You can find pictures and videos of Houston storm chaser Hank Schyma’s tornadoes here www.southernbacktones.net. Scroll to the bottom for tornado footage. 

Bio photo of Edel Howlin

Edel Howlin

Producer, Houston Matters

Edel is a producer on Houston Matters and reporter for PBS’s Newshour Weekend...