Please enjoy our interview Gabriel (Gabe) Cox of Tornado Trackers.
What first got you interested in Tornadoes?
I’ve had an obsession with dark skies for as long as I can remember. My parents have a photo of me at 3 years old; I am asleep outside on the lawn after having spent hours watching the clouds. Apparently it was a common occurrence and, no doubt, the start of my love for the sky.
That transitioned into a full-on obsession with tornadoes when, as a kid, I heard reports on the news of towns being struck by these incredibly powerful storms. It just completely blew my mind that a cloud could turn into this larger-than-life force to be reckoned with.
I think the mystery surrounding them also peaked my interest and no amount of books or VHS tapes could satisfy my curiosity. My childhood room was a weather museum filled with posters, tracking charts, tornado experiments… really anything storm related.
How did you become interested in storm chasing?
Even though I had this full-blown obsession with tornadoes as a kid, it wasn’t until 1995 (when I was in fifth grade) that I was made aware of this group of people called, storm chasers.
It was a National Geographic special called ‘Cyclone’ which aired on TV that introduced me to the idea that people could chase storms… and sometimes even get paid to do it! I knew on that day what I was going to do with my life.
How did you get into chasing?
For me, the journey into storm chasing was a less conventional route. I knew in fifth grade what I wanted to do, but after graduating high school with less than stellar math SAT scores and being denied by meteorology programs in several colleges, I questioned my path towards a life of storm chasing. I began realizing that I was right-brain dominant (majorly).
That made me suitable for more creative endeavours, but it left me struggling with anything revolving around analytics or mathematics, which makes up the majority of meteorology. So I thought the dream had hit a dead end and I pursued a career in my other passion, film making, instead. Unknowingly, this set me up for storm chasing in more ways than one.
How long have you been chasing?
I’ve been chasing storms since the first day I got my license. Having grown up in Maine it mainly consisted of sub-severe thunderstorms or blizzards. My first tornado encounter was actually while I was twenty one, working for a small independent film company in Jacksonville, Florida in 2009. I was sitting at my desk, facing the St. John’s River that runs through downtown, and noticed a funnel like shape above the tree line.
I hoped on my bicycle and rode towards the river. Sure enough, a large waterspout was sitting 1/4 mile away from me. After it dissipated, and I had ridden back to the office, a second waterspout ended up moving onshore and directly over our building. It was my first tornado and my first opportunity to document one. It reawakened my determination to somehow make storm chasing part of my life.
Why do you do chase?
I really don’t think I could NOT chase. Before I could drive, I was chasing storms on foot with my point-and-shoot camera in the field across from the house I grew up in, letting storms roll in towards me while I watched wide-eyed. As soon as I got my license I was out chasing any cloud with a dark base. For me, there’s something intrinsic about it.
There’s always been a fascination. For a time, after I got married and had kids, I tried to tuck it away and bury it in the “I’m responsible now” folder of my mind. But I lucked out and married an amazing woman who called my bluff and pushed me to go out whenever I could. And I’m so glad she did! The feeling of being under a massive supercell, in close proximity to a tornado, or surrounded by the screaming winds of a hurricane are indescribable.
For me, storms are my cathedral; a place to experience awe and wonder but also to be reminded of my place in the world and to be humbled. There’s no way to fully describe the sensation of it.
Do you do it for fun or do you have a purpose?
It’s interesting that you chose the word “purpose”. There’s been a real journey for me revolving around that word. By nature, storm chasing is fun for me. I’m instantly 10 years old jumping up and down any time I’m under a storm and watching lightning streak across the sky. Part of why I’m out there is to share what I see with people who are, like I was for so many years, unable to experience that beauty and raw power for themselves. But then there are moments when storm chasing is not fun.
Like when I ran into a mile-wide damage path before first responders had arrived, or when I watched neighbourhoods being torn apart by a Category 5 Hurricane. That’s when the reality of what can happen when these beautiful monsters interact with humanity hits hard and I have to recon with why I’m out there in the first place. Enter: purpose. I’m not a scientist or meteorologist.
I’m not out to study how storms form. I’m there because something deep inside pushes me to be there. There’s been a massive amount of guilt coming home after some storms, where I drive away from communities who have lost everything and return to my family. Hurricane Harvey was a breakthrough moment for me though. I decided to sit that storm out. I had a gut feeling that I wasn’t supposed to go, and I’ve learned to never second guess those moments. But in observing the storm from the outside, I noticed something amazing.
In the aftermath of the storm, the one thing that moved people from across the world to act in kindness to the victims of the storm were images. Photographs and videos were being shared across every available platform and the response from people was empathy, love, and generosity. It’s not really a hidden secret that images can be used to influence people, but for me it was an epiphany as to how important capturing those moments can be. That’s a huge reason I now often refer to myself as a weather journalist.
It’s suffice to say you must have been in some close calls. Have you ever been hit?
I have had two really close calls. The first was a rain-wrapped tornado that formed on the leading edge of a squall line at dusk. My chase partner and I pulled off the road immediately when we noticed rotation on radar.
The blinding rain and fading light made it impossible to see, but within a minute I saw the rain curtains quickly shift directions and knew to hold on. The tornado moved directly over us, rocking the car back and forth, and it was over in a split second. We were extremely lucky that it was very weak, otherwise our car would have easily been tossed.
The second close call was in Canton, TX during the April 29, 2017 outbreak. Through a series of unfortunate events, my car ended up in a flooded ditch with me alone and no way to communicate or receive information. The last radar scan and report I had seen showed a confirmed rain-wrapped mile-wide tornado heading towards me.
I was convinced I was going to die that day and filmed a goodbye video to my wife and kids. Miraculously, the tornado turned north and then north-northwest causing it to miss my location by just over a quarter of a mile when it was at it’s widest and strongest point (EF-4). Had I not slid into the ditch, I likely would have blindly driven into it after losing my means of communication and radar.
Two other tornadoes moved near my location while I was stuck; one lifting just to my south and the other (an EF-3) tore through Canton less than two miles to my east. It was definitely a day I won’t soon forget and, as is the case with every chase, it was a learning experience.
Last question we have to ask… Do you ever fear for your life?
The close calls I wrote about above are truly the only times where I have feared for my life, and they proved to be invaluable lessons for our chase team. There have been moments of concern over my safety, but not to the extent that I’ve feared the worst like in those two instances.
For the most part, fascination and excitement are the dominant feelings when I’m out chasing. With the proper experience and precautions, storm chasing can be a safe and enjoyable endeavour. There is certainly always the risk of danger (lightning strikes for one *shiver*), but those risks can be minimized with education and safe practices.
Thanks to Gabe for taking the time out to talk to us. Links for Tornado Trackers website, Facebook and other social media outlets can be found below.