In Search of the Perfect Storm
February 2008

by Jim Reed

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship. —Louisa May Alcott

A psychotic rain pounds the windshield. We can't see the hood of the car, much less the road. An 8-year-old boy squints for a better look at the sky through the passenger window.

The car splatters to a stop near a deserted strip mall. Water surrounds the tires. The sound of a demonic jet engine roars beneath us . . . beside us . . . above us.

"We're going to be okay," says Mom, still clutching the steering wheel, both feet on the brake. I manage a smile of forced confidence. Outside our windows, Hurricane Camille, one of the strongest tropical cyclones to directly strike the United States in the 20th century, is crossing northern Mississippi on August 18, 1969.

A mistimed return trip from a family vacation in Florida to our home in Springfield, Illinois, had placed us in the outer bands of the incredibly powerful and historic storm. Much of Mississippi was flattened. Many were killed. Among those who survived were a little boy and his single mother from the Land of Lincoln.

Mom said very little about the hurricane over the next year, but I could tell she'd been affected. She kept a closer-than-ever eye on the sky. Central Illinois weather can be very unpredictable, yielding everything from tornadoes and flooding to ice storms and blizzards.

Her behavior changed, too. For my ninth Christmas, Santa brought me a flashlight, G.I. Joe, BB gun, radio, Easy-Bake oven, football helmet, hair spray, Hot Wheels, Playboy magazine, Kodak camera, and diary. It was a young man's ultimate natural disaster kit.

On January 3, 1971, I logged my first official weather journal entry: "Today when I woke up it was raining and hail was coming down." But it wasn't hail. It was sleet. Sleet that changed over to snow—and lots of it.

But instead of fearing Illinois' newest winter storm, I embraced it. I was an avid reader, and adventures by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were fresh in my mind. Heavy snow made our yard look like another planet. Blizzard-like conditions meant no school. On snow days, friends would come over to play. We'd build frozen forts and battle the ice with our G.I. Joes. Then we'd bake homemade snacks and unfold Miss January.

Perhaps feeling guilty for having introduced me to Playboy Bunnies at such an impressionable age, during the summer of 1972, my mother encouraged me to attend church camp. I heartily resisted until a buddy whispered in my ear that boys were allowed to invite girls to campfire and vespers.

Five days and 22 chapters of the New Testament later, I found myself sitting next to Elaine Yutzy and a crackling fire at Lake Springfield Christian Assembly. As I slipped my hand into hers, she smiled. I smiled. And that's when the sirens went off, literally.

"Get the kids into the shelter!" hollered the camp leader. "It's a tornado!"

CLANG-CLANG-CLANG, the camp bell warned as lightning ripped open the night sky. Tree limbs, lawn furniture, and trash cans bounced and swirled about us as we descended into the shelter. That's when I heard it. That same demonic jet engine-like roar I had heard with my mother in Mississippi during Hurricane Camille.

After the fierce winds passed, we emerged unhurt from our holy bunker. The sky was ablaze with wriggles of magenta-colored electricity. Overhead, clouds sizzled with one lightning bolt after another. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

A few weeks later, lightning bolts seared in my head, I enrolled in an after-school photography class. It took only seconds for me to fall in love with gazing through a viewfinder. A pursuit in writing soon followed, and I began contributing to the school newspaper.

As my curiosity with photography and literature increased, so did my fascination with Hollywood, science, and disaster. 1969 through 1979 was a terrific period for a kid with an imagination and appetite for adventure: Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, voyages with Jacques Cousteau, "The Poseidon Adventure," "Jaws," "Planet of the Apes," "Earthquake," "Star Trek," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "Jonny Quest."

Even reruns of "Gilligan's Island" were filled with adventure and, perhaps more important to me, plenty of memorable storms. The minute I heard, "The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed … " I was hooked.

As a latchkey kid, I'd come home from school every day to an empty house where I would eagerly watch back-to-back episodes of the castaways fighting typhoons, high winds, and rough weather. In season two, Gilligan even gets struck by lightning and becomes invisible! The impractical but imaginative sitcom became my all-time favorite boob-tube babysitter.

Ironically, it took a Walt Disney movie to spark my first true nightmare about weather. It was a film called "The Wild Country," starring Vera Miles and Steve Forrest. The movie included a very frightening twister that hits a family in Wyoming. It was the most chilling tornado sequence I had seen on film since "The Wizard of Oz." I couldn't get the images out of my head.

From that point on, any time Springfield was under a tornado warning, I was possessed with protecting my mother. At school, I began brushing through encyclopedias in search of photos of tornadoes. I was terrified, yet obsessed.

But not obsessed enough to study meteorology formally. I was having way too much fun making films with a newly purchased Super 8 movie camera and interviewing the Beach Boys for the school paper.

As senior year in high school swiftly approached, the compass of my soul soon pointed in four distinct directions: weather, women, Hollywood, and art.

Inspired by up-and-coming moviemakers Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and George Lucas ("THX-1138," "Star Wars"), I decided to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California.

During my years at USC I frequently found myself having conversations with classmates who recurrently traveled back home for the holidays. The one subject that kept coming up was "weather." Flights cancelled due to snow. Trains delayed because of ice. Weddings interrupted by rain.

Suddenly, everyday weather felt different.

On January 4, 1981, I wrote in my journal, "I am sitting in Chicago's O'Hare Airport waiting for my flight back to L.A. I have just spent two weeks in Springfield. This trip has been the most painful. It was hard physically due to the severe change in climate. When I left Los Angeles it was 70 degrees and when I arrived in Springfield it was 6 degrees below zero."

It was a portentous sign of things to come.

During my senior year at USC I directed The Times of Rock 'n' Roll. The show was an outdoor performing arts extravaganza designed to spotlight the university's best talent during the week of the popular USC and UCLA football game. The live three-hour show was scheduled to take place on a large concert stage in the center of campus. Majors from cinema, theater, music, dance and journalism were all involved. It was even rumored that Spielberg and Lucas might attend.

Four days of freak heavy rain nearly cancelled the show. Rehearsal conditions were miserable and costly. Local weather broadcasters said it was one of the most powerful California storms in recent memory. The intensity of the event was likely being influenced by two new words that would forever change the way Americans discussed weather:

Global warming.

Simply put, our oceans and land were beginning to show hints of becoming too warm. History and records suggest that when Earth's surface temperature changes, so does our daily weather. What my classmates and I once referred to as "normal" weather was now behaving with greater surprise and ruthlessly delivered results.

The disruptive weather was also a side effect of something called El Niño—an oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific. But as I stood center stage addressing my cast and crew in a blinding downpour, I couldn't care less about an oscillation. We were soaked to the bone and our show was literally floating away—that's all I understood.

Upon graduating from Southern Cal in 1983 I was hired to associate produce the motion picture "Prime Risk" starring Lee Montgomery, Clu Gulager and Keenan Wynn. The director had seen The Times of Rock 'n' Roll. If I could put on a show like that during such troublesome weather, he thought, I should be pretty good at producing a movie. Our first day of on-location shooting in Washington, D.C., was shut down by snow.

Over the next several years I traveled the United States producing, directing, and writing music videos, TV commercials, public service announcements, even political campaign spots. Four out of every five productions were disrupted by harsh weather. Even getting to and from shoots was tough. In 1984 alone, I endured three consecutive extremely violent flights plagued by thunderstorms and lightning.

Even the West Coast was now getting in on the action. On February 9, 1989, I wrote in my journal, "This past week a freak winter storm hit southern California, causing it to snow several inches as near to L.A. as Thousand Oaks and the San Fernando Valley. It was the worst snowstorm to hit southern California in seventeen years."

Eight weeks later, it was just the opposite. On April 9 I logged the following observation: "From Tuesday through Friday our temperatures topped one hundred degrees. It was the hottest week in April in Los Angeles County history." But the West Coast wasn't the only area heating up.

Just off the Southeast coast lurked the most troublesome meteorological monster since Camille.

On the night of September 21, 1989, I watched in horror from my Los Angeles apartment as Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina. Dozens of people perished during that Category 4 storm. The hurricane maintained exceptionally violent winds all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina, its force destroying more trees than the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires combined.

Hugo was the most catastrophic storm to hit America in 30 years. And nature was just getting started. America had entered a new era of atmospheric confrontation.

On April 21, 1991, one of the largest and most ferocious tornadoes ever witnessed in the U.S. struck Wichita, Kansas, and surrounding communities. Seventeen people lost their lives during the incredible twister, and 225 were injured. The tornado, rated an F-5 on the Fujita tornado damage scale, had been packing winds in excess of 261 miles per hour, and narrowly missed hitting a billion-dollar line of fighter jets at McConnell Air Force Base.

In Los Angeles, I watched in amazement as the tornado passed directly over two Wichita photojournalists tucked beneath an interstate overpass. The video clips airing on network news channels were simply mesmerizing. I was finally convinced that something truly remarkable was occurring—and that's when I had my epiphany.

I had been pointing my camera in the wrong direction; I should be focusing on the sky.

Albert Einstein said, "Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better." It's one of my favorite quotes. With those words of wisdom in mind, I set out to document America's wild weather and changing climate in pictures and writings.

On June 27, 1992, I moved to Oz.

I chose Wichita, Kansas, as my base camp because of location, topography, and people. Sedgwick County is close to the geographic center of the contiguous U.S. The vast rolling plains make it easier for me to photograph the sky. And the Central Plains are home to some of the brightest and most accomplished weather forecasters and climate researchers in the business.

Over a 15-year period, I logged more than a quarter million miles photographing storms across more than 2,000 U.S. counties and parishes. The following pages chronicle some of my most memorable storm chases, cross-country adventures, and unexpected revelations during my Einstein-inspired journey. I hope you enjoy the voyage; as with any successful storm chase, the discoveries you make are up to you.

© Jim Reed

Jim Reed is one of America's most successful and award-winning weather photographers in an era when global climate is changing. A veteran full-time storm chaser and writer, Jim has spent nearly two decades documenting almost every type of meteorological phenomena —including tornadoes, blizzards, electrical storms, and 15 hurricanes. In 2005, he documented the direct landfall of Hurricane Katrina 70 yards from the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi. In 2004, he penetrated the eye of five consecutive land-falling hurricanes. In 2002, he was hired by 20th Century Fox to lead a special-effects crew into two hurricanes to capture footage for the motion picture "The Day After Tomorrow," starring Dennis Quaid.

In Jim's most recent book, "Storm Chaser: A Photographer's Journey," a picture book about some of the most powerful—and sometimes deadly—phenomena in our world, Jim shares his best images and his experiences as he tracks these storms throughout the country. Based in Wichita, Kan., Jim logged close to a million road miles across five U.S. time zones and more than 2,000 counties to capture the images featured in the book.

His images have appeared in countless publications, including National Geographic, The New York Times and Time magazine, and he has written weather-related stories for Scientific American, Popular Science, Weatherwise and Men's Journal. Jim's work has been recognized by American Photo, Lucie Awards, MSNBC Pictures of the Year, National Press Photographers Association, PDN Photo Annual, Pictures of the Year International, and the Writer's Guild of America.

To read Jim Reed's harrowing account of covering Hurricane Katrina, click on the link to his Sept. 2005 DJ Dispatch: