A Storm Chaser's View of Typhoon Haiyan

By Julian Morgans

People pick through homes destroyed by Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo courtesy iCyclone

Most people weren’t considering a trip to the Philippines last week. The country was locked down as Typhoon Haiyan chewed up island communities throughout the Pacific and roared toward Tacloban, where it would claim an estimated 2,500 lives. But for storm chasers, this devastation made the Philippines their number-one destination.

The iCyclone team flew into Manila last Thursday. Jim Edds, the one-man action movie from ExtremeStorms.com, was already there. Although they weren’t working together, but the two parties represented the small, overwhelmingly male community of storm chasers who spend big bucks to huddle in hotel rooms during terrifying storms. They’re not usually meteorologists or journalists (though they do document their experiences), they’re just guys who do this for kicks. I can see the attraction to that lifestyle, but for the victims of these natural disasters who would really, really prefer not to be in the path of storms, the storm chasers' hobby likely comes off as extremely insensitive. I called Josh Morgerman, the Los Angeles–based storm chaser of more than 20 years who heads up iCyclone, and asked him if he feels like an insensitive jerk.

The iCyclone team. Josh is in the middle.

VICE: Are you an insensitive jerk?
Josh Morgerman:
Well look, there are people who think what we do is insensitive, or that we’re putting ourselves needlessly in danger, but the way I look at it is that these things are going to happen anyway and they need to be documented. It’s important that there are people on the ground, shooting pictures, recording data, and telling that story. There were four of us chasing that storm and now we’ve all been bombarded with media requests because the world wants to know what happened. We also ended up helping lots of people in our hotel escape. People were trapped in their rooms by the storm surge and we broke them out of the windows. We always help where we can.

But you were airlifted out by the military. Isn’t that a waste of resources?
Again, no. They were flying C-130s in with supplies and flying out empty so they were taking media and people who wanted to get out. The plane was like a big empty compartment with room for other people, so no, we don’t feel like we were wasting resources.

How did you know about the storm?
We actually knew about it for weeks. The storm was modeled very accurately using a computer model called the GFS (Global Forecast System). Every time the data was run it would show this scenario, so I was getting ready to go about a week before. It was on track to [hit] the central Philippines and I got a ticket to Manila. I met up with my colleagues James and Mark a day before and then we got a driver down to Tacloban.

How do you get in to areas that are presumably battening down the hatches?
It depends on the region. For example, Western Australia is one of the most tightly controlled areas in the world. As soon as there’s a red alert you have to stay put otherwise you’re going to get a major fine. I noticed that in East Asia you can basically do what you want, and that doesn’t just include the Philippines, that’s also Japan. The US is kind of a middle ground, depending on the state. Haiyan was pretty easy to chase. We had a driver from a Manila, but we sent him home the day before the typhoon.

So what was the scene when you arrived?
We were originally going to ride the typhoon in a waterfront resort, but we arrived and decided it was just too dangerous. We told everyone as we left, and especially the staff, not to stay, but there was a general nonchalance about how dangerous it would be. We got the impression that the locals just didn’t comprehend the magnitude of what was coming. I’m not sure if that was a lack of warning. Anyway, we checked out and we made the right choice because that place got destroyed and the residents barely made it out alive.

The hotel where the iCyclone team stayed

The next hotel was a very big, heavy building. As the typhoon approached there was actually very little weather. It was just kind of drizzling and a little breezy and then it started out very suddenly about 6:30 and rapidly escalated. It was just like being inside a tornado, with this swirling whiteness and a roaring noise like a train. We were in a concrete building and it was trembling as wreckage from other buildings slammed into us at tremendous speeds. The windows were exploding into the rooms, and then, at the height of the storm, the bay rose up and swept through the first story of the building like a tsunami. It happened so fast that residents in the bottom floor were trapped in their rooms and we had to do search and rescue. My colleague, Mark, ripped his leg open on a piece of wreckage. It was a very serious injury, down to the bone, and he’ll be in hospital for a week to reconstruct his leg.

The escape from the hotel. Photo courtesy of Earth TV

This sounds horrible. Why would you do this?
Well, I find hurricanes very beautiful. The way they look, the way they sound, the feeling of being in them, the satellite imagery, they’re just very beautiful creations to me. Keep in mind hurricanes, tornados, volcanoes, all these things that inflict misery on people—they’re not evil things, they’re just parts of the Earth and people get in the way.

Does your wife or mother feel the same way?
I have a very, very worried Jewish mother. She doesn’t really understand so she’s always the first call I make, otherwise I get in a lot of trouble.

Josh, grimacing and filming. Photo courtesy Scott Brownfield

How connected are you with other storm chasers?
We all know each other but everyone does their own thing. You don’t want to be where other storm chasers are because you all want your own unique perspective and experience on the storm. I’m usually more of a solitary chaser.

So what did Tacloban look like when you left?
A lot of it was just completely flattened, like blocks had just been bulldozed by tsunamis. Other parts had been flooded so there were cars piled on top of each other. The wind had also ripped all the leaves of the trees so the city had a cold, wintery look about it. Like winter in Canada where the trees are all just sticks.

The post-typhoon wreckage. Photo courtesy of iCyclone

Now that you’re back at home, what did it all mean to you?
Meteorological aspects aside, it was disturbing and upsetting. The human misery element was so vivid and it gave me a real perspective on my own situation and issues. Even before the typhoon the people in the area around Tacloban lived very meager lives. Seeing them now dealing with this was just awful, but at the same time I think it’s an important experience for anyone from a wealthy country.

So would you do it again?
Yes. I’ll expect I’ll probably be doing this for another 25 years, or at least while I’m able-bodied. You need to be fit with a hobby like this.

Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian

More on natural disasters:

Soul on Fire

The Destruction of Breezy Point

Lost in the Flood: New Jersey After Sandy

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