The Lowcountry has its share of warm, sunny days. But there are times when Mother Nature is feeling less than matronly, and these locals have witnessed her wrath firsthand.
Story by Barry Kaufman & Photography by Lisa Staff
Given long enough, every local eventually will acquire at least one crazy storm story. If you were here for Matthew, you no doubt have your own memories of blessing the chainsaw brigade as they carved through debris so you could get home. But even beyond the maelstrom that was Matthew, we all have some story of “the big one” when Mother Nature took out her vengeance on us.
Some of us, however, have stories that are a little bigger. Their tales involve staring right into the eye of the most devastating weather events and charging toward it. Here are a few of their stories.
This award-winning meteorologist has covered several major weather events and historic storms.
For most of us, Kris Allred needs no introduction. As chief meteorologist at WSAV, she is the smiling face of Storm Team 3, ready to warn us about the next big storm system or to share good news for the upcoming weekend forecast. Nearly 15 years into her tenure at the local NBC affiliate, she not only has served as the longest-serving chief in the station’s history, she has established herself as a local icon with her practiced professionalism, thousand-watt smile and impeccable fashion sense.
“I do like to have fun with fashion,” she said with a laugh. “Viewers like to compliment you on what you’re wearing. I just try to have fun with it.”
Of course, being a meteorologist is about far more than just bringing sartorial taste to the evening broadcast. For Allred, it’s a genuine fascination with the science of weather that goes back to her upbringing in small-town Alabama. Growing up close to her grandparents, she noticed a strange phenomenon that occurred after her grandfather’s right leg was removed due to an aneurism.
“Any time the weather would change, whether it was a storm system coming in or even high pressure, he would have phantom pains,” she said. “I just thought it was so interesting, and then in high school I did a research paper on how weather can trigger people emotionally and physically.”
Her growing interest in weather led her down the only career path available to most meteorologists back then: TV. Starting in Omaha covering the always perilous conditions of tornado alley, then heading up to Michigan where lake-effect snow can turn a sunny day into a blizzard at the drop of a hat, she found herself in the Coastal Empire at the cusp of hurricane season.
“I was terrified because I knew our time was going to be up at some point, because the last storm was 1979, and David was barely a Category 1,” she said. Sure enough, she would be proven right when Hurricane Mathew roared onto our shores.
“With Matthew the best word I could use is anxious. Everybody in the building, not to mention the city government and the weather service, was nervous because no one had done something like this here. Even the experienced folks hadn’t,” she said. “When you’re on the air wall-to-wall, you’re focused on the science. The process of getting through it was exhilarating, until the reality set in when I left the building and saw all the damage.”
That sobering moment weighs heavily on Allred whenever hurricane season rears its head again.
“In many ways we lucked out. It could have been a lot worse. Now it turns to dread because you wonder, is this going to be our time?”
If it is, we can be thankful that we have a seasoned expert on our side should the worst happen.
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With storms come sacrifices
As chief meteorologist for WSAV, Kris Allred has seen her share of extreme weather situations. And while most of us need to hunker down and gather supplies, she needs to be camera-ready. As they say, the show must go on.
“There was an EF4 tornado that hit Bryan County, and I had just gotten back from spending spring break with my kids. I was so sick and could not control my coughing. We were on the air for four hours straight.”
Fours hours straight would be a long time for anyone, but it’s nothing compared with the 17 hours she spent on the air during Hurricane Matthew.
“You’re just running on pure adrenaline. I didn’t go outside because I didn’t want to see for myself, because I could get scared. And if I’m scared on TV, no one has any faith in what I’m doing,” she said. “The number one goal is to keep safe, keep people informed and keep calm.”
Of course, there are perks to being a celebrated on-air personality, like the time she was asked to fly into Hurricane Sandy with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the Hurricane Hunters of the Air Force Reserve. “I got asked the day before and had no idea what I was signing up for. I had to sign a death waiver,” she said. Thankfully, the waiver wasn’t necessary. “It was bumpy like I expected, but It wasn’t that bad.”
This fire captain is using new technology to better track and predict tornadoes.
A vacation can mean very different things to different people. You or I might dream about spending a week on some tropical island, burying our toes in the sand while a fruity drink sweats beads of cool water nearby.
Tim Walsh spends his downtime a little differently. For him time away means a trip out to the vast prairies of Kansas or Oklahoma in search of deadly twisters.
“Some people like to go fishing and hunting, I go hunting for stuff that could kill me back,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people I chase with. Some do it for a living. I just do it for a hobby. I’ll chase with them, and sometimes I’ll chase alone. You gotta get that solo time.”
The roots of this obsession lie in a viewing of the Wizard of Oz when Walsh was just 6 years old. Sitting in his New England home, watching the scene where a tornado whisks Dorothy away, he was hooked. “That’s all I wanted to see.”
Barring the occasional nor’easter, there wasn’t much in New England to satiate his thirst for serious storms, but when he moved down to the Lowcountry in 2001, his fascination with severe weather only grew. “It brought it up another notch. Up north you’re lucky to get one good storm a year. Here you get one every few days,” he said.
As a captain with Bluffton Township Fire District, keeping an eye on inclement weather is part of the job. But every spring he takes a leave of three to four weeks to pursue his passion for peril, racing across the Great Plains in search of tornadoes.
“It’s just about witnessing Mother Nature. It doesn’t always have to be a tornado,” he said. Starting in 2016 he began making regular trips out west to observe storms, posting unbelievable footage to his YouTube channel, Ghost Train. “Chasing really got me into photography, and I’m learning more and more about that,” he said. “My footage got purchased by The Weather Channel for one of their stories. I sold them 14 seconds of footage for $700, but I felt bad because some of the guys I work with, that’s their bread and butter.”
If it’s any consolation to his fellow chasers, that money is going to help Walsh invest in new technology to better track and predict tornadoes. Pulling together data from the National Weather Service, surface observations like temperature, wind and dew points, he’s hopeful he can start painting a more accurate picture of where these storms will strike.
“I’m just learning how to use them. You can pin it down to a 50-mile radius, but sometimes you might have all the ingredients, think today’s the day, and nothing happens,” he said. “It’s a chess game. That’s the rush of it.”
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It’s all about the experience
For Tim Walsh chasing storms isn’t necessarily about catching storms, something he realized with his very first trip out into the field.
“Even though I didn’t catch anything, I liked just experiencing what the chess game was like and seeing what was forecast,” he said. “The next year, seeing my first one was huge.”
It was his first trip as a storm chaser, but it was not his first experience with severe weather. That happened while he was still living up north during the legendary blizzard of 1996.
“I’m not as much into winter weather, but that was awesome,” he said. “We went to the beach. When you get storms like that, you get huge waves that come up over the wave wall. One came over, picked up my truck and pushed me across the street. It was a Subaru Brat, and two days after it died, it just started back up again. I’ve been a fan of Subarus ever since.”
There have been some close calls since the move south, starting with an Easter Day encounter that left him stunned. “We caught the third largest tornado on record in Mississippi. All we knew at the time was that it was two-and-a-quarter miles wide. That was a doozy.”
He’s even found himself caught in the eye of a tornado, as he did one time in Waynoka, Oklahoma. “That was pretty awesome. We were following on the highway, and it just started to form around us,” he said. “We got it all on film.”
Extreme weather is awe-inspiring to this lifelong storm lover.
Sometimes you can just tell from an early age.
While other kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, Benjamin McHone was watching Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel. “I was always fascinated by it,” he said.
A part-time firefighter on Fripp Island, McHone has spent the last five years as part of a tight-knit community of storm chasers. Coming from all walks of life, these people drive straight into the worst of the storm. Some do it for the rush. Some do it for the chance to help. Some, like McHone, do it for the beauty of Mother Nature at her most deadly.
“It’s more awe-inspiring than anything else. What you see on YouTube doesn’t do justice to these storms. They’re massive,” he said. “Every storm is gorgeous in its own right. It’s eye-opening.”
And every year McHone travels the country in search of their beauty, sharing his footage on his Tornado Warned YouTube page. And the stories behind that footage are harrowing, whether it’s the 2.2-mile-wide storm wall of a Mississippi tornado or the stunning views inside the eye of Hurricane Ida, his footage fascinates.
“Inside the inner eye wall of Laura was an eye-opening experience. We were sitting below the Capital One Tower in Lake Charles (Louisiana) as all the glass blew out. I lost a side window to a truck that I was driving. I had a bed cover that somehow disappeared. We were just watching vortices ripping up trees around us.”
It’s been a tremendous journey for McHone. Along the way he’s met the colorful cast of characters that make up the storm-chasing community. One such chaser was Beaufort’s Stephen Jones, who saw McHone’s South Carolina plates and struck up a conversation at a Kansas gas station. Another is Aly Walters, now his girlfriend and partner in chasing. They met at the wedding of two other chasers, who made national headlines for their proposal in front of a tornado.
“They come from all walks of life. No storm chaser has much in common with anyone else. What brings them together is the storms,” he said. “It’s a niche community, but an amazing one.”
And every once in a while McHone gets to bridge his two lives as a first responder and a storm chaser, as he did in one brutal storm in Cairo, Georgia. “When I got there, I found an elderly woman screaming for help
inside this building that had the whole front ripped off,” he said. “I ended up helping her out, patching her up and bringing her to a staging area for EMS. I’ve been relatively fortunate. There have only been a few fatal storms since I’ve been chasing. It’s a rare event.”
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Usually first on the scene
As you’d imagine, someone who has been chasing storms as fervently as Benjamin McHone has had more than a few close calls.
“Those close calls – there’s really not much of an escape,” he said. In Bassfield, Mississippi, he got caught off-guard by a 2.2-mile-wide twister that wound up clocking winds of 190 mph. “We weren’t expecting it, and it was just a giant wall of black death,” he said. “We were just able to head east about a mile to get away from it.”
As a first responder he’s had to pass up on a few of the larger storms to ensure he could keep people safe.
“During Hurricane Matthew we got recalled for that event, so I got to wave while all my storm chasing friends went by.”
Still, he’s been able to capture a few harrowing moments as hurricanes have passed through our neck of the woods. During Hurricane Elsa he was able to stay with it all the way up through its journey north.
“I had intercepted the eye of it – or as much of an eye as it had – in the Florida panhandle and followed it over to Jacksonville and up into Port Royal. When we got there I was able to help with search and rescue in Port Royal.”
That’s not uncommon for McHone, who recalls letting a storm go in Seminole, Oklahoma, so he could put his EMT expertise to use on the scene.
“That’s usually the case in these rural areas where the fire department only has so many people; storms chasers are usually the first on the scene,” he said.