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Chasing Storm Chasers

Early in the morning of November 8, 2013, an hour before dawn, the city of Tacloban in Leyte suffered the wrath of a super typhoon. With strong winds harnessed from the Pacific, Yolanda hurled gigantic waves across the land, destroying everything in its path.

A Weather Radar Station stands undestroyed in Sapao in Guian, Eastern Samar. (Courtesy: Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon)

Robert Quinto and Alvin Pura, who were a long way from their Manila office in PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration), arrived in Tacloban, seeing nothing but darkness. When the sun came up, daylight revealed the truth: a ruined city filled with collapsed structures and corpses laid out in the streets.

Pura recalled his experience. “Walking around the area, you can already smell the corpses. It was my first time to see dead bodies. Some were covered by fallen galvanized iron sheets.”

After three days, their colleague Wilfredo Tuazon came to help. Armed with leveling instruments, he sought to find out the height of the surge that engulfed the area. Along with other men whose job it was to study the storm, they chose to go straight to where the action happened.

Courtesy: Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon)

Tempest Trackers

Working in PAGASA for 33 years now, Quinto started as a member of PAGASA’s natural disaster risk reduction branch or the Typhoon Moderation Group before becoming the team coordinator of the bureau’s chasers. “Our work was mainly on disasters,” he said. “And then from then on, I got involved in several natural calamities, especially tropical cyclones.”

Robert Quinto, team coordinator of the PAGASA Storm Chasers; 33 years in service.

When he was child, Quinto never imagined he would be a weather specialist because he came from a family of soldiers. He graduated with an engineering degree and was referred by a family friend to PAGASA. “This is my first job, and hopefully, will be the last.”

Also an engineering graduate, Tuazon spent two years in PAGASA’s engineering division before signing up for the weather bureau’s in-house meteorologist training course in order to become a weather specialist.

Wilfredo Tuazon, one of the team leaders of the Storm Chasers; 28 years in service at PAGASA.

Almost 28 years in service now, Tuazon began chasing storms in 2011. He was part of a group assigned to assess the height of storm surges through interviews and measurements. He was recruited to the team when he was sent to investigate a tornado that brewed over Quezon City since there were no available chasers at that time.

Meanwhile, Pura graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Physics in 2010 and landed a job in PAGASA around the same year. His curiosity about the weather can be traced back to his childhood in Bicol, where he often heard his father explaining about wind direction and its connection to the proximity of a typhoon. “Because Bicol is prone to tropical cyclones, my father used to say that if the wind comes from the mountainside, the typhoon is going farther. He is a fisherman so he needs to know the conditions of the sea and the wind.”

Alvin Pura, nine years in service at PAGASA and a Storm Chaser for seven years.

The winds must have carried his aspirations; these blew his sail towards the shore of meteorology, allowing him to become the youngest storm chaser of PAGASA.

Tracing the Roots of Storm Chasing

In the 1980s, PAGASA began deploying its people in typhoon hotspots to gauge the extent of damage brought by storms. The product of that project is an important weather bulletin stating the possible extent of damage under each Public Storm Warning Signal.

It was only in the 1990s when this team of storm spotters was named STRIDE, short for the Severe Tropical Weather Disturbance Reconnaissance, Information Dissemination, and Damage Evaluation. Quinto and the rest of the team thought that both the acronym and its full name lacked charismatic impact.

Years passed and eventually, they changed the name. “When our chairman suggested the name ‘storm chaser,’ it’s somewhat different. When you heard the name, you already know that it is PAGASA,” Robert narrated.

Storm Chasers in Guian, Eastern Samar. Courtesy from Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon)

The Nature of Chasing

Storm chasing, in its simplest sense, is pursuing any severe weather condition to assess the damage it has caused.

In foreign countries, storm chasers range from curious individuals to meteorologists; some just want to document the unpredictability and beauty of tornadoes, while others seek to understand and study weather phenomena. In the Philippines, only employees of PAGASA who have undergone the meteorology training course are qualified to chase typhoons and further explain their nature and effects to the public. Regardless of the motive, storm chasers have but one ultimate goal—to get closer to typhoons.

The PAGASA storm chasers are basically tasked to observe the typhoon on the field and send facts to the forecasting division. They also visit the local disaster risk reduction and management offices, as well as local weather stations to lend a hand on typhoon observation. They also give information to residents and alert them of the imminent disaster.

“We observe [the weather] and brief the locals about it. Then at the same time, after the landfall, we do a damage assessment. These are the basic tasks of storm chasers,” said Pura.

Courtesy: Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon

How Storm Chasers Work

What’s the typical day on the road in the life of storm chasers? Before hitting the road, several tools and equipment must be prepped inside the storm-chasing car and their backpacks. Along with raincoats and helmets, chasers carry handheld weather equipment for observation, a camera for documentation, and communication devices, such as satellite phones to send real-time data to forecasters.

“Before, they brought handheld tools for measuring temperature, pressure, and wind,” Tuazon said. “But I didn’t support it because this posed danger. So I suggested bringing an automatic weather station or AWS,” Tuazon mentioned.

The AWS collects five weather data from a typhoon—temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction. It has to be set up in an area cleared of obstruction to gather accurate information on a cyclone. Leveling instruments and range finders are used to measure the height of a storm surge.

“We also have mobile radars, but these are not advisable to use during landfall. They are prone to damage and are worth millions,” Tuazon explained. “Also, we have strategically located radars to record the actual intensity and rainfall of the storm.”

Two mobile radars used by the Storm Chasers parked inside the premises of the PAGASA Science Garden.

When all is set, storm chasers travel to their target location one or two days before the landfall. The work gets more demanding as they get closer to the typhoon’s eye. Upon arrival, they quickly monitor the weather condition then speak before a crowd of local disaster groups and alarmed individuals about the looming calamity.

Storm-chasing car used by the team.

“Report to your bosses, because you are the eye of the weather branch. What happens on the field will help them adjust their forecasts. While the storm gets closer, we have to update the people. This will be the scenario and this is my recommendation. Warnings are a big help,” Quinto explained.

There are usually three teams, each consisting of four to five members including their drivers, who go on a storm-chasing mission. Ideally, they are situated in the north, center, and south of the typhoon. In case the typhoon moves differently from its predicted track, the teams are there to intercept it.

But Quinto confessed that on short notice, deploying three teams is not possible. “We need cash advances and vehicles that can withstand floods and jagged paths. Of the three, we should at least deploy one. Then we involve the local weather stations because they are also storm chasers.”

During landfall, they have to document the event and gather data every hour. Despite the strong winds, flying and falling debris, storm chasers brave the storm and collect measurements. However, safety is an utmost priority. Quinto emphasized that storm chasing isn’t about flaunting your courage, but using strategies to find safer places while obtaining accurate figures.

After the storm’s fury, when the heavy rains and winds have subsided, chasers begin to assess the damage the typhoon made. They interview survivors, document the devastated areas, and collect more data that could help them in making their technical report, which they have to do right after reporting back to PAGASA.

Damage assessment is one of the duties of Storm Chasers on field. (Courtesy: from Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon)

Going the Distance, Intercepting Disasters

Storm chasers are spectators to incredible natural events that few will ever experience firsthand.

For Pura, his first storm was the strongest typhoon recorded in the Philippines. Chasing Yolanda was an unforgettable experience for him. It brought him mixed emotions but on top of all that, excitement radiated from him the most as he embarked on his first ever chase.

“Excited in a sense that I haven’t been to Samar and Leyte before that,” he explained. “It was my first time to ride a ferry and also my first time going to Visayas. I didn’t think of the risks. I was really more excited than nervous.”

Led by Quinto, Pura and the rest of the team were prohibited to cross the sea to go to Tacloban because of the gale warning. They had no choice but to stay in Matnog, Sorsogon and wait after landfall to ride the ferry. When they got to the wrecked site, all they could do was assess the damage. But if they happened to cross the waters and stayed at the Tacloban Weather Station, which was also destroyed, who knew what would’ve happened to them?

The Weather Station was one of the destroyed infrastructures in Tacloban, Leyte. (Courtesy: Mr. Wilfredo Tuazon)

“We stayed in Tacloban for three weeks without shelter and with limited food supply. We also saw widespread looting. As I walked the streets, I saw and smelled corpses.”

When he got home, that’s when he began to absorb the things he saw. “When I ate, I’d remember the dead bodies and their smell.” But after a day, that feeling disappeared and he went back on duty.

Meanwhile, Quinto admitted that in the beginning, he was excited about his job. But now, his priorities would include strategy, safety, and communication with their family.

“One time when a reporter took footage of us amidst the strong wind, debris flew behind us. My wife saw it but I shrugged it off. I always say to her that she must not be a negative-thinker. Once we get access to a cell site, we’ll call immediately.”

Tuazon remembered his wife crying in an interview, saying she didn’t want him to get hurt. “You can’t do anything because it’s part of your job,” he said. To lessen his family’s worry, he immediately lets them know he’s safe.

Why Chase Storms?

Storm chasing is a tough job. But storm chasers take the risk because they want to contribute for the greater good—to save lives. The information they gather is crucial, not only for experts, but also for communities that will take the storm’s hit. One wrong forecast and lives will suffer.

“Our primary goal is to warn the people, to give them the necessary information and typhoon updates, and to help them prepare for the disaster. Our main purpose is to lessen the death toll and to meet zero casualties,” Quinto reiterated.

Public information comes with the assurance that the people understand the information experts relay to them. This is why Tuazon insists on putting more effort into explaining technical terms in the simplest language. Because once these people absorb what the scientists say, they’ll be able to share it with others.

While most people caught in a storm’s wrath desperately tries to go out of its way, there are people like Quinto, Pura, and Tuazon whose job is to chase them down. They’re like characters in action movies, except that these heroes don’t wear any flashy armor or wield extraordinary powers. They don jackets and raincoats. They carry weather equipment. They possess impressive meteorological intelligence. And hey, they ride a spiffy storm-chasing car, too.

What does it take to be a storm chaser? Does one need to be valiant? Or does he need to develop a good sense of planning and strategizing? All these are important, but the most essential is having a heart for service for the Filipino people.

By: Brian Jules L. Campued, Panahon.TV Intern