by Steve Dollar | July 8, 2024

Passion and Peril: Florida’s Storm Chasers on the Frontlines

As hurricane season bears down, we take a look at the most memorable meteorological moments and the driving forces behind Florida's fearless storm chasers.

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Ocean lightning in Jupiter Beach. Photography by Jeff Gammons.

Hunkered down inside a rented Ford sedan in a downtown Punta Gorda parking garage, two young men brave the elements as all hell breaks loose around them. It is Sept. 28, 2022, and Hurricane Ian is blasting against Charlotte Harbor amid a terrifying landfall. Within the tenuous shelter of the car, the perspective is reminiscent of a pair of socks in a washing machine churning at full slosh.

One of the men describes the experience to the host of a live cable news show, their feed monitored on a small screen. “The whole building is vibrating and buckling, and our car is being lifted and bounced on its suspension and tires.”

The newscaster asks what any sane person would ask: “Why do you do this work?”

Logan Parham answers. “This is my passion.” 

A few moments later, Parham and his buddy Garrett begin to really contemplate their situation. They might be two desperadoes about to be flushed from their last hideout or grunts on a military expedition gone wrong, dug deep in a foxhole. Instead, they’re just these guys, doing it for fun—caught between the titanic force of nature and scarcely more than reinforced concrete, trying to keep their wits.

Logan Parham is a storm chaser who lives in Hastings and documents his meteorological escapades on Youtube. Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

“There’s gonna be nothing left, dude. I don’t know how long we’re gonna be stuck here, but there’s going to be nothing left.”

“I kinda want to move.”

“To where?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“We need to say some prayers, man.”

Parham and his buddy survived, as viewers can see for themselves on the self-styled storm chaser’s YouTube channel, where “PT. 3. Hurricane Ian. ‘The Storm from Hell’”—a 14-minute-and-18-second clip of Parham’s epic run-in with one of the mightiest hurricanes in immediate memory—commemorates a dangerous adventure and a rite of initiation.

“That was my first major hurricane,” Parham recalls. “I picked quite the doozy—it being pretty much Category 5 at landfall. I learned a lot of lessons that day. I mean going through both of those eye walls with the intense, massive vortices and winds approaching 200 mph, being in that eye where you go through absolute hell for 20, 30 minutes and then nothing but calm and clear skies. It was an experience, to say the least.”

The 22-year-old, who lives in Hastings, pours his time and resources into the meteorological escapades that fill his YouTube channel and Facebook feed. The videos boast dramatic headers common to the genre: “Violent Dust Devil Intercept,” “Mid June INSANITY!,” “Hurricane Idalia. Violent Inner Core,” and “The Most Extreme Weather in The World”—the last a 3-minute greatest hits compilation of breathtakingly apocalyptic moments.

Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

Parham is only one of thousands of storm freaks chasing the wild wind, pedal to the metal, down nature’s own fury road, and almost all of them have some sort of online presence. YouTube abounds with uploads of half-panicked, half-ecstatic faces, suspended in the eerie calm of a hurricane’s eye or goosing the debris-scattered whirl of a tornado. It’s a community that thrives at the intersection of custom car culture, online weather nerdery, old-fashioned broadcasting (with new technology), fine art photography and the brave, new—and sometimes very stupid—world of social media influencers and TikTok celebrities. 

Their superhero is Reed Timmer. The Michigan native is the country’s best-known and most successful storm chaser, as well as the star of multiple reality television shows and the commander of the SRV Dominator line—a series of SUVs and pickup trucks modified, “Transformers”-style, into juggernauts made to roll into the very core of a monster storm. Tank vs. tornado! Unlike many of his inspired fans, Timmer is no weekend hell rider. He’s a legitimate meteorologist with a doctorate from The University of Oklahoma and the rugged, angular face that action movie franchises are built on—at least until he trades in his ballcap for a pair of glasses and becomes more professorial.

I don’t know if it’s the adventure, the unknown. They don’t want damage and death, but people get excited for hurricane season. It’s a culture.
—Mike Boylan

If you live in Florida, especially from June through November—hurricane season—you’re probably well-acquainted with Timmer or other mainstream forecasters like WeatherTiger (aka Tallahassee meteorologist Ryan Truchelut and his team), The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore and Ryan Hall with his “Y’all Squad” of nearly two million YouTube subscribers. But there’s a whole weather underground of DIY trackers and chasers who flash vividly across internet livestreams when the wind begins to howl. I fell into their swirling cone of uncertainty last August, when Hurricane Idalia stalked the Florida Panhandle. I let the increasingly dire forecasts get the better of me, hauled some valuables out to the car and hit the road west out of Tallahassee and the hurricane’s predicted path. About 90 minutes later, I arrived in bucolic Holmes County and checked into a roadside motel, shades of “No Country for Old Men” (absent Anton Chigurh). I was anxious enough already, not to mention my sleepless night skipping among a dozen different YouTube channels where I successfully scared the bejesus out of myself. Luckily, Idalia wasn’t as strong upon landfall as expected—though still a fearsome Category 3—nor on a beeline to Florida’s capitol, meaning I could have stayed home. But now I was fixated: Who are these storm freaks?

Storm tracker Mike Boylan of Mike’s Weather Page. Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

Behind the Screens

Maybe one of these freaks is actually the mild-mannered, middle-aged dad next door. Mike Boylan is something like the OG of Florida storm chasers. In 2004, he launched his website Mike’s Weather Page (spaghettimodels.com) as an act of frustration. “We had (Hurricane) Charley come in, and it was impossible to find graphics,” he says, chatting over Zoom from his home office in Oldsmar, the wall behind him filled with various plaques commemorating his work. Boylan applied his lessons from an HTML class at the University of South Florida to create what was only intended as a reference for himself and some friends. Two decades later and it still looks like something from the Myspace era, crowded with an intense array of weather satellite maps—screenful after screenful of them—that track everything from airport delays to global wind movement and nationwide storm reports. Everything you wanted to know about vertical wind shear but were too afraid to ask. There’s a lot going on, so it’s good that a video recap of “The Daily Brew,” Boylan’s thrice-weekly morning livestream, sits at the top of the page: a cordial welcome for any late arrivals to the hurricane party. 

“It’s my addiction,” Boylan says, “to wake up in the morning and see it all.”

Until about four years ago, though, Boylan had only been a spectator, sitting behind his desk. “Hurricane Laura was heading up towards Louisiana,” he recalls. “I tracked the radar live for five hours … and I was, like, itching. It hit me. I’ve got to be in it. Something just said to go.” A few months later, Boylan flew to Texas, rented a Jeep and went chasing Hurricane Delta. “It was just a rush,” he says, but more significantly the experience gave Boylan some insight he lacked. “The adrenaline of the storm is one thing … But being in a storm and seeing it firsthand, and seeing the effects after the storm, I can really understand things I’m saying that I’d never really understood before.”

Since then, Boylan has become immediately identifiable by his 2018 Chevrolet Silverado. “It’s become a status symbol,” he says. “I’d get another one, but people know it. It’s crazy.” CNN host Erin Burnett prominently featured it in an interview with Boylan during Hurricane Ian, and it’s also appeared on NewsNation and Fox. “It’s like the truck has become me.”

The vehicle is an amateur broadcast studio on wheels. Boylan’s equipped it with computers, monitors, webcams, a drone, a 4G/5G wireless setup, signal boosters, endless USB cables, a ham radio, a generator, multiple 5-gallon cans of gasoline, tow straps, chainsaws and “even silly stuff like a blanket and pillow.” Early on, Boylan made the mistake of grabbing his daughter’s cherished taco blanket. “Somebody gave her a blanket with tacos on it,” he explains. “My wife called me, like, ‘She’s mad at you.’ Now I make sure I have a pillow and blanket that she approves.”

Though his celebrity may be modest, it’s enough to inspire a beer dedicated in Boylan’s honor (Tampa-based Big Storm Brewing Co.’s Hurricane Hunter IPA) and even rattle some haters, like the meteorologist who dismissed him as a “drunk donkey.” Boylan turned the epithet into gold, promoting merch branded with the caricature of a googly-eyed, floppy-tongued donkey. “We made that logo and sold a thousand shirts,” he says. “It was nuts.”

Fort Lauderdale local Jeff Gammons became fascinated with storms when Hurricane Gilbert assaulted the Caribbean and Gulf Coast with 185 mph winds. Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

Down in Okeechobee County, Jeff Gammons also makes his living documenting extreme weather. “I’ve intercepted and filmed probably over three dozen hurricanes in my lifetime,” says the photographer, who specializes in vivid, high-end stills and timelapse images of jagged lightning strikes over the Everglades and cloud patterns surging in biblical upheaval. He posts them for more than 114,000 followers over on his @stormvisuals Instagram account and also sells them commercially. In 1988, when Gammons was a sixth grader growing up in Fort Lauderdale, he became fascinated when Hurricane Gilbert assaulted the Caribbean and Gulf Coast with 185 mph winds. “And then photography just worked its way into it,” says Gammons, who has pursued the work while dealing with lifelong health challenges. He received his second kidney transplant last September (his wife, Sara, was the donor). In perhaps a surprising way, the storms he witnessed helped carry Gammons through his darkest hours. “I did five years of dialysis waiting for my first transplant,” he says. “That’s where the storms come in. I would drive from Okeechobee to West Palm Beach to do my dialysis treatment. When I would come back, I’d have to cut through the Everglades, and that’s where I would stop and just watch the storms, because you were really fatigued and weak after a four-hour treatment.”

Underneath the purple sky and its shockwaves of silvered fire, Gammons could find his center. “When I’m out there, I feel a little bit more put together and just calm.”

A rotating supercell thunderstorm. Photography by Jeff Gammons.

Clickbait Conundrum

The 1996 movie “Twister,” a box-office smash co-written by techno-thriller novelist Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain”), celebrates the bravado and ingenuity of a team of tornado chasers, led by feuding scientists (and supposedly divorcing mates) played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. The scenario begins with the origin story of the latter’s character, who, as a little girl, screams as she watches her father get snatched into the sky by a virulent whirlwind. Though Morgan Bozarth’s situation wasn’t as nightmarish, she can still relate. She was 13 and visiting her grandparents in Piedmont, Alabama. A tornado came within two miles of their town, she remembers, wiping out everything in its wake. It was part of a generational outbreak of tornadoes across the so-called Dixie Alley, the southeastern tornado belt that includes Alabama. “Before then, I was petrified of storms,” says Bozarth, who experienced what she calls a reckoning. “After surviving that, the only thing I could think about was, ‘How do I understand this?’” She became her high school’s weather nerd, obsessed with storms and those who chase them. 

“It’s almost like a cliche,” she says, “because everyone has that one event that caused their interest to pique.” 

Morgan Bozarth’s obsession with bad weather began at age 13 when she survived a tornado that came within two miles of her grandparents’s home in Piedmont, Alabama. Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

Bozarth, now 26, uses X (formerly known as Twitter) as her platform with the handle @jmorgan_wx and is among the small percentage of women chasing storms. She began in 2019, almost by accident, when she got caught up in a tornado near a coastal North Carolina marina. “There was a hook echo on radar coming right towards us,” she says, referencing the hook-shaped pattern indicative of a supercell storm. Bozarth hauled out of the dock in her truck and sideswiped the hook, with power flashes and debris flying everywhere. “And that was my first tornado. It was blindly intercepted, horribly intercepted.”

A resident of Milton since 2021, Bozarth chats from the driver’s seat of her 2008 Silverado. “She’s an old girl. I’m knocking on 300,000 miles.” Despite its mileage, “this truck knows when it’s go time,” Bozarth says. “Every storm I’ve ever gotten near, every hailstorm I’ve had to get out of, suddenly the truck is brand new off the lot.”

The warhorse may be put to a real test this summer and fall as the state is primed for a potentially historic hurricane season, due to rising water temperatures. Even as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law deleting the concept of climate change from state policy. But there will be lots of company. Bozarth is gaining experience at a time when there are more storm chasers than ever. Unfortunately, not all of them take it as seriously as they should, bringing a daredevil attitude more suitable for “Jackass.” 

“If you’re not trained and comfortable, and you’re just there trying to go get a picture of a tornado, you will end up killed,” Bozarth says. “We had that happen in Oklahoma with three of the greatest storm chasers of our time (Discovery Channel “Storm Chasers” star Tim Samaras, and two colleagues, including his son). They were just (at the) wrong place, wrong time, and it could happen to literally anyone.”

A new wave of amateur storm chasers may be inspired by the upcoming reboot of “Twister” called, what else, “Twisters.” Due for a mid-July release, the film stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as a pioneering scientist and Glen Powell as a “reckless social-media superstar” on a collision course in a very windy Oklahoma.

When I’m out there, I feel a little bit more put together and calm. —Jeff Gammons

“There is a heightened awareness,” says Bozarth, noting that a preview for the film aired during the Super Bowl. The original movie “was the spark for a lot of people,” although she only became a fan of the film later. “I was scared of the movie,” she says, which must be funny for her to think about now. 

Illustration by Jules Ozaeta.

One of the dangers in storm chasing’s conquest of social media is the dubious parallel pursuit of clickbait, which undermines the credibility of the whole enterprise. 

“You could post the scariest model out there and get 10 times the hits and likes,” Boylan says. “It’s irresponsible, because you know (the model) is an outlier. There’s a lot of people doing that. The National Hurricane Center might get 3,000 likes on a real post. And this kid posts a worst-case scenario hitting Tampa and gets 300,000 likes. It’s a huge thing right now, where people are getting their content from.”

What could be an essential medium for life-or-death information becomes another casualty of the fake news phenomenon. Recently on TikTok, someone posted the false report that a rogue 50-foot wave was coming from Antarctica toward the United States. 

“It was obviously a model that glitched,” Boylan says. “It was so bad that the (radar site) the (TikTok poster) was using had to come out with a statement saying, ‘No, we’re not getting invaded by UFOs. It’s not Godzilla.’ I mean, I’m still getting tagged.” 

Gammons takes most of his lightning photography in August, which is the peak of Florida’s wet season. Photography by Jeff Gammons.

Boylan tries to counter the hype merchants by being as factual as he can. “I try to bring the real video and not add adjectives and dramatize,” he says. “That’s what a lot of the news does. They almost have to amp up their coverage to justify what they just said was going to happen.”

It’s also perhaps too easy for some people to get caught up in a fantasy and take the wrong things for granted. “It definitely feels like you’re living in some sort of a movie,” says Parham, who also is alert to a tendency of Florida folks to become blase about hurricanes. “‘Oh, well I lived through Hurricane Ian’ … okay, yeah, but you were in Tallahassee.” Even advance planning and strategies to lower the most obvious kinds of risk are no guarantee something bad won’t happen, because everything that’s happening is bad.

“I’ve absolutely had a couple of occasions where I kind of think to myself maybe I bit off more than I could chew,” Parham says. “One of those situations was Hurricane Ian. I had a big parking sign fly a good couple inches from my face.” The tension inside the parking garage video was very real. “You never think of a giant five-story, steel-and-concrete reinforced structure swaying side to side. It’s not a fun feeling.”

Despite all that, or maybe somehow because of it, Floridians, Boylan suggests, have an ineluctable passion for dangerously high winds. “We go bonkers, man.” 

“People can’t admit it, but there’s a weird obsession with wanting a storm,” he continues. “I don’t know if it’s the adventure, the unknown. They don’t want damage and death, but people get excited for hurricane season. It’s a culture.”