The Storm Chaser

Odd Jobs, People
on August 6, 2006

When a massive lightning storm welled up over Tucson, Ariz., in the summer of 1988, Warren Faidley grabbed his cameras and headed toward the action.

A professional photographer specializing in weather-related pictures, Faidley was in dire need of lightning shots. After setting up his equipment under a highway overpass, he snapped a photo at the perfect moment, capturing a quadruple-forked lightning bolt striking a power pole. At the same instant, one of the bolt's branches struck close by and electrified the overpass.

"As I got the shot, I also got jolted, like getting a painful jolt from a 110-volt live wire," he recalls. The spectacular photo was published in 1989 in Life magazine, which dubbed Faidley "The Storm Chaser," the first-known use of the moniker in print.

"After the photo ran in Life, things changed for me overnight," says Faidley, 48. "I had been shooting weddings to survive, but very quickly I had people calling me for weather shots and paying me $700 a pop."

Hurricanes, lightning storms and tornadoes all are fair game. "I've always had a fascination with bad weather," he says.

Today, chasing storms is part of the two businesses he runs. In addition to Weatherstock Inc., his stock photography and video library company, he oversees Storm Risk Consulting Services, working with corporate clients such as DuPont (to develop storm shelters) and Sure Fire (to create emergency flashlights).

Born in Topeka, Kan., during tornado season, Faidley escaped his first funnel cloud at age 5. A few years later his family moved to Mobile, Ala., and then to Tucson when he was 12.

"I went from tornado alley to hurricane alley to lightning alley," says Faidley, who's authored several books including 1995's Storm Chaser. "When you're a kid experiencing storms, everything is so much bigger and grandiose. But as an adult, that kind of weather still has an appeal for me that's bigger than life."

In 1984, Faidley earned a degree in photojournalism from the University of Arizona in Tucson. After working as a photography stringer for several Tucson newspapers, he landed a job as a photojournalist at the daily Tucson Citizen. He worked there three years before venturing out on his own to form Weatherstock in 1989.

Although there are several hundred full-time "storm chasers" in the United States, Faidley estimates only "about 20 or 30 of the really hard-core chasers have been doing it since before Twister," referring to the 1996 action film for which he worked as a consultant.

Chasing storms is a seasonal occupation, so Faidley "drives the roads" in the central and northern Plains looking for tornadoes from May to June, heads to the Southwest in search of lightning strikes around July, and then pursues hurricanes until late October.

Jose Garcia, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service in Amarillo, Texas, says Faidley has been a valuable resource to alert Texas residents to dangerous weather.

"Several times Warren has called in firsthand tornado reports to us so we can warn people to get out of the path of storms," Garcia says. "He's sometimes our eyes and ears.

"Warren's extremely enthusiastic about severe weather," Garcia adds. "He's a very conscientious storm chaser. He plans out what he wants to do and is aware of the safety factors."

Of course, Faidley's passion for getting the perfect storm photograph sometimes puts him in dicey situations.

"When I shot Hurricane Andrew (in 1992), the parking garage I was using as a shooting platform was shaking so much that the cast-iron caps on the sprinkler valves were shaking off," he says.

Despite the perils, Faidley is motivated by the thrill of the storm. "Storms of all kinds are absolutely intriguing," he says. "They're bigger than life, powerful and uncontrollable. They are what drive me."

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