March is said to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. Fittingly, Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas typically aligns with the start of the month.
Local emergency management departments and branches of the National Weather Service often use that time (March 4-10 this year) to host various seminars to prepare for the rough weather, like thunder storms and tornadoes. Newton Fire/EMS employee Darrel Graves is also preparing during that time, though it's a little more exciting for him as he is typically getting ready to go out and chase those storms.
"All the guys I work with think I'm nuts. I'm like, 'you guys go golfing in your free time or whatever.' That's just not my thing. I like to go out and see Mother Nature do what it does best," Graves said.
Graves has been all over Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma pursuing his hobby of chasing storms. He has even gone as far as the Texas panhandle.
With the requirements of his job at Newton Fire/EMS and the shifts he may be needed to work, Graves noted he doesn't go much farther than that, but he looks forward to heading out and chasing every chance he gets — a habit he picked up from his father.
"My dad got me interested clear back when I was little," Graves said. "He used to take me out spotting with him because he worked for the police department and local fire departments back then."
As such, part of his father's responsibilities were severe weather spotting, which Graves said fueled his own interest. Then, while Graves was working for the Stafford County Fire Department in 2007, the tornadoes that devastated Greensburg (in southern Kansas) hit. That same storm cell created a number of tornadoes for Stafford County to deal with as well, which Graves quantified as an "unreal" amount, but a hobby was born — one that has gotten more serious over the past 12 years — and now each spring he starts getting antsy to go on the chase.
Preparing for the chase, Graves saves up his money over the winter months to fund his hobby. During severe weather season, he will spend at least a week in advance trying to pinpoint weather system predictions, then he will make arrangements to utilize vacation days in order to chase after said storm, spending the day before planning the route and what specific location he will be heading to and then loading up his equipment (cameras, laptop, etc.) before hitting the road.
Once on site and the storm sets in, Graves will live stream the video on YouTube, as well as the Live Storms Media app and website.
"If I'm lucky, I'll get to sell one or two clips a season. It's not a lucrative business at all by any means. It's usually just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money I spend each season to be able to do it, so it's not monetarily driven for me," Graves said. "I just really enjoy getting out and getting to see the weather take shape and being able to watch it unfold as compared to what I had kind of forecasted myself is really one of the highlights of it."
Looking back on his experiences, Graves said one of his best trips was one of the last big chases he got to do so with his dad (who passed away in August).
Back in May 2016, a storm cell was moving into the area and Graves noted a lot of fellow chasers were heading to Oklahoma, but based on his projections he decided to stay a little more local — heading west to Dodge City. With his dad behind the wheel, and Graves monitoring and recording, the duo witnessed something he will not soon forget.
"We had one (tornado) develop right on top of us and I think we saw 13 or 14 tornadoes over a two-hour timespan and at one point had three tornadoes all on the ground at the same time, just absolutely incredible," Graves said.
Traditionally, Graves is usually chasing tornadoes, though he noted he is just as content to see less severe supercells form out in the middle of the country, an experience he said can be "magical." Part of the reason behind that is because it can be nerve-wracking watching the tornadoes and the havoc they cause, as Graves is always hopeful that the storms will do the least amount of damage as possible.
Hoping for the safety of others, Graves is also focused on safe practice himself when he goes chasing, making sure those who go with him put safety first as well (i.e. staying off high traffic roads, obeying all traffic laws, etc.). He also prefers having a driver — because if he is alone he will err on the side of caution and drive a short distance and then stop, and repeat the process, as he adjusts his computers and cameras in between.
Frequency of chases varies from season to season, Graves said. While he only went out a handful of times last year, as there were only 60 reported tornadoes across the state in 2017, he noted during a busy 2014 he was out once or twice a week in the spring (with tornado season in Kansas ranging from April through June).
Even as harrowing as it can be at times, chasing can act as a sort of stress relief for Graves, and it is not a hobby he plans on giving up anytime soon — especially with so much more weather phenomena to experience, like the tropical storms typical of the southeastern U.S.
"That's still something that's definitely on my bucket list," Graves said, "to go see a hurricane."