Storm’s A-Comin’

Raised in Stillwater, Rob Hedrick got his start in TV as a news photographer and storm chaser for KOCO channel 5 for nearly six years “covering some of the most extreme weather and news there was.” Photo provided by Rob Hedrick.

Story by Jefferson Bryant

All was well on that warm spring day when I arrived home from school. I sat down with a plate of crackers and cheese and an ice-cold sodie-pop to watch G.I. Joe. After my show, I went out to ride my bike. The sun was now covered up and there was a feeling in the air, one that any born-and-bred Okie knows well—storm’s a-comin’. Within an hour, there was an F2 tornado on the ground just 15 miles from our house.

Growing up in Ponca City, my parents owned a local radio station and my dad always went out to chase the storms and report live on the air. Soon, Dad pulled into the driveway in his 1981 Pontiac Phoenix, said he had to go chase that evening and invited me to go. I had always wanted to, and I had been working on my photography, so I jumped at the chance to see if I could snag some shots to sell to the local newspaper. I was less than a month shy of turning fifteen on April 26, 1991.

At about 5:45 P.M., an F2 tornado dropped from the sky near Tonkawa. My dad had the CB keyed up, giving the listeners an update as he turned down a dirt road. The road was less of a road and more of a river. The Pontiac was no match for the raging waters, and suddenly we were sliding sideways. We tried to push the car out of the mud, but it was no use, we were stuck. Dad called for a truck on the CB and about thirty minutes later we were on the road again. By this time, the bulk of the storm had passed. We found the damage path and it turns out if we had not been stuck, we would have been in the path of a twister that threw a train from its tracks. That same storm system dropped an F5 tornado in Kansas that killed seventeen people.

Ron Bryant and the 1981 Pontiac Phoenix that he and Jefferson chased storms in on April 26, 1991. Photo by Jefferson Bryant.

While my pictures of the derailed train were not quite good enough to run in the paper, they are a nice memento for me, along with a letter from the newspaper offering some tips on my photography. I have always been fascinated with storm chasing and we certainly live in the right state for it.

Late April and early May are prime time for severe weather in Oklahoma, and while you never know when a nasty bit of weather is going to flare up, you can rest assured that your neighbors will be on the road chasing them down to help keep you safe. Stillwater is home to several storm chasers, including News 9’s Val and Amy Castor (Val also chased that storm in 1991 and is arguably one of Oklahoma’s most famous chasers), and former Stillwater resident Rob Hedrick, who chased storms for KOCO Channel 5 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Storm chasing is a passion that runs deep in Oklahoma, and if you get bit by the chase-bug, it can take you places you might never have expected. Rob Hedrick was born and raised in Stillwater, he attended Westwood Elementary in 1990, when he found himself smack dab in the middle of a twister. If you lived in the Stillwater area in 1990, you probably remember the F3 tornado that cut its way through northeastern Stillwater, killing one and injuring others. The High School, Junior High, and Skyline Elementary all were damaged in that storm along with residential areas. As Rob and his family sat hunkered in the center of their house, They listened “to KSPI radio and Leon Matthews drive through the storm as it was headed down Hall of Fame he was calling out streets as it moved east and eventually did significant damage near Skyline Elementary. I was terrified of storms of any kind from this point forward.”

In 1995, the IMAX film “Stormchasers” came out and Rob “was fascinated.”  Rob said, “I outfitted my car with scanners and CB radios to try and figure out this storm chasing thing. I found a class offered by the National Weather Service called Skywarn. I went to as many classes nearby that I could. Fast forward another few years after joining the local Ham radio club I was showing off my Xterra storm chase vehicle at the home and garden show and a guy approached me asking who I chase for. He said he was a regular chaser for KOCO-TV and knew some people I should meet. He invited me to chase with him. Jack Quirk turned out to be one of the most talented photographer and producers I would and have ever met.”

The original storm chase vehicle that Rob Hedrick first drove was this Xterra. Photo provided by Rob Hedrick.

An innovator, Rob created a system for his vehicle that allowed him to send video directly to the TV station instead of having to meet up with a satellite truck. KOCO was impressed with the system and its ability to deliver Tornado footage and they offered him a full-time position on their photography staff. For that groundbreaking technology, Rob earned an EMMY® nomination for Outstanding Engineering from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

For the next six years, Rob worked as a news photographer and storm chaser for KOCO. His mentors were Jack Quirk and Chris Lee, who wrote the book on storm chasing and created the First Alert Storm team. Quirk and Lee showed him the ropes and his experience with KOCO led him to a job as head of broadcasting for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Rob has moved on from Oklahoma. He is now the director of Broadcast Operations and Supervising Producer for the National Hot Rod Association in Los Angeles, CA. He manages the studio facilities and produces high-octane racing content for NHRA on Fox and the NHRA website. He still keeps a radarscope on hand wherever he goes. “People always ask if I watch football and my reply is that weather is my football.”

Storm chasing is popular for Okie thrill seekers, but it can be very dangerous. Part of what spawned this story was an April Fools joke created by Stillwater resident Phil White about the dangers of amateur storm chasing. When the idea for the “Tornado Chase Tags” came along, Phil was watching a documentary on the May 31, 2013 El Reno Tornado that took the life of Tim Samaras from the Twistex storm chaser team. “In one portion of the documentary an image or video showing all of the chasers and their GPS positions made me think: ‘man, there are a lot of people out there on purpose, in harm’s way,’” Phil explained. “Later in the same documentary the video shows literal traffic jams; intersections clogged with both chasers and innocent people trying to get out of the way.  I thought ‘There needs to be a license for this activity, like deer tags.  Maybe charging people to chase would discourage some of those folks from being out there.’ April 1 was coming up, and while the tag idea started out of frustration, I thought there might be some good that came from putting it out there.  So April 1 2014, I published my first Tornado Chase Tag.”

The inspiration for this story was this April Fools joke created by Stillwater resident Phil White about the dangers of amateur storm chasing. Photo provided by Phil White.

The National Weather Service puts on several storm chaser training programs throughout “Tornado Alley”, typically held January thru March. These courses teach you how to safely track storms, what you need, and all about the technology involved. Storm chasing is not just about fame and glory, it is a public service that helps keep the rest of us safe.

With all that said there is no licensing or permit program in Oklahoma for storm chasers, meaning anyone with a car and a scanner can do it. This creates a potential hazard not only for the untrained, but also for the emergency crews and first responders who have to be out in severe weather. The die-hards that live their life one twister at a time will always be on the road attempting to give you the most accurate, up-to-date information possible. A state recognized licensing program would be a good idea, to keep the professionals on the road and send the amateurs to the classroom to become trained. That is an idea that would make us all safer.