Traveling is nothing new to those in the tradeshow industry; on the other hand, hitting the open road across the Great Plains of the U.S. to chase violent storms with a group of friends and two giant dogs may be.
Ross Weitzberg, president of Space Potential, and his fellow chasers jumped into a Chevrolet Suburban to begin their four-week road adventure to experience a major storm live in the midst of tornado season.
“We’re constantly on the move, chewing up more miles in a few weeks than the average person drives in a year – sometimes in two years!” said Weitzberg, who started storm chasing as a hobby in 1999. By the time the road trip is over, he estimated that they’ll have driven 20,000 miles. “We do whatever we must to quench our thirst for storms.”
Changing the way Space Potential operates gave Weitzberg more freedom to pursue his hobby. In April, his Los Angeles-based company got rid of a warehouse where system booths were built for clients. With this less-physical hands-on approach, Space Potential plans to utilize its network of vendors to provide structures for clients, and employees can focus more on design, consulting and show services.
On May 20, the day residents of Moore, Okla., experienced an EF5 tornado, the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, Weitzberg and friends caught sight of the supercell, a rotating thunderstorm that produced the tornado.
“We were within a mile from it, and I could see debris from the base flying around it. It caused a lot of havoc; there was a lot of traffic and people not knowing what to do,” he said. “It was amazing. I never saw anything like it. It was heartbreaking at the same time because I knew it was causing destruction too. The hardest part about chasing is seeing it go through a town.”
Although Weitzberg didn’t see the destruction the Moore tornado caused as he left soon afterward to chase another storm, he viewed the damage to trees in Shawnee, a town in Oklahoma that experienced a tornado on May 19.
“It’s invigorating to see Mother Nature in all its beauty and fierceness. Once you see your first tornado, you want to see more of them,” he explained his love for chasing. “You see more of the U.S. in a way not too many see it when driving through populations of only a couple of hundred people or seeing natural storms like lightning shooting until one in the morning.”
The storm chasers had headed to Oklahoma after leaving Wichita, Kan. Outfitted in a vehicle decked with real-time satellite radar, a boosted mobile Internet connection, GPS mapping software integrated with radar applications and more, they knew something was bound to occur in the Great Plains, but they didn’t know for sure.
“With chasing, it doesn’t matter what you know. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. We picked target areas and started heading toward them,” Weitzberg explained. “Conditions didn’t warrant that strong of a tornado in Moore, so it was curious what caused it to be that strong. A lot of chasers from that area went elsewhere because there was nothing showing this would happen.”
Over the course of their trip, the chasers spotted what Weitzberg called a “brief, weak tornado” near Epson, Kan., and a powerful tornado that lasted about 35 minutes 20 miles north of Salina, Kan. Weitzberg described his road trip as a smooth ride, and despite being surrounded by storms capable of causing lots of destruction, he added that he didn’t fear for his life.