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We run from hurricanes; these men run into them

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005

When the wind roars like jet engines, the sky turns eerie green and raindrops shoot sideways like machine-gun spray, many sane Floridians already have driven far, far away from the coming hurricane.

But when Richard Horodner hits the road, he's usually heading into a hurricane.

Recently he flew to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in time to feel Hurricane Emily blast onto shore. He weathered Andrew in Miami, suffered through Elena in Pinellas County, filmed Charley in Charlotte County and is looking forward to the next one.

"It's just a complete scientific fascination, visual stimulation and being scared," said Horodner, 58, who says he has gone to 66 hurricanes. "It's kind of like riding a roller coaster."

Horodner, who lives in Vero Beach and markets his own hurricane videos, is among a small fraternity of die-hard hurricane chasers. They are adventurers and photographers who carefully track bad weather because they want to experience more of it. When any new hurricane swirls to life, they race to meet it, so they can photo or video the full fury. Then they'll sell their footage to finance the next chase.

"I go to places that are, what's the best word for it, basically it's when all h---'s breaking loose," said George Kourounis, 35, whose Web site describes him as "Storm Chaser & Adventurer."

Kourounis, who also chases tornadoes and recently descended into an Ethiopian volcano, works as an engineer for a recording studio in Toronto. But he takes as much as a month off work at a time to chase bad weather, and often sells footage to outlets such as the Discovery Channel.

Kourounis said he thrills at "seeing Mother Nature at her most extreme. . . . I've seen more in the past 10 years than most people would care to see in their lifetimes."

Most people who lived in Florida during Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan last year have seen more hurricanes than they care to. But for enthusiasts like Kourounis and Horodner, the incredible energy of hurricanes inspires awe.

"Some people like to whitewater raft," Horodner said. "I like seeing that 100 mph wind bending over trees, and the sound of that power."

Extreme weather watching is not new. In the Midwest, people have been chasing tornadoes for decades, which inspired the movie Twister.

But hurricane chasing seems to be growing, partly because chasers can now look at radar screens on laptop computers and follow the storms in trucks or cars that are typically jammed with radios, cell phones, GPS devices and various improvised gadgets.

"In the last few years, since the tropics have become more active, you're seeing a lot more of it," said Warren Faidley, whose Web site describes him as "the world's first full-time professional storm chaser."

Also, hurricanes have recently been striking in places like Florida, where chasers can get around quickly on good bridges and roads and hole up safely in concrete structures. That's different from rural Louisiana and Mississippi, home to miles of secluded inlets.

Authorities are mixed about the practice.

"Like anything, there are two sides to the story," said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County's emergency management director. "Obviously, some of the photographic documentation has historical value," and possibly even research value, he said.

On the other hand, he's afraid that if too many people videotape themselves outside during hurricanes, "people are going to get the impression that storms are not that bad."

Officer Roy Paz, who works on hurricane preparedness for the Tampa Police Department, worries that "when they do get in trouble, it forces first responders to go out and try to rescue them."

Storm chaser Jeffrey Andrew Wear of Norman, Okla., died in Texas earlier this month, but his death wasn't directly caused by the storm. He was driving home from Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Dennis, according to a report in the Longview (Texas) News Journal.

Hurricane chasers say they take safety seriously.

"It does you no good to get hurt in a storm, because you want to live to shoot another day," said Jim Edds of Big Pine Key, who quit his job with the Department of Environmental Regulation last month to chase storms full time.

Horodner said he sets up on the lee side of a brick building before a hurricane hits, and wants to be able to go inside if he has to. Kourounis carries rock climbing equipment - harness, carabiners, rope - in case he needs to secure himself in heavy winds. He said he follows authorities' directions.

Still, they've all had their moments. Once in Nags Head, N.C., in 2003, Edds went to the shoreline for a better look at Hurricane Isabel.

"All of a sudden a two-story wave came through," he said. "I went riding on that wave through a trailer park." A friend captured the scene on video, which can be viewed on Edds' Web site at www.extremestorms.com

Edds said some of his best video ever came when he shot Hurricane Charley last year. By checking radar on his laptop, he saw the hurricane wobble and head into Charlotte County instead of to the Tampa Bay area.

He shot the hurricane in Port Charlotte, resting on his knees with his camera on a low-mounted tripod, set up in a protected alley.

He was thinking, "well, this is real good, I hope it doesn't get any stronger than this. It got a lot stronger than that."

He saw a roof flying past him, and "I was like, oh, my god, this is not good," he said. "Things were spinning around in that little alleyway I was in and I had things in my eye and I couldn't see. . . . I just felt it could suck me out of there."

But the video turned out great, and convinced him he could make it in the business full time.

Kourounis said he was standing in a Pensacola parking lot when Hurricane Dennis hit the Florida Panhandle earlier this month and "the winds knocked me down and I slid 50 feet, feet-first."

He could see he was about to smash into a large truck, so he dug his elbows into the asphalt, which acted like a rudder, steering him into one of the truck's tires instead of the undercarriage.

He dreams of getting to a Category 5 hurricane, like Andrew.

"Just to feel the power of the wind would be incredible," he said.

STOR M SURFING

Many storm chasers have web sites. Here are a few:

www.stormchaser.com www.stormchaser.ca www.extremestorms.com http://www.hurricanevideo.citymax.com/page/page/570059.htm
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