While most Indiana residents headed to the bathroom or basement while the storm passed through their area Sunday, three Purdue students sought out the devastating weather.
There was an email sent out the day before the storm hit by one of the professors in the Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Science Department urging students in that field not to go storm chasing because the system was so volatile and developing rapidly. In the face of this warning, Josh Gimbel, David Siple and Steve Abston, all students in the College of Science, piled into a pick-up truck and went looking for the storm.
Gimbel, a senior and vice president of the Purdue University Meteorological Association, explained the group’s atypical response.
“As scientists, we’re a bit excited about this because this is what we study, it’s like anybody’s career, we get excited about what we do,” Gimbel said. “But our main goal is to protect the public as much as possible.”
Siple, a junior, was driving when the threesome started out around 12:30 p.m. on Sunday South of Lafayette on Highway 231. They followed the path of the storm according to the Radar Scope app on their phones and the direction and warnings from the National Weather Service coming from their CB radio.
The group drove south of Romney, where a storm was headed, and soon realized they were in the direct path of a potential strong tornado. From there they headed toward Lebanon and ended up south of Elizaville where they witnessed a funnel touch down at 3:44 p.m. in a cornfield. They immediately started recording the event.
“What was cool about what we saw was that we witnessed the birth of a tornado,” Siple said. “I was outside the truck and saw a debris cloud on the ground. I told (Gimbel and Abston) ‘we’re safe, so get out of the truck and start filming.’”
The group believes the tornado they saw was the same one that had done damage in Lebanon that same day. That tornado was an EF-2 on the tornado damage scale, at 60 to 65 miles per hour. They filmed the funnel for about two minutes, at which point it lifted and headed towards Sheridan. The students alerted the National Weather Service of what they had seen, so that local news stations could be informed.
“The main thing we do as chasers is get eyes on the ground where people in an office, people in Indianapolis at the National Weather Service can’t see,” Siple said. “We’re not out there to get the best video, or get 4,000 hits on YouTube, Our main goal is to get people to safety.”
The video the chasers captured is now up to over 6,800 views on YouTube. But according to them, their interest in the storm runs deeper.
“We have a natural curiosity about this powerful force in nature,” Abston said. “We wouldn’t be in the field otherwise, so when you hear us on the tape saying something looks beautiful, or hear excitement in our voices, it’s just the natural wonder of seeing this great force come down.”
The storm spotters wanted to make it perfectly clear that Purdue does not sponsor or endorse their chasing. They had one message they wanted specifically to be heard.
“Our thoughts and prayers do go out to all the lives that have been affected by the tornadoes and storms, especially the six lives lost in Illinois. We do think about the consequences,” said Siple.