Bachelorstudent Melody Sturm is a storm chaser. At the beginning of September, as many people fled the Caribbean ahead of hurricane Irma, she flew in. In the eye of the hurricane she experienced her finest moment. So far, that is.
In Naples, Florida, Melody Sturm holds up a wind meter to measure the force of hurricane Irma. Photo Melody Sturm
Melody Sturm is sitting on a bench outside Impulse. The sun is shining; the sky is blue, flecked with the odd little cloud. Dull weather, really, for a storm chaser. But she does enjoy it, as long as it doesn’t go on too long. She recently spent four months in Malaga to learn Spanish. Clear blue skies day in, day out. That makes her restless. Not surprising perhaps, with a surname like hers. ‘Yes, Sturm is an apt surname. But no one else in my family is the slightest bit interested in the weather. I’m the only one,’ explains the BSc student of Soil, Water, Atmosphere. Her fascination with wind and weather goes back a long time. ‘My mother says that as a baby I could stare at the trees for hours. My cot was in the bay window. I didn’t make a sound but just gazed at the movement of the leaves. That’s when it all went wrong.’ She laughs.
The fascination didn’t go away. As a toddler, Sturm watched documentaries on the National Geographic and Discovery channels. ‘About volcanoes and hurricanes, and those kinds of extreme events. I was fascinated by the effects of natural phenomena on people: the destruction, the suffering. That’s when I saw my first tornadoes too.’ But the decisive moment came in 1996. She was just six years old, but she remembers it well. Twister came out, the famous film about tornado chasers, starring Helen Hunt. ‘That film made a huge impression on me. Hey, there are people who chase after those things. I want to do that too!’
From that point on, Melody Sturm’s career was pretty much decided. To chase after storms you need to know a lot about weather. To learn a lot about weather, you need to study meteorology. ‘And then there are two options in this country: Utrecht or Wageningen. I chose Wageningen because the approach here is more practical. I did have to look up on the map first, though.’
Sint Maarten or Florida
Irma was not the first hurricane Sturm had experienced. When she was 14 she stayed with relatives in Florida and experienced two hurricanes, evacuation and all. But when she was home in the Netherlands and about to miss a category 4 hurricane, she was so disappointed that her parents put her on a plane again. And in May, Sturm went storm-chasing in Oklahoma for the first time, with a group of Dutch storm chasers.
This month, when hurricane Irma began to grow into the monster she eventually became, Sturm was on an outing to celebrate an anniversary of her mother’s. She realized immediately that this was her big chance. ‘I had always wanted to be in the eye of a hurricane like that. I cut the outing short and thanks to the kindness of my colleagues at MeteoGroup, I was on a plane to Florida a few days later.’
By that time Irma had calmed down from category 5 to 4. ‘Sint Maarten was not an option. Even if the plane had been able to land, there would have been no way out afterwards. I had more chance in Florida. And besides, I know my way around there.’
Death and destruction
The inevitable question is why, of course. Why would anyone want to be in the eye of a hurricane that sows death and destruction? ‘I want to understand it, to experience it,’ says Sturm after a brief pause. ‘This is what fascinates me. How can nature create such a monster? A cloud that develops a will of its own and starts rotating on its own axis. Thanks to my work I understand how it works, but experiencing it yourself is something else again.’
And yes, the excitement and the kick are part of the attraction. ‘I like looking for that. But it’s safety first. I weigh up the risks carefully, and whether it’s worth it to me. And you never go out alone but with at least two or three others. You need a driver, a navigator and someone who keeps an eye on the meteorology.’ In Florida, Sturm was with a fellow Dutch storm chaser and an experienced American. And indirectly with a lot of others. Storm chasing is popular. ‘In Oklahoma, part of Tornado Alley in the US, it is getting problematic. So many people go chasing after storms that there can be traffic jams on the country roads.’
After precise calculations, Sturm and her colleagues installed themselves in the city of Naples. Irma, now weakened to category 3, was expected to pass directly over the city. At the moment they’d all been waiting for, Sturm made a selfie film, which is online. She looks childlike in her delight – almost ecstatic, in fact. In the background there is hardly any wind. Nothing is happening. ‘You have to see this in the light of what went on beforehand,’ she explains. ‘The closer the eye comes, the stronger the wind. Gusts were measured of 142 miles an hour, which is 229 kilometres an hour. We had put the car in a solid-looking multi-storey carpark. We ourselves were at a safe spot out of doors. Sometimes we walked around but at some point you don’t dare do that anymore. You can see all sorts of objects flying through the air. Palm trees almost flattened. You feel very vulnerable. And then, in no more than half an hour, it falls still. I was completely overwhelmed. It was a huge dream of mine to stand in the eye like that. And then suddenly, there you are. After all the travelling, all your efforts.’
If anyone thinks Sturm’s hunger must be satisfied now, they can think again. ‘No, I’ve just got new dreams now. In the end, this was only a category 3. If I get the chance to experience a 5, I’ll take it. And in this eye, I only saw a small patch of blue sky above me. It’s most beautiful when the sky is totally blue, as if there is nothing going on at all. I’d like to see that. I’m not done yet, by any means.’