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Waiting for the storm

Ashlander Justin Walker chases after extreme weather for National Geographic
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Ashland barista Justin Walker, 34, runs ultra-marathons when he isn’t chasing hurricanes and tornadoes for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.Jamie Lusch
 Posted: 2:00 AM March 29, 2014

The next time a hurricane makes landfall in the United States, Justin Walker will drop what he's doing and get on a plane to catch it.

He'll then climb into an armored jet boat and hit the ocean where the storm is forming, attempting for the first time ever to film a storm surge making landfall from the water.

If something goes wrong in the boat, he'll be forced to abandon it and scuba dive into the ocean to wait out the storm.

"It's a dangerous game we're playing," said Walker, 34, an Oklahoma native and professional storm-chaser who has lived in Ashland for the last two years.

A graduate of the meteorology program at University of Oklahoma (name corrected from earlier version), Walker said he grew up in "severe weather central" and was chasing storms as a hobby by the time he was in high school.

He later secured a job at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., tracking storms across the country and gathering data for seven years.

His team spent five seasons featured on Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers," four of which you can spot Walker in. Together the team chased hundreds of storms.

"I stopped counting at 100 tornadoes," said Walker, who's also been in the eye of four hurricanes.

"They were windy, wet and cold," said Walker, adding that 50 degree weather seems much colder when coupled with 100 mph hurricane winds. "You're constantly wet. Water always seems to get into the vehicle."

Since leaving the center in 2012 and stumbling into Ashland, Walker took a job as a barista at the Rogue Valley Roasting Co. and began to pursue a new extreme hobby, running ultra-marathons — those longer than the traditional 26.2 miles.

He's completed five 50-mile runs, including the Siskiyou Outback Trailrun from the top of Mount Ashland, and made attempts on two 100-mile runs.

While he plans to continue training for marathons, Walker is also about to be sucked back into the life of storm chasing, as part of a new project he's pursuing with National Geographic.

He leaves Ashland next week to head for the Great Plains, where he'll spend two months chasing tornadoes in a modified vehicle designed to put Walker in the heart of each storm.

The armored, 16,000-pound tornado intercept vehicle is 6 feet long by 6 feet wide, with big spikes that can anchor into the ground if the vehicle is at risk of being carried into a tornado.

Walker will be filmed as part of a 3D IMAX film National Geographic is planning.

In the fall, he'll be on call with filmmakers and report to work if a hurricane is headed for landfall in the United States.

If it does, he'll jump into the armored jet boat to help gain IMAX footage from the water.


"No one has really ever filmed that because it's so dangerous to be in the water during a hurricane. As far as I know, this will be the first documentation of a storm surge from the water," Walker said. "We'll be taking refuge in the boat to protect us from flying debris."

Despite the obvious dangers, Walker said he rarely gets nervous when he faces off with Mother Nature, and was shocked when he heard about the first storm chaser deaths last May.

Tim and Paul Samaras, a father-and-son team of storm chasers whom Walker knew, and a third storm chaser, meteorologist Carl Young, were killed when winds from a violent tornado destroyed their vehicle.

Walker had worked with the Samarases and chased storms with them in the past, and the duo was also featured on "Storm Chasers."

The tornado near El Reno, Okla., had winds recorded as high as 296 mph, and it was measured at 2.6 miles wide, the largest on record.

"They were the first storm chasers ever killed by a tornado," said Walker. "And they were well respected. Not amateurs. It makes you think about it."

Walker said that while he's studied lots of extreme weather, tornadoes remain his favorite.

"The power and beauty and awe of a tornado," said Walker, "it changes people's lives."

Walker said he will film for the documentary for only about 10 weeks this year and 10 weeks next year, leaving him plenty of time to pursue more ultra-marathons.

Sunday, he'll head north to run the Gorge Waterfalls 100K, traversing through the Cascade Mountains and alongside the Columbia River.

In June he'll take a five-day break from storm chasing to run the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run, a course racers have 32 hours to complete. Walker worked the race into his contract when he agreed to do the National Geographic documentary.

After his first tornado-chasing stint, he plans to pack his things into a camper and begin traveling — chasing after ultra-marathons when he isn't hunting for extreme weather.

"It's going to be a marathon of traveling," he said. "It's just going to be crazy."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.



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