New York Storm Chasers don’t need to go to Kansas anymore

Nicholas Isabella, Mariya Isabella, Scott McPartland and John Huntington are part of New York’s small community of storm chasers.
Photo: Victor Llorente

As far as tornadoes go, it wasn’t much: more of a vague black mass than a funnel cloud crossing a New Jersey suburban road. But Mariya Isabella had been waiting for years to capture one on camera, and she and her husband Nicholas drove the last mile to capture it, using radar as a guide. As storm chasers, they regularly track and track weather systems, from lightning to hurricanes. Some do it for the thrill, the chance to capture the raw power of a storm up close. But a few make a living – or, like the Isabellas, run a decent side business selling their footage to television networks and news stations. That day, with the remnants of Hurricane Ida arriving in the northeast, they expected tornadoes, and Mariya finally got her wish to see one. After taking a few pictures, it was time to head back to Bay Ridge.

But Ida’s rain nearly trapped them on the Staten Island Freeway, where water rose to the hoods of cars and blocked exits. As they slowly made their way to a passable exit, Nicholas continued to film and Mariya monitored social media, where she saw that authorities intended to close the Verrazano Bridge. That would leave them stranded on Staten Island. They drove frantically to the bridge and did it just before it closed. But they still didn’t return home and continued shooting videos in Brooklyn and Manhattan until past midnight. When they finally got home, they uploaded their videos to Twitter, where Nicholas has nearly 14,000 followers. No network or news station purchased their footage, as there were already so many storm videos online. Despite this, Nicholas clocked it as his most intense day of storm chasing in New York.

“It was one of the only times I was scared,” Nicholas said. “I don’t take risks. But when you’re stuck on a highway like everyone else and the water starts rising so fast, there’s nothing you can do. You are helpless.

Most storm chasers operate in Tornado Alley, the strip in the Midwest where tornadoes are almost a tourist attraction. Unsurprisingly, the area is saturated with thirsty young hunters trying to outnumber each other’s tornadoes. New York City doesn’t have the drama of Great Plains tornadoes or Southern hurricanes, but it’s always been good for the occasional Northeast or summer thunderstorm. City storm chasers usually get their biggest thrills from chasing bigger storms elsewhere. But in recent years, as the city becomes more prone to the weather, local hunters like the Isabellas have discovered that New York, and not just Kansas, is now good territory for chasing storms.

According to records dating back to 1869, six of the city’s ten biggest snowstorms occurred after the year 2000. Last year, the National Weather Service station in Mt. Holly, New Jersey issued more tornado warnings than the station in Norman, Oklahoma. Hurricane Henri broke a record for precipitation in New York, before Ida set a new one. The downpours, which can cause flash flooding, are getting more and more intense, which is especially dangerous in a city like New York that depends on the sewer system for drainage.

Scott McPartland films lake effect snow in Pulaski, New York.
Photo: David Lewison

“I don’t remember these types of events happening when I was a kid,” said Scott McPartland, a Rego Park resident who’s been chasing storms since he was a teenager in the 1980s. has been there much longer than I have, doesn’t remember these kinds of events.” Now 49, McPartland has a youthful face, a bushy white beard and a long gray ponytail. Early in his career, his footage of a massive tornado in Kansas landed him on national television and earned him the respect of the storm chasing community. But these days, he works from home as a day trader, giving him the ability to chase the storms whenever he wants. He always has his tricked-out Nissan, equipped with bulletproof hail shields and a snow guard, ready to go at any time.

As the storms have become more intense, the demand for storm chasing footage and even personal profiles of those chasing them has increased. Few people have grasped this turn to the city better than Nicholas Isabella. For Nicholas, being in the city during Super Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a pivotal moment for him.

“You could put on the news and watch weather events in New Orleans or Texas and think, Wow, that sucks,” he said. “But I was waist deep in water watching the power go out in Manhattan, thinking… This is happening in my city. It’s hitting close to home.”

Nicholas volunteered in post-Sandy recovery efforts, where he first met Mariya. But he only started chasing storms three years ago and keeps his day job as a Staten Island Ferry deckhand, which helps pay for his hunting expenses. By now, he’s become something of an influencer, posting weather news, his pictures, and the occasional meme about failing forecast models on social media while slowly building up a respectable Twitter and Instagram account. He sees a correlation between his popularity and the increase in extreme weather activity in New York, since he posts real-time information about storms as they occur.

The competition he faces from everyone who owns a cell phone makes it harder to sell footage. But because it’s New York, the networks are always quick to buy videos of weather events, even if they’re not that dramatic or not a storm at all.

“I have to be creative with it,” Nicholas said. “New York City is always in the news. If I lived in the middle of Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t work for me that way.

Last summer, when smoke from wildfires on the West Coast swept across the country, causing poor air quality and hazy red skies in the city, Nicholas photographed the out-of-focus Statue of Liberty. and the barely visible downtown and sold the footage to ABC, CBS and Weather Channel. When the heat wave hit, he drove to Coney Island and filmed people on the beach. It sold for a few hundred dollars too. During blizzards, he goes to Times Square in the middle of the night and captures snow falling in the light of billboards on empty streets, and offers his images to the networks before the news broadcasts of the morning are broadcast at 7 a.m. By comparison, hunters working in Tornado Alley rarely take advantage of their warband because there are so many of them and the storms are often in the middle of nowhere, causing minimal damage to homes and infrastructure.

As extreme weather hits New York more frequently, storm chasers aren’t just shooting storms; they often alert authorities to dangerous conditions and provide raw data to researchers. During Tropical Storm Ida, John Huntington, a 57-year-old Brooklyn storm chaser, was driving near the Brooklyn Army Terminal when he experienced flash flooding. He called 911, but couldn’t reach. So he filed a report through the Spotter Network, a non-profit organization that has been streamlining storm documentation since 2006. The Spotter Network trains anyone interested in recognizing different types of weather and filing reports of hazardous conditions, which are then forwarded to the NWS. , and are available to the media and researchers.

John Huntington returns from a crashing wave trying to capture a northeast in the Rockaways.
Photo: Clara McMichael

Since the NWS works primarily by looking at satellite imagery and radar, knowing what is happening on the ground is extremely useful. “We had to rely on [storm] a lot more spotters in the last few years because we’ve had so much severe weather,” said Sarah Johnson, meteorologist at NWS Mt. Holly. “Flash flood monitoring is actually very difficult in a city like New York,” said Bernice Rosenzweig, professor of environmental science at Sarah Lawrence College. “We relied on this observational data from people who like to go out and chase storms.”

Huntington, who works as a professor of entertainment technology at New York City College of Technology, chases storms only when his teaching schedule permits. He rarely sells his footage because he doesn’t need the extra income, and he usually shoots less profitable photos than videos, preferring to freeze the moment in time. Instead, he often shares his images during presentations to local nonprofits.

In late October, Huntington was monitoring a storm that had caused tornadoes in Illinois and was moving east to New York, where the NWS had issued a flash flood watch and Governor Kathy Hochul had declared a preventative emergency. in the event of a disaster. The city was still on the hot coals of the Ida flood.

From home, Huntington was tracking the storm by radar, and when it arrived, he left for the Rockaways at 9 a.m. He had four hours to hunt before he had to return for a staff meeting. He circled the island, photographing the churning waves with his camera and taking wind speed readings as he walked the beach. At JFK, daily rainfall broke a registration which had been set in 2002. The storm subsided that afternoon, but in the evening the rain started again and the winds were also expected to pick up. Huntington was already planning to go out the next morning.

“People misunderstand that we seek destruction,” he said. “That’s part of it, but it’s about witnessing the power and documenting for the future.”

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