Storm sheds light on WKU meteorology student’s future career

Amira Ahmetovic

The feeling that comes from seeing heavy, violently rotating storms in person is exhilarating for meteorology student Lee Campbell.

However, seeing the damage they cause quickly puts things into perspective.

Campbell, a Paducah senior, and other students in WKU’s Field Methods in Weather Analysis class chased the May 22 storm that devastated Joplin, Mo., ending their pursuit only moments before it turned into a deadly tornado that killed at least 138 people.

“Witnessing such violent rotation in person is an incredible feeling,” Campbell said via email. “But, it is a kind of a gut check to be excited and hopeful to see a tornado, and then it does what it did to Joplin.”

Campbell said the group was pulling for a tornado to touch down before it hit Joplin.

When one actually formed, Campbell felt horrible.

“We were a part of history by being on that storm, but that is a part you wish you were never a part of,” he said. “I have a whole new respect for how quick Mother Nature can turn to devastation.”

Campbell, who will graduate from WKU next spring, said he either wants to work at the National Weather Service or become a meteorology professor.

The field methods course Campbell enrolled in is in its second offering and will be offered each May term, said Josh Durkee, assistant professor of meteorology in the Department of Geography and Geology. Students majoring in meteorology get priority in the selection process because they take courses that lead up to and follow up on the storm chase class.

Durkee gains motivation to chase storms because they make him “extremely excited in ways that cannot be explained.”

“Most people have their ‘fix’ for adrenaline, such as sky diving, bungee jumping, etc. Chasing storms is for me,” Durkee said via email. “I can’t speak for everyone in class, but my students give a similar sense for that passion. Hearts race, but in a good way.”

Durkee said the only time he becomes scared is when there’s a potential for harm to people by the storms.

Students in the field methods class have been following tornadoes throughout the nation for the past couple of weeks.

At this point, Durkee said the class has only seen two weak tornadic circulations over a lake and numerous funnel clouds, many of which were extremely close to the ground.

“We have not witnessed the classic tornado yet, at least this year,” he said. “Last year we saw seventeen.”

Campbell said the class gives students an opportunity to experience real-life forecasting.

“If we forecast a city eight hours out of the way and nothing is to happen, imagine how frustrated the other nine people in the van are with you,” he said. “You’re put into a position to perform at your best, and we have done excellent thus far.”