Do The Twist(er): Local Musician Chases Storms For Fun and Profit

Categories: Longform

Photo by Chelsea Flickinger
Local musician Hank Schyma chases tornados.
Hank Schyma doesn't come off as insane. Not at first. He speaks clearly and eloquently about being a storm chaser, and as you're talking with him, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing.

Hank Schyma, front man for Houston band the Southern Backtones, has been chasing storms for more than a decade and says he's determined to keep doing it, despite the recent deaths of storm chasers in El Reno, Oklahoma.

Then you watch the videos. You watch as Schyma points a camera at a tornado, a black vortex of more than 100 mph of wind and power that is heaving and whirling along, ripping apart whatever is in its path. And there's Schyma following alongside it, narrating what's going on outside the window of his car in a voice that sounds as if he stole it from a National Geographic special.

Schyma, 41, the front man for the long-running Houston rock band the Southern Backtones, once found himself at the end of a closed dirt road in South Dakota with nothing to do but watch as a mile-wide funnel cloud moved toward him. He'd been motoring alongside the thing, shooting footage as he peered out his windshield, trying to see through the rain, when he skidded to a halt as the road ended. All he could do was sit there, helpless, surrounded by wheat fields, and wait to find out if he was going to die in South Dakota. The funnel cloud spun itself out into nothing right before it got to his car, but that was just luck. He doesn't take people chasing with him anymore, in case his luck ever runs out.

"What happens is you live, and this happens every day. You think, 'I could die,' and the first time you freak out, and later you hear yourself on camera, and you sound freaked out, so you learn composure," he said.

Schyma has been chasing storms for more than a decade. He was there when a mile-wide twister ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013, and he was one of many storm chasers on hand when a 2.6-mile-wide tornado touched down near El Reno 11 days later.

"It's weird. You see your dream and it's right there in front of you, and then it turns around and kills people," he said.

It's a tricky thing, loving the sight of these storms and knowing how destructive they can be, working after a storm has passed to clear debris and search for anyone who might be trapped. His passion for weather and the monster storms it spits out was sparked years before that, when he was just a kid.

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