Hank Schyma: Southern Backtones Singer Is Fearless Tornado Chaser

Categories: Only In Houston

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Photos and video courtesy of Hank Schyma
Hank Schyma shot that.
If you saw the dramatic footage out of North Texas Tuesday, hopefully from the safety of your living room or gathered around a TV at work, you know that weather events like those tornadoes can make pretty compelling television. And someone has to head straight into those storms to film all that video.

Since 2000, that's what Hank Schyma, front man for long-running Houston modern-rockers the Southern Backtones, has done for a living. He hasn't quite started his own storm season yet, but even Tuesday afternoon, "people are blowing up my phone telling me what I'm missing out on," he says.

Schyma can trace his interest in tornados and weather back to being "obsessed" with the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, and looking out the windows of his family's home near Dallas hoping to see a funnel cloud whenever a "tornado watch" would come on TV. But he confesses he doesn't really know why he decided to pursue storm-chasing as a career.

"I still haven't figured it out," he says. "Why do some people become an accountant?"

Then Schyma happened to be working as a cameraman at Channel 11 when the weather nerd struck up a friendship with the station's popular buzz-cut meteorologist at the time, Dr. Neil Frank.

"I pretty much hounded Dr. Frank," Schyma says. "He took me in and taught me about forecasting."

In the past 12 years, Schyma says he's photographed 38 up-close pictures of tornadoes. He does hurricanes too -- here's Schyma in the middle of Hurricane Ike -- and says his real pastime, which can also be lucrative if you get the right shot, is lightning photography. He also filmed a documentary about chasing tornadoes, The Monster Show, he hopes to release in September.

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Southern Backtones on Facebook
The Southern Backtones during SXSW 2010; Schyma is on the right
Schyma says high tornado season runs from mid-April through mid-June. Unless something big happens, he's got one more gig Saturday in College Station -- the Backtones released their first album in five years, La Vie en Noir, earlier this year -- before putting the band on the back burner and heading off.

He makes his money by selling his footage to cable networks like CNN and The Weather Channel. Although he calls what local affiliates pay "chump change" by comparison, he says they are good about highlighting his local ties, calling him a "Houston storm-chaser" when they use his video.

Schyma sat out Tuesday's storm because traffic and other factors can make it difficult to chase storms around large urban areas like the Metroplex. (He was actually watching a movie about storm-chasers in local IMAX - "my competition.") But Schyma will chase storms all over the Great Plains, all the way up into Kansas and Nebraska.

When tornados are active, Schyma says he is "on call all the time." He knows where to position himself by closely following computer models and keeping an eye on the jet stream, and can know where a storm is likely to occur as many as eight days out.

"The jet stream is pretty forecastable," he says. "If the jet stream is going through the plains, there's a pretty good chance of [a tornado] happening."

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