Couple chase storms from outback to plains
A weather-chasing vehicle in Marion County is an unusual sight. Even more unusual is who is driving it.
Professional storm chasers Clyve Herbert, a retired train driver for Metro Melbourne, and Jane ONeill, retired national manager with Toner Express, call Hillsboro their second home. Their first is just outside Victoria, Australia, in a place called Trentham.
“We always wanted to study top-end storms in tornado alley,” Herbert said. “They are bigger and more frequent here than anywhere in the world.”
The two have been chasing super cells in America since 2008, and chasing storms together for 14 years. They met at a weather group meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in 1997.
Since coming to America, they have chased thousands of storms from North Dakota to Texas and taken hundreds of thousands of photos, including 40 to 50 they have chased this year.
The couple also is certified through the National Weather Service to verify radar reports.
“It’s a little unusual for them to get Australians on the line,” ONeill said, “but they’re used to us now.”
ONeill has been chasing storms since she could walk. Herbert has been chasing since the ’70s. According to Herbert, storms in Australia are less intense.
“In Australia, tornadoes rotate in the opposite direction,” Herbert said. “In the USA tornadoes rotate counter clockwise and clockwise in Australia, however on rare occasions tornadoes can reverse their rotation in both countries.”
Typically, they spend the spring here chasing storms, They then head back to Australia in September.
“Switching back and forth can be a bit tricky at first because in America we have to remember miles, feet, and Fahrenheit,” ONeill said. “In Australia it’s kilometers, meters and Celsius.”
For the first few seasons, ONeill and Herbert stayed in hotels. When that became too expensive, they decided to look for a place to buy.
“At first we looked in Marion, because we liked the area, but we couldn’t find anything that would work for us, so we tried Hillsboro,” Herbert said.
The two bought an old home and with the help of Herbert’s son, who flew in from Australia, fixed it up. They now call it their second base of operation.
“Because of chasing we had driven through the area multiple times and really liked it,” ONeill said. “While Kansas doesn’t get the amount of storms Oklahoma and Nebraska does, we liked the state better.”
They also say the states, central location makes it a great place to call home.
“We can get to almost anywhere pretty easily,” Herbert said. “Just this week we were in South Dakota chasing.”
In addition to pictorially documenting American storms, Herbert and ONeill are reading to learn about storms and how they form.
“Jane and I are both studying atmospheric science,” Herbert said. “We are always studying, reading and writing reports.”
Herbert also is certified in basic first aid. Most professional storm chasers are certified, he said.
“If we get into a situation where there are people who need help, I can perform basic life saving practices,” Herbert said.
The couple also answers questions while out in the field.
“People need to learn what they’re dealing with,” he said. “Storms often do something no one expects, and people need to know.”
Herbert and ONeill practice safety by not chasing in urban areas. They also back off a storm if it starts looking too unpredictable.
“You can get killed if you don’t know what you’re doing,” ONeill said. “These storms can change so quickly and grow so fast that you can’t outrun them.”
Herbert and ONeill said they chased the June 31, storm in Oklahoma that killed fellow storm chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young.
“We didn’t like the look of that storm so we backed off,” ONeill said. “It was a bad deal those three were the people. People in our field respected and went to when we had questions. It was such a loss.”
According to ONeill, the storm went from producing multiple tornadoes to producing one large, two-mile-wide monster in less than 30 seconds. While storms like this are rare, they do happen.
“We’ve seen dozens of large tornadic storms since coming here,” ONeill said, “and they have each been different. People need to learn how to respect them.”
Herbert and ONeill preach this respect at talks throughout the country. Thursday, they met with seniors at the Hillsboro Senior Center. There they tried to get as much historical weather information about the area as possible.
“There was one lady there who could vividly remember the dust bowl,” Herbert said. “Several could remember being in large tornadoes. Traumatic weather events like that, you remember them.”
This season, Herbert and ONeill will go home to Trentham in July, but will be spending their first Christmas in Kansas this year.
“We’ll be back as long as at least one of us is mobile enough to push the other one around,” ONeill said.