Blog: Ditching the Chaser’s Lifestyle


     Weather has always dictated my every decision. Since I was old enough to understand basic weather, not a day has gone by where I wasn’t infatuated by the elements. Through total and complete fear a deep respect formed of Mother Nature as I matured in age. This hunger to understand more about what makes our atmosphere tick has literally consumed my life. It wasn’t just basic weather that drove me. My hunger to understand and pursue severe weather is ultimately what I gravitated toward. I decided at a young age I needed a career in meteorology.  

     I took a very curious path into the meteorological profession. I still can’t quite say I am there, but I am content with where my meteorological lust has placed me. I was always encouraged by family to pursue a career in weather, but other forces were at play. For most of life I played baseball and became quite good at it.  I was all area for my high school team for three out of the four years I was the varsity team. I was scouted by two different major league teams and several different colleges.

     At the tender age of ten I went on my first storm chase with my father and grandfather. It wasn’t about seeing and enjoying the majestic power that Mother Nature provided to many. It was about teaching a ten year old that storms happen regularly and just because the sky grows dark it doesn’t mean the world is coming to a climactic end. To this day, twenty years later I still vividly remember my first storm chase. As I age there are some details I begin to forget about some of my previous storm chases, but this is one I will remember until the day I take my last breath on this planet. Over the past twenty years I have witnessed one hundred and sixteen tornadoes. The tornado was the holy grail of any storm chase. To see one was difficult, let alone over one hundred more. Some were by pure luck, others were skilled forecasting. The end result quenched an insatiable thirst to be as close to Mother Nature’s most powerful force as possibly. This wasn’t always done in the most careful or safe manner. Whether it was the constant grind on the road where I would sleep literally a handful of hours for a week straight or by the weather itself, the physical and emotional grind often put my life in dire straits. I had no direction as a human being and I found myself growing further apart from family, relationships, and my career. 

 

     The time I spent storm chasing in my early 20’s were some of the best times of my life. Let me tell you as a former firefighter, there is no adrenaline rush that compares to staring straight up at even the weakest of tornadoes. I have just about everything crossed off my storm chasing check list, even some of the stuff I had to add on to it on the fly that I never thought possible. It was the other events of my early 20’s that led me down the path I am today. I can truly say I embrace and accept every occurrence from the age of 18 to 28 as fate. Life didn’t always sail smoothly, but the relationships I have today would not have been possible had I not made some poor decisions, some good decisions, and some decisions that are still pending. I like to think the biggest waste of time was trying to follow in my family’s foot steps and get into the firefighting profession. Make no mistake I respect and admire firefighters and the job they do on a daily basis. Some days I miss it, other days I am happy to rid myself of the constant albatross that was my firefighting career. I like to think that was just because of who and where I dealt with versus the profession on it’s own. I feel like I wasted several years of my life on a band aid that I had only a luke warm interest in. I was always drawn back to the weather.

     Somewhere in mid-2011 I hit the wall. My love for storm chasing remained, by capability to do it did not. I wasted a lot of time and resources I should have saved toward my own ventures and my own future. When it was time to grow up, I felt as though I had to do it on my own and I struggled immensely. Going from a life that I literally never needed anything to one where it took every ounce of energy and time to scrounge up a few dollars for my next meal.

     Still, I didn’t give up my love for storm chasing. I just focused my efforts on making enough money to save so I can hand pick the best two or three days out of any given year to chase. In the manner of two years I went from chasing thirty to forty chase set ups all over the United States to chasing a grand total of four times. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to be out there. It wasn’t because I was being responsible either. It was because I literally couldn’t afford to be out there pursuing my passion. This caused me to become a very changed and bitter person. I didn’t want to track or hear about the storms on the great plains. I couldn’t be out there, I didn’t make enough money to get out there quickly, and I had no prospects of changing my life to reach my overall goals.  I have always been a planner throughout my life, but for this dark period I was left out in the open with no cover or way to survive. 

 

     Through hard work, sacrifice, but still a short sighted outlook I was able to regain the chasing lifestyle in 2013 and 2014. I wasn’t as happy doing it though. Storm chasing had changed drastically over the years and now it was just a watered down hobby with the staunch old timers shaking their fists at the newbies fresh out of high school with the Discovery Channel show “Storm Chasers” still fresh in their minds. I never knew quite where to place myself on the storm chase food chart. I like to say I lean more toward the old school veteran mindset versus the aggressive, get rich quick, extreme video taking youths. Nowadays it is almost bad taste and/or embarrassing to be known as a storm chaser. In any hobby or profession all it takes is a few bad apples to ruin the reputation for everyone. Thankfully I lived my life not caring what other people thought about me or my decisions. 

     Life takes you on many unexpected twists and turns. Fate is very real and things certainly do happen for a reason. My life was turned upside down from 2013 into 2014. I like to think a lesser willed man would have crumbled and turned to addictions such as drugs or alcohol. I turned to weather. Weather has been by my side since I was a crumbling child at my mother’s feet during a thunderstorm. I am not talking about storm chasing, I am talking about the physical processes that drives our weather and climate. I decided to go back to school and really dedicate my time on spreading weather education to others. I put storm chasing on the backburner, because to be quite honest it was doing absolutely nothing for my life. Passion will make you happy and give your life a purpose, but it can not pay the bills.  When you are only passionate about an event that you can only feasibly do a couple times a year, you’re going to find yourself depressed and looking for answers like I was. It was time to shift my passion for storm chasing into a much wider scale and start a life long campaign of educating everyone about the weather that impacts us all. In my bio I say I storm chase for purely selfish purposes, now it was my time to become selfless.

     The year 2015 really made my life. Everything came into play and events happened that I still cannot explain.  My now wife and I started really getting serious and making plans for the future, my epiphany that the fire service was a giant waste of time, and several key weather events really took my life in the direction it is now. My dedication to public education was noticed by the National Weather Service in Chicago. I was invited to become a member of their social media team and was one of the only solo acts to be recognized as a “Weather Ready Nation Ambassador.” At the time it was really a giant proud moment in my life, but has since mellowed out since now it seems like any group (qualified or otherwise) can become recognized. I like to think those guys at LOT believe in me and support my message with the weather. I can honestly say the date April 9th, 2015 changed my life. Some of the events and impacts happened immediately, while others waited several months and years to reveal themselves. On that date a violent EF-4 tornado struck northern Illinois. The strongest tornado to hit that region ever, and the strongest tornado in the LOT county warning area since the F5 tornado in 1990 to hit Plainfield. 

     I had a decision to make that afternoon. I could either go chase the setup or I could take up the weather service’s invitation to attend the event at their office to observe operations and to do my part in helping the warning verification process by fishing for social media reports of hail, wind, and/or tornadoes. I had seen over one hundred tornadoes to that point in my career, but felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness at the forecast office. I chose to not chase and go to the NWS. I wasn’t getting paid, I wasn’t officially a part of the NWS, I was just a man that wanted to do everything he could to get the early warning out. These connections I made over the next several hours give me chills because it has opened up so many avenues for my professional career. A professional career that wasn’t just meteorological in orientation. For days I had warned of severe weather. At the time I had several thousands of follows of my page that heeded my warnings, but this is Illinois where you have to see the weather to believe it. 

     One of those men to see the weather would soon become my boss. He and his wife had listened to my weather reports for the days leading up to the event. On that fateful day, April 9th, the sky was murky and overcast. Definitely not a tell tale tornado day by any standard. This man believed in my forecast and stayed aware even though the current weather wouldn’t beg anyone’s attention. That was until just after 6:00 P.M. A violent supercell erupted across Lee County, Illinois and dropped a violent EF-4 tornado. This tornado moved directly through my future boss’s property while he and his family huddled safely in the basement. I didn’t know it at the time, but he sent me a long thank you message commending me on saving his family’s life. I had no idea who this man was other than one of the very loyal residents of the state of Illinois that follow me for their weather. It wasn’t until late Fall that this man came to my aid when I asked if anyone was hiring. That man’s name was Jim Karales, District Manager – USIC. 

     Of more immediate impact to my life was the aftermath of the tornadoes across the region. I was invited by Matt Friedlein and Ricky Castro from the NWS to help survey the aftermath. Being that I couldn’t afford to lose my job, I had to decline. Over the next several months, severe weather pummeled northern Illinois and I would be at the side of the forecasters at the weather service getting more and more involved with their operations. I still was not an employee or had any official capacities, but nearly everyone made me feel welcome there and like they needed my help as much as I needed their approval to be there. I was truly happy after the tumultuous times I had in the years prior. I was allowed to do many things such as help with forecast AFD’s, storm surveys, and even revamped the spotter training courses that the NWS offers every spring.  I one hundred percent credit these series of events on my decision to not chase a day that I expertly forecasted. My chase target city was a mere five miles away from the tornado touchdown in Lee County that day. As a storm chaser it bothers me I wasn’t there to witness history on my home turf, but I realized that day that I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life by dedicating my life chasing the great plains in search of a phenomenon I had witnessed hundreds of times before. 

 

      From 2015 to this very second I have dedicated my time and efforts into making a better life for myself.  Step one was committing my life to the woman that I love and that I would do anything to see happy. She has always supported my storm chasing habits, but I realized the storm chasing lifestyle was never one that would foster a family life. Half way through 2015 we found out we would be having a child. Let me tell you, you can never be prepared to be told you are about to be a father and that your partner was just as excited as you were about it. This little boy changed everything about my life. My focus was now on getting a career to support mom and baby. That’s where USIC stepped in and really propelled my life from one that lived pay check to pay check and penny to penny to one of comfortable living in a nice home with my little one never needing anything in his life. I spent all of 2016 working my ass off to build up a nest egg and building contacts in my new career while keeping contacts with the weather service. That work paid off as in just eight months I was promoted to one of the least tenured supervisors in the region’s history. An accomplishment I hold dear to my heart and cherish every single day. This promotion coupled with my wife’s job has really set our budding family up for success. Many people struggle with their first born child, but I can honestly say we have never felt overwhelmed with the experience. That is in large part to both of our commitment to our family and the help of a very strong circle of friends and family. All of which I feel I would have never achieved had I still embraced the chasing lifestyle. 

     We are now expecting our second child this June. My career has taken off and I run one of the highest functioning crews at my work place. My wife is back in school trying to get higher up the nursing food chain. The prospects look even higher once that happens as we will be able to move into a bigger home, buy new vehicles, and mold our lives just as we like. The weather still consumes my life in a different way. I co-own a successful business called Illinois Storm Chasers. We have nearly a quarter of a million followers and travel all over the state providing live weather support and education/training courses to human of all ages. This is directly possible due to my disconnect from making storm chasing my sole purpose in life. 

     For those still reading this, please heed this message. Do not waste your lives storm chasing. Make no mistake, those will be some of the best times of your life. You won’t think life gets much better to be exact. Take it from someone who has been there and walked in your shoes. Get an education, get a good stable career. Learn how to accept failure and make sacrifices. Sometimes you have to sit out that loaded gun set up, some times you have to go with intuition and sit out a chase. You never know what opportunity choosing option B will open for you. Your success working seasonal jobs, transition from job to job, or simply living off a trust fund like I did will only last so long. You have to learn how to and educate yourself to survive. Otherwise this cruel world is going to eat you alive like it almost did me. I did not quit storm chasing. I still find the time to do it, but the difference is I am completely past the point where the urge to storm chase controls me. I now am able to dictate when, where, and how I storm chase and do so without consequence to my career, personal, or recreational life. I hope all of you out there can find the success and acceptance that I have over the past several years. I am happy to talk about any experience so please feel free to contact me as I know first hand how difficult it is. 

     I did not give up storm chasing, I just gave up the poisonous life style that tried to consume my life forever.

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About Danny Neal

Danny is a storm chaser from the southside of Chicago and has been chasing since 1998. He has over 100 tornadoes documented as well as numerous other extreme weather events. He routinely teaches and trains others about severe and unusual weather and is considered a great resource for Northern Illinois. As a partner with NOAA, he spends most of his time assisting the National Weather Service Chicago during severe weather operations