When Hurricane Nate roared ashore Saturday evening, Biloxi, Miss., was a ghost town. People all too familiar with deadly hurricanes left the coastal areas well before this storm made landfall. Katrina thrashed the region in 2005 — though the area was arguably neglected in news coverage after the levees failed in New Orleans.
On Saturday, Hurricane Nate pushed a 6-foot storm surge onto Biloxi’s main beachfront highway. Buildings flooded and winds whipped through casinos and parking garages, but thankfully they were deserted.
Deserted, that is, except for a couple of storm chasers now being ridiculed as “Darwin Award” nominees.
“We are fighting Hurricane force winds funneling through parking garage with #stormsurge,” storm chaser Mike Theiss wrote from the Golden Nugget Casino as Hurricane Nate made landfall.
Despite the drama in Theiss’s video, actual sustained wind speeds on Saturday night were only 30 to 40 mph in Biloxi, briefly peaking at 53 mph. During that time, wind gusts got up to 70 mph — the same speed a very strong thunderstorm would produce.
Wind in a parking garage would be higher because of the way the air is compressed and funneled through structures. It would also be more erratic and unpredictable. In addition to the wind hazard, the storm surge was waist-deep.
Some meteorologists and Theiss’s followers were unimpressed with his choice to share video of him doing things forecasters urge people to never do:
Mike Theiss is a veteran storm chaser and founder of extremenature.com, who has at least once in his career gotten himself into a situation where he himself needed to be rescued. During Hurricane Harvey, Theiss was in an accident and pleaded for help from his fellow storm chasers in the region.
“Help I am stuck with nothing here,” he tweeted from the roadside in Rockport, Tex. “I’m crashed here ! Reed [Timmer] can you please drive up and get me ?”
The chasers responded and left their shelter hotel to rescue Theiss. A few hours later, he was back to tweeting from the eye of the hurricane. A couple weeks later, he was back again for Hurricane Irma, camped in the Florida Keys as the Category 4 made landfall.
An hour after Theiss posted his video, Accuweather’s Reed Timmer posted his own version from what appears to be the same Golden Nugget parking garage. AccuWeather featured Timmer’s video during coverage of Hurricane Nate.
“What’s the deal with people waist deep in storm surge with this storm?” tweeted Ryan Hanrahan, a meteorologist for NBC in Connecticut. “Many Darwin Award nominees with #nate!”
Hanrahan wasn’t the only person annoyed by Reed Timmer’s show. Some of his followers chimed in:
“The work that I do here is a public service,” Timmer told The Washington Post via email, “and like first responders who place themselves in harm’s way, we do go into dangerous situations but as top professionals do so in intelligent and cautious ways so that people understand the dangers and when told to evacuate they will do so.”
Theiss takes a similar approach to chasing storms.
“This is no different than a war photographer going to war or an astronaut going to space in the name of science.” Theiss told The Post. The only difference, he says, is that he’s “going to war with nature.”
Theiss describes himself as a guy who likes to get in and cover it from the front lines. He said he’s not an adrenaline junkie but rather wants to “share awareness” about the dangers of hurricanes, and he hopes that when people see his videos, they are dissuaded from doing the same things he does.
And yeah, he says — they make them look worse than they really are sometimes.
“We want them to look bad. We want it to scare people,” Theiss said. “If there’s no one documenting it, how’s anyone going to know what it looks like?”
This story has been updated to include a response from AccuWeather’s Reed Timmer.