Jim Leonard - Storm Chaser

As far back as I can remember I have always been fascinated with severe weather. Lightning, thunder, and high winds always intrigued me...weather that was common in South Florida, where I was raised. The howling winds of a severe thunderstorm captured my imagination and fueled a relentless desire to see more.

A great opportunity came to my doorstep when Hurricane Donna arrived in 1960. Donna, a category four hurricane, came through the middle Florida Keys and gave Miami a brush with winds gusting near 100 mph. It was the most awesome experience of my young life.

From then on, I began tracking every tropical storm in the Atlantic basin. Hurricanes Cleo and Betsy, in 1964 and 1965, both hit even closer to home, and provided more adrenalin for a lifetime devoted to storm chasing.

But another direct hit in South Florida was a long time coming (1992!), so it was time to expand my horizons. Tornadoes were naturally my next target. Beginning in 1974, I decided to head for Oklahoma to see some really amazing thunderstorms and hopefully a classic Midwest tornado, something I had always dreamed of.

I saw my first real tornadoes May 28, 1975 in the Texas Panhandle. My chase partner and I saw one to our north, but a second much larger tornado formed alarmingly close to our south and began to chase us!

Later that season, on June 6, near Freedom, Oklahoma, I was lucky enough to take the first known motion picture of an anti-cyclonic (clockwise rotating) tornado in the northern hemisphere.

Now I was hooked on the dual passions of tornado and hurricane chasing, and bringing back my quarry on film. Ever since, I have thought nothing of hopping the next plane to any place in the world where I might have the chance to experience nature's most powerful displays.

This passion for being witness to the most intense forces of nature has taken me to the far-flung corners of the earth. In 1991 I decided to go to Guam, in the northwest Pacific. There, typhoons (the name given to hurricanes in that region) prowl the ocean with greater frequency than anywhere in the world.

The following season in Guam brought a record number of five typhoons to that small island. Foremost in my memory, and captured by my ever-present video camera, was Typhoon Omar, a category four storm that struck just four days after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida...and, unlike Andrew, during daylight. Omar provided some of the most amazing hurricane footage of my career.

Other personal and filmed highlights include Hurricane Gilbert, the strongest Atlantic storm on record, Hurricane Hugo, caught in both Puerto Rico and Charleston, South Carolina, and numerous tornado encounters, including a mile-wide monster near Allison, Texas in 1995, and another mile-wide tornado near Perth, Kansas in 1997.

My video footage has been featured in National Geographic's "Cyclone!" on NBC, the CBS special "Forces of Nature," "Tornado Video Classics" by Tom Grazulis, the Discovery Channel's "Raging Planet," the Weather Channel special "The Chase," plus many commercials. In addition, I contribute video and eyewitness accounts of land falling hurricanes to the National Hurricane Center Storm Surge Unit.

I have only one purpose in life -- to chase and photograph severe storms. I am glad when I can contribute to scientific research and education about storms, but the driving force behind my lifelong passion is the incredible power and beauty of the storms themselves.

Jim interviewing Dr.Lixion Avila at The National Hurricane Center Jim looking over some Hurricane Data at NHC
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