Pensacola's storm chaser

Super Typhoon Haiyan one of biggest challenges of Jim Edds' long career in photographing extreme weather

Storm chaser Jim Edds sent some of the first images out of the destruction wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Storm chaser Jim Edds sent some of the first images out of the destruction wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Seeking refuge in the pool was a first for Jim Edds.

But it seemed like the best option the veteran hurricane storm-chaser photographer had as Super Typhoon Haiyan roared ashore in the Philippines on Nov. 8.

Edds was staying at the Leyte Park Resort in Tacloban, a structure built by Imelda Marcos — “and she spared no expense on anything,” he says, 15 feet up on a cliff overlooking the shore. While storm surge was certainly no threat, small projectiles driven by what would become Haiyan’s 195 mph sustained winds started pelting Edds, so into the pool he went.

He also got some cool footage of the winds from one of the most powerful storms ever recorded driving the pool water out of the pool as it made landfall. His images of the storm and its immediate aftermath were among the first to be broadcast from the Philippines following the killer typhoon.

It was the first time in Edds’ long career as a storm-chaser that he saw dead bodies in the wake of a storm.

“It really bothered me,” Edds says. “I started seeing the dead kids and that is when it really came to me, ‘This is really, really bad.’ ” He says he saw in the death poses the way people faced their end, hands out in front of them.

“All kinds of things run through your mind then. It gets really personal when you see that. I didn’t want to film it, but a friend said, ‘You’re gonna feel strange, but you’ve got to record the event. Film what you see and figure it out afterward.’ I tried to film it where you couldn’t see a face.

“My intent was to get the story out, because I didn’t think the story had gotten out about how bad it was.”

If his images spurred someone to give to aid efforts, or encourages someone to think more seriously about how prepared they are to survive a hurricane or tornado, it is worth it to him.

Next week he will fly to California and is scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Nov. 27 to talk about his experience.

A Weather Channel 'original'

Edds, 55, has been a contracted stringer for The Weather Channel for 12 or 13 years — “I have a file in my name on their server,” he says. That relationship began when Edds lived in Key West and would wake to shoot morning sunrise video and send it to the channel.

His father was in the U.S. Air Force and retired from Eglin Air Force Base in 1974 and pursued a degree in accounting from the University of West Florida. Edds lived in Pensacola until 1992.

But two experiences would shape Edds for his future as a storm-chaser.

One was a boating accident in his third year at UWF that would delay his schooling for a year or so. Edds says he was run over by a boat while spearfishing at Alabama Point. He had to be LifeFlighted to Baptist Hospital and nearly died. For a time he wasn’t sure if he would walk again.

When he did graduate with a degree in chemistry, he found work as a polymer chemist for a local chemical company. When the company was bought out and the work moved to Raleigh, Edds did not follow.

The father of his college girlfriend, from whom Edds split when she went on to medical school, remained a friend of Edds. When the father died, Edds said it got him thinking that life was short, too short not to do something that he really loved.

Burned out on his trade, he said he pursued photography, became a SCUBA diver and ended up working for the Florida Department of Natural Resources in Marathon.

He and three friends would go to the Everglades and swim with alligators and shoot footage of it. When those images circulated in 1996, Edds parlayed the exposure into a show on Discovery called “Extreme Contact.”

He shot his first hurricane — 1998’s Hurricane Georges — with Jim Leonard, a legend in the storm-chasing circles.

“He taught me how to stay safe and about the inner workings of a hurricane,” Edds says. From then he was hooked.

While still working for the state, Edds used his vacation time to chase and photograph storms. He built his portfolio of work through the 2003-05 storm seasons, “a stretch of 20 years’ worth of storms in two years,” he says.

That included the 2004 season, which brought hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne to Florida in the span of several weeks. By 2005 he decided to give up his “day job” and make a go of it as a professional photographer and storm-chaser.

Chasing Haiyan

Edds says that storms born in the Pacific outpace Atlantic storms for strength and intensity, and he just knew that one of these days a monster storm was going to come to the Philippines.

“I just thought, that’s the storm I want,” he says.

That turned out to be Haiyan, though it didn’t seem it would be when he left his home in Pensacola, bound for the Philippines to take the check out the storm. His hunch earned him a big scoop — he beat most other media to the area by at least eight hours.

Edds’ father had two tours in Guam when he was in the Air Force, and Edds says he also was helped by his time there and in the Philippines as a young man.

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And he had time to recon the area that seemed the most likely to be near the eye of the storm. Through an iPad app he tracked the dropping barometric pressure and as he tweeted those numbers out, his Twitter following @ExtremeStorms exploded — from 3,500 or so to nearly 12,000 as of this week. In the days after Haiyan as his images got out, he was swamped with requests for interviews from media outlets all over the world.

“It was a big scoop for The Weather Channel,” he says with obvious pride.

Storm chasing as a calling

Edds loves the life of a storm chasing, even if it hasn’t led to a very settled life. He never married, but he did reconnect with that former college sweetheart, now a pathologist. So life has its rewards.

“People say, ‘You are crazy’ to do this, and I say, ‘OK, I’m crazy.’ But everyone is going to need to know something about the weather. And we only know what we experience.”

For many years Hurricane Camille was the standard in terms of what people from the Gulf Coast thought about the dangers of storm surge. “People thought, this is as high as the water came in Camille so from here we’ll be safe. Then Katrina changed that.”

“Even here, who would have thought before Ivan that the water would ever get high enough to wash out the (Interstate 10) bridge?” Now, he says, we know it can.

Edds has deep respect for the power of nature -- and he wants others to have it, too.

In 2012, Edds wrote an ebook, "Hurricane Journey: Life in the Danger Zone” designed for the iPad with Jeff Gammons. He says he may get into writing apps, maybe learning new software in the offseason.

Edds would like to see what he views as basic survival guide information about how hurricanes and tornados form, develop and move woven into school curriculum and other public education outlets.

Education, he says, is the only way for people to develop good safety plans for themselves, their families and their communities. He thinks images like those he captures of a storm’s aftermath can be the cautionary tale about what happens if you aren’t prepared. It is the next step in his professional calling.

“Everybody is going to need to have some basic storm knowledge just to save your life,” he says. “That’s what it is about.”

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