As Yasi bears down on North Queensland, there are some people defying emergency advice and charging headfirst into the enormous storm system, rather than away.
Chris ‘Nitso’ Nitsopoulos is a storm chaser excitedly awaiting the arrival of Yasi in the town of Cardwell, 100km south of Innisfail. He is part of a group of Townsville-based “weather enthusiasts” and has been following severe meteorological events since he was able to drive. His crew of storm chasers plans to watch Yasi batter the North Queensland coast.
“We feel we’re probably in a decent position to see the eye and the strongest winds in this system,” ‘Nitso’ told Crikey from Cardwell. “We’ll initially watch from close to the coast and then when the huge gusts start occurring we’ll look at safety first and perhaps getting indoors in a very safe structure.”
Cyclone Yasi is huge. With winds of up to 320km/hr and a front the size of Tasmania, it is bigger than Cyclone Larry — which battered Innisfail in 2006 — and stronger than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
Nick Moir is a storm-chasing photographer for The Sydney Morning Herald. He was Australian Press Photographer of the Year in 2002 for a series on Sydney’s severe weather. While he was unable to chase Yasi, he says a weather event of this size could be a “once in a lifetime experience” for storm chasers.
“If you’re well prepared, you can be safe to a fairly decent extent,” Moir told Crikey. “It would be really scary but it’s a historic event. As a photojournalist you’re supposed to be witness to these kind of things and to record them for other people to see.”
According to ‘Nitso’, being prepared for a storm chase involves taking “as many safety precautions as possible”. As well as weather stations and photographic equipment, the crew is stocked with first aid kits, tinned food, water and extra fuel. “Basically everything to tide us over for a few days,” he says.
Nitsopoulos, who’s day job involves running a website that sells running shoes and sport supplements, got hooked on storms as a kid when a hailstorm unexpectedly ripped through Sydney in the 80s. That storm tore the roof off his house, leaving him captivated by the power of weather.
“The first time I chased a storm was when I got my license. I was 19,” he said. “I’ve been studying cyclones and storms for many years. I was 13 when I first started. I’m just fascinated by the sheer power of the wind.”
‘Nitso’ reckons the biggest cyclone he has experienced was Cyclone Ului, a category five which hit Queensland last year — “but this is going to kill that one”. A cyclone arrives very quickly, he says, going from “almost nothing to amazing gales and strong winds”.
While Moir has never been in the middle of a cyclone, he has seen some pretty extreme weather events, including tornadoes. He reckons microbursts, when a thunderstorm creates strong gusts, are some of the strongest winds he’s seen.
“I’ve seen trees ripped out of the ground in front of me, rooves ripped off houses,” he said. “But even then that’s going to be a 100km/h below what will be going on up there.”
Moir says the main difference between chasing a tornado and a cyclone is the size of the system and the unpredictability: “You can get very close to a tornado and still be relatively safe, safer than people who don’t know it’s coming. But once you’re in a cyclone, you’re stuck in the worst part of the storm for hours and hours and hours.”
As his crew prepares for Yasi to make landfall later this evening, and with strong winds expected to last 24 hours, ‘Nitso’ said there was a sense of awe and excitement amongst his team “but also a sense of trepidation”.
“You’re always nervous. It’s when you’re not nervous that you do stupid things. That’s when you get hurt,” he said. “But we feel we’ve taken as many safety precautions as possible and we think we’ll be OK.”