ST. PETE BEACH — Cops were shutting down intersections a few blocks east of the Toasted Monkey. About 25 yards to the west, the Gulf of Mexico was spilling over the sea wall and threatening to flood the restaurant, where towels had been jammed underneath the front door.
Meanwhile, three lone diners set up at a table adjacent to the bar under a covered patio outdoors. And as Tropical Storm Eta began its assault on Tampa Bay, the storm chasers munched on coconut shrimp, calamari, Dr. Pepper and a strawberry daiquiri.
You’ve heard of the calm before the storm? These guys are the calm during a storm.
They have been here all hurricane season. Maybe not at this table, or in this state, but on the edge of one of the busiest storm seasons on record. Brett Adair estimates he’s been to his Alabama home 14 days out of the past four months. They started the week off in Miami anticipating Eta’s arrival, followed the storm to the Keys for a short time and arrived in St. Pete at mid-week.
And as their vehicles sit in the rapidly flooding parking lot Wednesday evening, Brandon Clement and Jonathan Petramala begin harassing Adair to finish his dinner before conditions deteriorate.
“More chewing, less talking,” Clement says. “I don’t want to get stuck here.”
This is what they do. They willingly — some might say gleefully — head into the most dangerous natural disasters in the world. And yet they are more attuned to the potential risks than you might imagine. They plot, plan and learn. They don’t necessarily scoff at amateur storm chasers, but they don’t want to be near them either. This is their passion, but it is also their livelihood. And they’re among the best around.
Adair is a meteorologist who formed his own company, Live Storms Media, eight years ago and has contracts with Weather.com and WeatherNation TV. Clement, who lives in Mississippi and owns WXChasing, is renowned for the quality and breadth of his weather-related videos. Petramala, a former news reporter at Bay News 9 and WTSP-Ch. 10, still lives in St. Petersburg and recently won a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for his work on the Alaskan glaciers at AccuWeather TV.
Theirs is a niche business, but a potentially lucrative one, too. They do what most major networks and newsgathering organizations can’t. There are liability problems sending employees to hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanoes. There are experience issues and equipment costs, too.
And that’s what makes these guys so valuable in the industry. Adair and Clement are independent contractors who have the knowledge and daring to get the video everyone wants, and then sell it to whoever is willing to pay. Hurricanes, nor’easters, volcanoes, tornadoes, eclipses, mudslides, whatever you’ve got. Depending on the quality and exclusivity, they can make $10,000 or more in a single day.
They can also be caught completely unaware by a storm’s force, no matter how many times they’ve done this and how many precautions they have taken. Adair has been riding with Clement the past week because he had to leave his truck in Alabama for repairs after Hurricane Zeta hit Louisiana as a Category 2 storm at the end of October.
“I was in Mississippi when it started to come in there in the evening. I had four windows blown out of my truck from a wind gust,” Adair said. “I was parked up against a building, sitting in the truck with glass blowing off the side of my head. The hazards are there.”
As it turns out, Eta’s impact in Tampa Bay probably offered less drama than a storm-weary public might have anticipated. And yet that doesn’t stop Adair, Clement and Petramala from driving the outskirts of flooded neighborhoods overnight looking for videos and stories to tell.
They do hourly updates for news desks on their phones, find spots to shoot standups in the rain, and edit their own footage and interviews on laptops in their vehicles while fire trucks and cops drive past with red lights flashing.
Ask them for harrowing stories of past adventures, and they’re just as likely to tell you about the millionaire in Louisiana who opened his 12-bedroom mansion to storm chasers during Hurricane Delta, using a generator to cook them cajun dinners.
Or their nighttime forays in Hawaiian jungles, trying to avoid both wild boars and U.S. Geological Survey officials, while trying to figure out where the next volcanic fissure would erupt.
They may take requests from news organizations, but they do it on their own terms. They go where they want, and only work with people they trust. When Petramala and Clement got the first aerial footage of Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas in 2019, it was because Clement had spent hours searching and interviewing helicopter pilots before finding one who wasn’t just willing but also capable.
Even then the high winds wreaked havoc on the helicopter’s systems and forced an emergency landing in a mud-soaked area. The 45-minute flight back to safety in Nassau was over massive waves below.
"The (pilot) says, ‘Hey, Jonathan you know that red thing your arm is resting on?’ I say, ‘Yeah?’ He says, ‘If we go down, make sure you grab that because that’s the life raft,'’' Petramala said. "I’m thinking, ‘Okay, yeah sure. I’ve got this.'’'
The world got a taste of storm chasing in 2018 as Adair was live-streaming with a dash cam in his truck during Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. The epic storm was supposed to be a couple of hours away when Adair and Stephen Johnson realized the tidal surge was already washing out roads ahead of them.
“We’re in trouble,” Adair could be heard on the live stream. “We’re in bad trouble, Stephen.”
They abandoned the truck and broke into an evacuated house. Within minutes, with the live stream still going, the truck began to bob in the water and was eventually washed away. People watching online immediately began speculating about Adair’s fate on social media while his wife Rachael sat watching from home.
“Basically, she freaked out for about 90 minutes. The stream went offline and she didn’t know what happened,” Adair said. “When the surge finally ended, there was an A-frame house sitting in the middle of the road and I climbed up to the peak of the roof. I was able to get two phone calls out. I called the chief meteorologist in Denver who had asked me to go into the eye. They had to pull him off the air because he started crying when he thought I was dead. Then I got my wife, the phone was dying and I could barely hear her, but I told her I was safe. I was alive.”
Outside the Toasted Monkey, a nearby sign has blown over and the few remaining patrons at the bar whoop and holler. The guys barely look up from their meals.
So what goes through a storm chaser’s head, I ask, when you are knowingly driving into danger? Are you thinking this is the coolest thing in the world, or are you asking yourself what the hell you’re doing?
“Yes,” Clement smiles. “And yes.”
• • •
2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season
PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter