Jamie Mitchem: Into the Storm
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
"It felt like a full-circle moment to go from being chased by tornadoes to chasing them"
This is An "Act of Leadership" logged by The Xylom's Founder and Editor Alex Ip as a Climate Reality Leader. He has been trained by former US Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore in Atlanta, GA, March 2019.
I didn't grow up in a city.
I grew up in a house my grandfather and father built on top of a hill on a tar and gravel road with an address that was simply called Rural Route 7 as a child. There was no computer, internet, cell phone, or even cable at that time in this small community northwest of Spartanburg, South Carolina in the early 1980s. My grandparents were our neighbors, the church was my community, and I knew the forest around me like the back of my hand. There were no other kids nearby so I spent most of my time playing outdoors in the woods, in a sandpile, at the creek, or walking through the swamp at the bottom of the hill. I developed a vivid imagination, respect for nature, and strong family bonds. Life was simple and happy.
If there was one thing that cured my occasional boredom, it was a good thunderstorm. I loved sitting on our front porch with my parents watching the wind gust through the trees, listening to the rolling thunder, and feeling the temperature rapidly drop as the rain began to fall. I was in awe and in love with the weather from the time I was born. I would roost in our bay window with a light turned on outside at the first mention of a chance for snow, and I watched the news just to see the weather. Getting to see The Weather Channel was like a dream come true if I went somewhere that had cable TV. I didn't realize I was abnormally in love with the weather until I got to participate in Science Olympiad for my primary school in the regional competition at Newberry College, and I won the meteorology event. It was the first time the thought entered my mind that this could be a career.
It felt like a full circle moment to go from being chased by tornadoes to chasing them.
As with most meteorologists, I can remember an event that sealed the deal for me. On May 5, 1989, a mile-wide F4 (before the EF scale) tornado struck in Spartanburg County as part of a deadly outbreak of tornadoes. I remember the fear of being in the basement as the storm roared over like an airplane flying just above the tops of the trees, but we were thankfully spared. Near the North Carolina border, several people were killed. I remember being startled by the scenes of devastation as we drove by peach orchards ripped out of the ground, brick homes pushed into rubble, mobile homes flipped, metal high tension power lines twisted on the ground, and trees tossed in every direction. I had never witnessed such violent destruction with my own two eyes. In September of that same year, Category 4 Hurricane Hugo roared across South Carolina creating similar scenes from Charleston through Sumter to Charlotte. From that point on I was committed to learning all I could about weather hazards and why they were so destructive and deadly.
Now that I had the inspiration, I needed the education. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to the University of South Carolina where I earned a B.S. in Geophysics to get a broad scientific background. Since meteorology was not offered in my home state, I was able to attend Florida State University my junior year to take meteorology courses through the National Student Exchange program. That was a difficult year because I didn't know anyone, and I was taking courses with students who had taken more meteorology courses than I had. I considered them my competition and stepped up my game.
There was a conversation that took place there that shook my confidence for a while. In a broadcast meteorology course the professor, who I am sure meant well, pulled me to the side and asked if I wanted to be a TV weatherperson. I told him, "No, my dream is to work at the National Weather Service." He said, "Good because you would never get a job with that accent. If you want I could suggest a diction class to lose the accent and sound more Midwestern." To be honest what he said was probably not wrong. However, the way he said it made me feel like something was wrong with me just for being who I am. I gave up thoughts of being on TV that day. Eventually, I built up enough self-confidence to realize I liked my accent because it is part of where I am from and who I am. I have struggled with confidence a few times along my path, and increasingly I hear others admitting to this reality, too. I think it's okay to be imperfect as long as you are constantly trying to improve.
After earning my undergraduate degree, I earned my M.S. degree in atmospheric science from North Carolina State University focused on mesoscale meteorology and tornadoes. Here I reached a fork in the road where I could pursue a career, continue research in developing better models for weather forecasting, or pursue a Ph.D. degree. Feeling burned out, stressed out, and broke from graduate school, I wanted to get a job. There was a hiring freeze in the federal government at the time so it was going to be difficult. I decided to apply to one graduate school as a back up just in case. No job offers materialized, and as fate would have it I received an assistantship to pursue a Ph.D. in geography back home at the University of South Carolina. This was never my plan, and honestly, I had never considered it a possibility given where I grew up and how unexceptional I felt after graduate school. I was the grandson of textile mill workers, and nobody in our family had ever earned a Ph.D. Could I do it? Sometimes you just have to let yes be the answer and then work your hardest to prove it to yourself. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me.
I had seen another graduate student using Geographic Information System (GIS) software and was intrigued at NC State where she was analyzing antecedent soil moisture before Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999 producing historic flooding in eastern North Carolina. We were friends who both lived through Floyd in Raleigh, and I had assisted with clean up after the event in hard-hit Tarboro and Princeville. If there was anything I liked as much as the weather, it was maps. Therefore, when I got to the University of South Carolina I specialized in hazards geography with Dr. Susan Cutter who mentored me along with climatologists Dr. Cary Mock and Dr. Greg Carbone as I learned GIS. My dissertation included a GIS analysis of place vulnerability to tornadoes by county and face-to-face surveys of the public after tornado events in Georgetown, South Carolina, and Indianapolis, Indiana.
After graduating, I took a job as an Assistant Professor at the California University of Pennsylvania where my colleagues Dr. Chad Kauffman and Dr. Tom Mueller taught me how to transition from student to teacher while having a life outside of work to remain sane and healthy. While there, I had the thrilling opportunity to take students on a couple of storm chases in May in the central United States. It felt like a full-circle moment to go from being chased by tornadoes to chasing them. What had solidified my interest in my area of research was now my object of study. I will never forget passing through the town of Otwell, Indiana, right after a tornado had hit or witnessing a thankfully weak tornado cross the field beside us in Nebraska. This was before the age of cell phones so the technology of getting radar on a laptop in real time was exciting to me back then, too. Storm chasing turned out to be both exhilarating and exhausting with bursts of adrenaline-pumping excitement bookended by the serenity and occasional boredom. It always proved educational in many ways for students and worth every minute of the trip. However, as I age the desire to return is quickly fading.
If there was one thing that cured my occasional boredom, it was a good thunderstorm.
Eventually, I accepted a job teaching at the University of North Georgia to get closer to my parents and in-laws so they can see their grandson as much as possible. Those family bonds still hold strong. What has surprised me is that the passion for weather, hazards, and GIS mapping still holds strong, too. Increasingly the impacts of climate change are becoming observable, and sadly it appears that hazards research is going to be in high demand. With each big event, I often wonder if there is a kid like me who are committing their life at that very moment to learning more about events like that. If so, I hope they get the support, confidence, and luck to do it just like I did and never lose that passion to try to make things better.