Inside the Mind of a Hurricane Chaser
Josh Morgerman is an obsessive stormchaser. As hurricanes grow fiercer and more destructive, what does it mean to be someone who loves them?
Around 7 A.M. on September 20, 2017, the wind has become a roaring white wall. In his hotel room, Josh Morgerman presses his hand flat against the trembling glass of the patio door. He’s filming, and his left hand appears in the shot, heavy with the skull-shaped biker ring he bought on the Sunset Strip and the pinky ring he had made in the shape of his brand logo—a lowercase i over the meteorological symbol for a cyclone. The glass flutters under his palm.
Outside, Hurricane Maria churns over Humacao, Puerto Rico, nearly a Category 5 storm, winds moving at the speed of a jet at takeoff. He feels the familiar gut clench of fear: primal, perfect.
An older woman, a young woman, and a boy are huddled inside his bathroom. Strangers. The windows in their room exploded hours ago, and they took shelter here. Morgerman’s camera flicks back and forth between their grim faces and the chaos outside. He’s narrating, handing them pillows: “I always say the bathroom’s the best place to be during the really bad winds.” They look as if they’re at a funeral. He sounds like he’s at a birthday party. The wind rattles the glass.
“Got to be some of the strongest winds of the morning,” Morgerman says. He should stay in the bathroom with them, but, as always, he can’t stay far from the storm.
At 49, Morgerman has survived the inner cores of nearly 50 hurricanes—by choice. He is one of a small cadre of men (they’re all men) who chase giant tropical storms around the world: wherever residents are trying to evacuate, Morgerman is usually on an inbound flight. If he’s lucky, he will be able to place himself underneath a huge rotating lathe of air and water driven by the energy from heated oceans, spinning around a single cyclopean eye that can be as small as five miles wide.
He calls it an addiction. “It’s like a hunger for food or sex,” he says. “It’s very innate, it’s hard to verbalize, and it drives you.”
It’s a weird time to love hurricanes. Over the decades that Morgerman has been chasing them, the conversation around these storms has shifted. Scientists say it’s still unclear exactly how our rapidly warming climate is affecting the normal on-again, off-again hurricane cycle. Still, a series of absolutely catastrophic hurricane seasons for the U.S. have changed how we think about these storms—and perhaps about the kind of person who would spend their life chasing them.
Puerto Rico’s first people, the Taino, knew Juracán as a god. Petroglyphs thousands of years old show a howling mouth and flailing arms, spinning in the same vortical spiral familiar today from satellite imagery. This part of the world has always been under the whim of weather.
But Morgerman grew up in a gentler latitude. A child of the suburbs outside New York City, he had the misfortune of having been born in 1970, a lull in the hurricane cycle. The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is a roughly 20-year weather pattern that alternates between warm periods, when storms are common, and cool periods, when they’re rare. The 1940s and 1950s had been a warm period, with ferocious storms. But in the cold period of the seventies through the early nineties, storms were rarer and smaller—what one meteorologist called “nice, well-mannered, housebroken hurricanes.”
In 1976, Hurricane Belle swept over the Long Island house where six-year-old Morgerman was sleeping. It wasn’t much of a storm, but he remembers waking the next morning to find the world transformed: trees down, his family’s garden destroyed, everything strange and gleaming in the poststorm sunlight.
“I was like, ‘What the fuck happened?’” he recalls.
That pretty much started his obsession with extreme weather. (At least, that’s how he remembers it. His mother traces it to watching The Wizard of Oz when he was four.) “People see me as this adrenaline junkie,” he says, “but the genesis of it is, I’m really a Category 5 nerd.”
Growing up, he sent a steady stream of pencil-and-paper letters to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, just to ask questions. Sometimes its staff even wrote back. He researched old storms and tried to work hurricanes into his school reports.
In 1985, Hurricane Gloria swirled up the coast, the first major cyclone to hit New York in 25 years. Newscasters called it “the storm of the century.” Morgerman was 15; he’d been waiting for a storm like this since he could remember. He tracked the eye as it crossed the Atlantic, barreling closer and closer. Finally, it was nearly on top of his Long Island suburb. “The wind starts to go nutty, the house is shaking, trees are being blown down. Holy crap, I was so excited,” he recalls. As Morgerman and his family watched from indoors, the ground of their backyard heaved, and an enormous willow tree uprooted, a felled Goliath.
Morgerman’s mother started to cry.
“She loved that tree,” he says. “It was the biggest tree in the whole neighborhood, a hundred-year-old giant tree. And I remember—I felt really bad.”
Then Morgerman’s father turned to him and said something he never forgot: “This is what you wanted, right?”
This is what he wanted: it’s almost dawn in Humacao, and outside his hotel room, the wind has started to hurl itself against the glass door. Sometimes in a storm this bad, Morgerman forgets it’s just a natural process happening on the planet, just a bunch of moist air that rose too quickly. Instead it seems as if it’s something with a mind, something angry. A monster. Or a god.
When he talks about being this close to a storm, he uses language that he knows is frankly erotic and a little creepy. “That inner core, to me, it’s almost like pornography,” he’ll say later. “When I look at a radar shot of a really perfectly formed hurricane, I just imagine getting inside that.”
He’s currently single but says he always makes it clear to prospective partners that his hurricane habit is nonnegotiable. “It’s why I’m not married and I don’t have kids,” he says. “It sounds very selfish. I just didn’t want to be encumbered.”
At home in West Hollywood, Morgerman keeps a constant eye on computer models like Global Forecast System, which predict weather systems weeks ahead of time. When he catches the scent of a storm, he undergoes a werewolf-like change. “I start getting into hunting mode,” he says. “The closer it is to hurricane time, more and more adrenaline, less and less appetite, less and less sleep.”
Now he hasn’t slept in 24 hours, riding a mixture of terror and joy. Everything feels sharp and real. This is the feeling he’s always chasing. This is the feeling he always feels guilty about later, when the sky clears and he can sleep again.
Behind him, the older woman says something in Spanish, but the wind drowns it out as he slides the door open and steps out into the storm.
In 2004 and 2005, hurricanes started demolishing American cities again. “It’s a ‘new era’ of hurricanes,” CNN reported after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans: “Hurricanes aren’t behaving like many of us are used to them behaving. They’re bigger and meaner, and more numerous than many people have seen.”
The pendulum had swung back, the hurricane cycle switching from cold to warm. That was normal, meteorologists said. Max Mayfield, then-director of the National Hurricane Center, testified before a Senate subcommittee in October 2005 that these destructive new storms were the result of “natural fluctuations,” and “not enhanced substantially by global warming.” Another NHC meteorologist assured the senators that the effect of climate change on hurricanes would be “minimal for the foreseeable future.”
At the time, Morgerman was 35 and living in landlocked Prague. He hadn’t become a meteorologist; instead, at his father’s insistence, he’d gone to Harvard for a liberal arts degree, and eventually started his own brand consultancy with a friend. Post-Soviets were good clients—they needed all the branding help they could get—so he had moved to the Czech Republic, which was fine, but he pined for storms.
In the past, he’d occasionally tried to deliberately place himself in the path of a hurricane. The first time was in 1991, when he was still in college; he’d taken a train to Rhode Island in hopes of catching up to Hurricane Bob. He only got rained on. His second attempt was in 1999. Morgerman had called his business partner, Michael Horton, and disclosed a desire he’d never told anyone about before. “He very shyly confessed he wanted to chase these storms,” Horton recalled. Horton told him to go.
So he went—to Texas, where he was able to intercept Hurricane Bret. It was his first taste of a real Gulf hurricane, a wilder creature than the neutered East Coast hurricanes he’d experienced as a kid. He drove into the core and stood in the fury of the storm. He was hooked.
He flew to the Everglades to chase Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Two years later, he headed to Mexico for Hurricane Dean. In 2008, he was in Texas again for Hurricane Dolly, then Louisiana for Gustav, then back to Texas for Ike. Chasing storms, first a hobby, became a vocation.
“He invented it for himself,” Horton recalled.
By this time, there were other weather nerds hanging out together on message boards. Anyone with a Midwest address and a truck could chase a tornado. But there were only a handful of storm lovers who had the means and the liberty to chase hurricanes across the globe, and over the next decade and a half, Morgerman would become one the most prominent members of that small club. To finance his habit, he made a second career of it: since 2014, his chases have been completely funded by media companies like CBS, the Weather Channel, and WeatherNation, and later this month, he’ll star in Hurricane Man, a documentary show from UKTV and BBC Worldwide.
He also started recording video footage and taking atmospheric readings. He’s not a scientist, he stresses, but sometimes he’s the only person there to do it. A 2018 report in the Los Angeles Times detailed how the data Morgerman recorded during Hurricane Odile (where he’d hid under a desk in a hotel lobby as the windows imploded) ended up disqualifying Mexico from a desperately needed insurance-bond payout. Morgerman had measured the pressure at the center of the storm at 943.1 millibars, nine millibars too high for the terms of the bond.
Morgerman agonizes over being painted as a disaster tourist or a meddlesome amateur. At the same time, the brand consultant in him recognizes that any coverage builds his profile.
Comparing himself to a rock musician, he says, “I feel like a season is an album, and each chase is a single. There is that pressure every year as a chaser, that you’re only as good as your last smash, your last chase, your last hit.”
Then he adds: “I probably sound like a dick, describing as smash hits these events that kill people.”
His greatest chase—and the worst death toll he’s ever seen—was Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
In Tacloban City, Philippines, Morgerman was shooting footage of the monster storm when he heard people screaming for help from his hotel’s ground-floor windows as the storm surge rushed in. When a family emerged from the fragile building across the way and stumbled into the waist-high, filthy water, he put down the camera and staggered out to aid them. His memory, he says, is a blur—but film shot by another stormchaser shows him pulling a grandmother across the water on a raft, carrying a weeping girl up the darkened hotel stairs to higher ground.
Later, he’d stay in touch with this family, even donate money to help rebuild their house, something he’s never admitted publicly before. “I wanted it to be a righteous act,” he says.
What he does remember, though, are the corpses he saw after the cyclone passed. Over 6,000 people were dead. Morgerman went back to streets he’d walked the day before, where there was now nothing but wreckage. His high had disappeared. When he got home to L.A., he’d be a mess. But for now, he shut down whatever he was feeling.
It’s what he does sometimes with strong emotions: he freezes them. Like when his father died unexpectedly in 2008, and their last conversation had been a stupid, petty argument. “The grief I had was so toxic, so profound, the only way I could manage was, OK, I feel this, but I’m going to put it away, how that day I wasn’t a good son,” he says.
As he surveyed Haiyan’s damage, he did the same thing, packing away his emotions. Now wasn’t the time to react to the horrors he was seeing.
Soon he realized his hand felt too light. The flood water had stripped off his father’s ring—the one he’d worn since his father died. He felt a pang, an echo of loss, but it seemed stupid to him to grieve over losing an heirloom when everyone around him had lost everything.
Then someone called out to him: Hey, look over there! He looked. There in the mud and wreckage was a gleam of gold. It was his father’s ring. The storm had given it back.
On the other side of the world, the United Nations Climate Change Conference was meeting in Poland just as Haiyan struck. At the conference, Filipino UN delegate Yeb Sano, in tears, led a hunger strike, calling for action to prevent “a future where super typhoons become a way of life.” Others declared the storm a “climate injustice.”
Scientists who had been cautious to comment on whether climate change was having an effect on hurricanes were starting to be more bold. “In a warming world, [scientists] say,” one reporter from The New York Times wrote recently, “hurricanes will be stronger, for a simple reason: warmer water provides more energy that feeds them. Hurricanes and other extreme storms will also be wetter, for a simple reason: Warmer air holds more moisture. And, storm surges from hurricanes will be worse, for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the storms themselves: sea levels are rising.”
It’s still impossible to determine how any individual cyclone might be shaped by global warming, and different models lead to different predictions. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the climate is changing in a way that will lead to fiercer, more devastating storms.
Morgerman stresses that he’s not a climate-change skeptic—but he doesn’t take a position on climate justice or its lack thereof. “I just hunt the hurricanes,” he said.
It’s daylight in Humacao.
At some point, the family huddled in the bathroom left with the hotel staff. He never learned their names; he will never see them again.
Outside, the sky is clearing. The wind has slowed. Rubble covers the streets: roof tiles, bits of metal, tree limbs. On the hillsides, there are no leaves left on any of the trees, just a skeletal range of jagged branches. He films everything.
His heart rate is slowing, exhaustion coming on. The high is fading, but it’s all right. There will be more storms to hunt. They will only get stronger.