Meanwhile, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. I’ve adopted the new layout, which better organizes my videos, and you’ll be able to keep track of my storm chases when I post new ones as I travel.
Sunday night, when a tornado-warned storm approached my neighborhood – with lots of attendant lightning – I decided to take a chance and see what I could get. Mostly, I wanted lightning, but the persistent rain made it hard to get a clear shot. However, I found myself in the path of a tornado-warned storm headed for Rockledge, Florida, and according to the radar, I was really in the path. The “hook echo” was pronounced and on track to collide with me. So I watched and photographed the storm with nervous anticipation.
What I saw at the time and in my photos was, shall we say, suspicious. Again, chasing at night, it’s very difficult to see and identify significant features such as funnels and tornadoes, when so-call scud clouds can mimic them easily. Yet the persistent feature in this photo (in several photos, actually) sure looked like a funnel. Was it? Maybe not. See the report and photos, and see what you think.
Over the years, I’ve tried some nutty solutions: a metal rack with a 90-degree bend in it, the kind you put in a roasting pan; a child’s lawn chair; and various perches on my center console and passenger seat, depending on whether I had a chase partner. None worked well. I decided this year to get a real laptop mount – but the really nice Ram and JottoDesk mounts aren’t cheap. From what I’ve read online, I also had doubts that there would be one that perfectly fit my current model of car, a 2010 Honda Element. So I did some searching online and found this excellent page put together by Mike Davis, who built a laptop mount for his Toyota Tacoma using PVC that fits into his cup holder. I don’t know Mike, but I’m grateful to him for sharing his design with the world.
Using a cup holder almost sounded too easy. And it is, in a way. I still haven’t been able to achieve the perfect snug fit that he apparently did, but nonetheless, inspired by his design, I’ve put together a pretty functional laptop mount for less than $30. Mine isn’t exactly like Mike’s, so I think it’s worth sharing. Between Mike’s page and my page, perhaps you can find a design that will work for you. I’m no engineer (obviously!), so you’ll have to judge for yourself whether your version safely fits your needs.First, I went to the big box store and played Tinker Toys with the PVC pipe pieces. A two-inch width was the closest to fitting into my cup holders – there are two holders between the front seats. Though you may opt for different pieces, these are the ones I chose – two 90-degree elbows, two 45-degree elbows, and a coupling with vertical ridges that gave me a little more width for a better fit in the cupholder. I couldn’t find the flange I needed to fit the laptop tray, so I bought a drain fitting. While the design that inspired me, as mentioned above, did away with the drain itself, I chose a brass drain so I could put the screws/bolts through its slots when attaching it to the tray.
For the tray, I thought a wooden cutting board might work – it would be thick and already finished, so less work for me. I found one with rubber feet (on clearance, to boot). It seemed perfect – I’d put the “bottom” with the rubber feet on top, to help keep the laptop from sliding around. After installation, the rubber pads have a pretty good grip on the laptop, though Velcro would probably do the job, too. I also nailed a small piece of quarter-round molding to one edge of the platform to keep the laptop from sliding off. Position the piece depending on how your tray is angled. Since mine tends to lean backward a bit, that’s where I put the quarter-round.
My husband helped with assembly of the board to the drain piece. He marked the center of the board and then marked the positions of the three bolts, using the drain as a template. He drilled pilot holes, then used a bigger bit to drill into the top holes slightly so we could counter-sink the bolts (meaning they would not stick up above the surface of the platform). Washers and compression nuts (chosen so they wouldn’t loosen with vibration) secured the bolts.Next, I worked on fitting the bottom piece with the ridges snugly into the cup holder. I’m not sure I succeeded as well as I would have liked. I used a razor knife to gradually trim away the ridges at an angle, since the cup holder is tapered. Mike’s – the one linked above – involves less pipe because the cup holder is higher, so it may be inherently more stable.
I marked the pipes where I wanted them attached, pulled them apart, then used PVC primer and glue to stick them together. I spray-painted the pipe (without the drain/tray piece) a dark brown (I like to think of it as a steampunk brown – ha ha!) so it would blend into the car’s interior a little better.
I did NOT glue the drain/tray piece onto the rest of the pipe, so that I can adjust the angle of the tray if I want to. After some use, I may choose to glue it, but it seems quite tight. I also screwed a small wooden block into the plastic box that surrounds the cup holders to support the elbow of the pipe. I expect I may do more to enhance stability as this setup gets some use. If you decide to do something like this, you’ll have to figure out the best way to make it stable for your vehicle. (See update, below.)Update, April 23: We added a little more stability to the laptop mount last weekend in two ways. The cupholder is actually a piece that nests in a box built into the car and pops out for cleaning. I took it out and cut off the bottom of the cup where the pipe would be inserted. This allowed the pipe to rest deeper in the box and more snugly in the cupholder hole. The snug fit, however, exacerbated the cupholder piece’s desire to pop out, given that its latches aren’t designed to experience the stress of a laptop mount. So we screwed a strip of metal over the cupholder to hold it tightly in its box.
The wood block was trimmed a bit and helps support the elbow of the pipe; it’s also screwed into the box. So while this solution isn’t as elegant as Mike’s, since screws were required, I think it will work pretty well. And I can still remove the mount easily.
So after my last assignment, I rushed north to Melbourne to catch the tail end of the storms as they went out to sea. The motion and structure were pretty, but I didn’t see any funnels – just a deceptive feature that was sort of the right shape, but not, as far as I could tell, the real thing. The feature, which appears to consist of condensing scud clouds, is pictured below (at right in photo). At least I got a lucky daytime lightning bolt. I definitely didn’t have “Funnel Vision” on Friday!
Even worse was May 12, 2005, near South Plains, Texas, a day that was at least partially redeemed by the really nice tornado that preceded the assault. I’ve remastered my video and produced a new edit that I’ve uploaded to YouTube (below).
All of my hail encounters helped inform the hail barrage that happens during one of the action sequences in my novel Funnel Vision. I once took shelter in a country airport, for instance, though it was in Colorado, not Kansas. And if you turn up the sound in this video, you’ll understand that visceral, chilling feeling of having your car destroyed while you’re still inside it. Enjoy.
Note: For best quality, roll your cursor over the lower right of the video window, click on the gear symbol, and choose 720p HD.
I’ve been longing for nighttime lightning, as I always do during Florida’s summers. I want to photograph it, of course, but there’s just not as much of it as you might think. Often, storms fire early and shoot off outflow boundaries, sometimes in the form of sweeping shelf clouds like this one in Rockledge on Wednesday. I’m still hoping for more!
Meanwhile, the tropics are active. While hurricanes are fascinating, mostly, I think they’re more pain than pleasure. They present fewer photographic opportunities, unless you’re on the International Space Station, and they cause a lot of misery. However, if you’re into the violence of nature, as many storm chasers are, it’s hard to resist them. I’d rather chase tornadoes any day.
On Friday, make sure you check out my friend Kam Miller’s blog, Glass Half-Full in Hollywood. Kam is an experienced TV and film writer and offers fabulous advice straight from Hollywood’s movers and shakers. And speaking of shakers, she also features Friday cocktails on the blog. I’m guest-blogging there Friday about Tales of the Cocktail, the convention in New Orleans from which I just returned (and from which I’m still recovering). While I was there, I helped The Times-Picayune cover the event with blogs, photos and videos.
At OSC, you can also catch Sean Casey’s “Tornado Alley” IMAX movie, which has some beautiful storm footage and a neat little story about the frustrations and triumphs of the Vortex 2 tornado research team. Of course, the film also features Casey’s home-brewed tank, the Tornado Intercept Vehicle. He visited OSC recently. I won’t be bringing a tank, but I will bring a piece of a car that was trashed by hail!
Thanks to the Orlando Sentinel’s Theme Park Rangers for noting my appearance Saturday. Also, OSC interviewed me by phone and shaped my answers into wee nuggets for its blog. I have more events coming up, which you can find in my new calendar: storm-chasing talks, book signings, and another talk about storm photography in Vero Beach.
May 29 of this year was an example of a great storm chase that didn’t include catching a tornado. There was a brief tornado with this storm, but from my position, I didn’t see it. Nonetheless, at one point I was incredibly close to a rotating wall cloud – do I get points for proximity? No, I guess not. But the real crown jewel of this chase was a few minutes of incredible structure on this supercell, which I followed with friends, then on my own, from Canton, Oklahoma, toward the Oklahoma City metro. This newly posted video summarizes the day. Check out the May 29 pictures, some of the best from this year’s trip, or see all the 2012 chase reports.