Pay Respect to the Storm: Mike Lachendro Chases Black Skies and Wind
Apr 15, 2020 02:22PM
By Jeff Lacey
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Mike Lachendro grew up in love with the sky.
Raised in Omaha, Lachendro became hooked on all things weather as he witnessed the spectacular storm fronts and epic cloud formations seen in Nebraska. He was raised on this skyscape that Nebraska poet Twyla Hansen described as where “the landscape inches/towards horizontal oblivion.”
“My dad, Julian, would take me out to the Offutt weather station to check out weather maps and satellite feeds,” he explained. Even as a young boy, Lachendro’s room contained the elements of a weather kit: barometers, homemade weather maps, and even homemade charts that recorded temperature.
As he grew up, this fascination with extreme weather never left him. Lachendro participates regularly in the activity known as storm chasing, the act of traveling to locations where severe weather is happening in an attempt to photograph or study it. Lachendro currently serves as the primary editor and moderator of the Nebraska Storm Chaser page on Facebook, a group dedicated to networking and sharing information about severe weather in the region.
It’s no casual hobby. Severe weather is dangerous, and the danger is a reality in much, if not all, of the United States. In 2019, there were 1,676 tornadoes in the U.S., including 44 in Nebraska and 53 in Iowa, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There were other severe weather occurrences as well. In Nebraska alone, there were 430 official hail events and 303 high-wind occurrences (defined as a sustained wind of 40-50 mph or more). Nationally, in 2019, tornadoes caused $19.5 billion in damage and killed 41 people.
While many are drawn to storm chasing because of the potential danger involved, that’s not why Lachendro runs towards dark skies. He does not see storm chasing as so much about adrenaline as it is about the community that shares a common love of the epic beauty and fantastic power of weather. Lachendro has made good friends storm chasing. When he returned to Nebraska after living in Colorado, he said storm chasing was a way for him to connect with people who shared a common interest. Eventually, he met Steve Blum and Chad Alcares, with whom he’s grown close. What began as a competition—they were streaming their chases on rival platforms—has become a close-knit friendship.
Blum said Lachendro is a consummate chaser. “He has more energy than anyone I have ever met. It was like he downed an energy drink and a few packets of sugar each time we would talk to him.” He describes Lachendro as an incredibly talented photographer as well.
Ultimately, though, he echoes Lachendro’s assertion that storm chasing is really as much about the people as it is about the supercells. “We often find ourselves on a group chat the night before a major outbreak, or even just to shoot the breeze. It’s great that our love of severe weather has led to a great friendship.”
The data that these bands of friends collect is becoming a valuable tool in the quest for public safety. Storm chasers have become an important part of the process of collecting information for weather services. Lachendro explains that the first step in collecting data is looking at long-range forecasts from a variety of sources. The sources dedicated storm chasers use for this are steps up from everyday apps like the iPhone weather app and WeatherBug. A common app that’s used for long-range models is called Radarscope. “I pay attention to the jet stream, and we talk to each other and bounce ideas off of each other,” Lachendro explains. “The goal is to put yourself in the best potential place.” After a chase, the data is reported to weather services, which use the information reported by spotters and chasers to better understand the scope of weather phenomenon and future threats.
The other thing that keeps Lachendro looking to the horizon is simply the miracle of the sky itself. “The sky opens up,” Lachendro explained. “When you’re in front of a supercell, and you get all those colors, it’s beautiful. This is what makes a lot of people storm chase: the ability to see for miles. The fact you can just go out, and it is just you and the storm. That’s pretty incredible.”
Have there been dangerous moments? Yes. “There have been a few close calls, but nothing that has directly put me in danger,” Lachendro said. “You always need to pay respect to a storm. It’s important to know your escape routes. You have close calls, but you learn from them.”
His love of weather has informed many of his relationships. Lachendro has been married for five years, and he says his wife, Lisa, knew what she was getting into. There was even a weather map on their wedding cake.
“When we started dating seriously, she suggested upping my life insurance policy,” he joked. He took her out on a chase once, but nothing happened. “It’s also called extreme waiting.”
Lachendro warns against chasing without being highly prepared. Storm chasers should be ready and cautious, but “There’s nothing better than just being out there and paying respect to the storm,” he said.
Visit @nebraskastormchasers on Facebook for more information.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.