He lives in West Hollywood, where what we consider bad weather is a rare rain shower or a dip in the temperature that requires wearing a sweater, and a natural disaster is a slight rumble from a distant quake that most of us don’t even notice.
So what was Josh Morgerman doing in Tacloban City in the Philippines last month, 7,241 miles away from our balmy little burg? He was chasing Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda), a deadly storm that is the strongest ever recorded at landfall and said to be the fourth strongest typhoon ever recorded in terms of wind speed.
Josh Morgerman is co-founder of Symblaze, an online marketing and digital advertising firm with a client list that includes Kraft Foods, Heinekin and Vodafone (and locally the City of West Hollywood’s PickUp Line party bus, whose concept and design he conceived). He’s also a political campaign consultant. And Josh Morgerman is a storm chaser.
As such he’s a member of a hardy (and small) band of people who travel the world to put themselves into the middle of natural disasters that most people live their lives hoping never to see. “Twister,” the film starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, introduced storm chasers to the public at large in 1996. But the practice goes back at least decades to Roger Jensen, a native of North Dakota, who started photographing storms in the 1950s. Discovery Channel’s reality series “Storm Chasers” (2007-2011) also showed the risks people like Morgerman take to follow nature’s most twisted adventures.
An East Coast native, Morgerman’s first foray into chasing hurricanes took place when he was a student at Harvard University two decades ago doing an internship in Washington, D.C.
“I’m sick of watching,” he thought as a hurricane hit. “I’m gonna be in it.”
Morgerman boarded a train in an effort to chase that storm to Rhode Island—but by the time he got to Providence, the worst of the hurricane had passed.
Since that experience, Morgerman has turned to more sophisticated tracking methods. During hurricane season (July or August till November is the peak time), Morgerman monitors computer models that predict where hurricanes will occur.
He usually concentrates on hurricanes in North America—both in the eastern United States and in Mexico. But with things slow in the Atlantic, and active in the Pacific, Morgerman decided to chase Typhoon Haiyan.
“Little did I expect to have the biggest chase of my career,” he said. It also was one of the most dangerous.
Video shot by Morgerman shows he and his colleagues realizing that rising water has trapped people on the first floor of their hotel. They helped those people get out through windows and get to safety.
Morgerman threw his camera aside when he swung into action, focusing on saving lives rather than chronicling the storm. The camera was destroyed, but he recovered much of the footage by taking the memory card to a data-recovery service.
Though everyone from his hotel survived, Morgerman said, thousands died around them. (A recent count put the death toll at 5,924, with 1,779 people still missing). When a military helicopter carried them out of the area, Morgerman and his colleagues sat next to dead bodies in body bags.
“We’re lucky we got out alive,” Morgerman said. “It was utterly ghastly.”
The video that Morgerman rescued — which depicts the typhoon’s fierce winds and pouring rain—has garnered more than 350,000 views on YouTube. Morgerman also has been inundated with media attention. The video puts the viewer in the middle of a dramatic scene, where Morgerman and his colleagues rescue people trapped in their rooms, floating them to safety as the water rises and saving as many as ten lives. His story has been shared on CBS “This Morning” and the CBS Evening News, and he was interviewed for a Discovery International documentary (not yet available in the U.S.). Morgerman was recognized with a proclamation by West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land during the City Council’s Nov. 18 meeting.
Despite the horrors of the experience, Morgerman said he’s glad he was there—both because he was able to help people, and because it’s important to document such a significant event.
Morgerman works to manage the risk he takes, stocking up on water, trying to stay above sea level and staying in hotels made of concrete. Still, he said, “there’s no playing it safe.” During the Tacolban City storm debris flew all around the chasers, and the hotel lost its roof. A colleague of Morgerman’s, Mark Thomas, suffered a serious laceration of his leg and now faces multiple surgeries.
“It’s basically stupid, and I know it is,” Morgerman said of his passion for chasing storms. He said it’s a bit like a drug. People like him, who are drawn to violent weather, are “just born that way,” he said.
Morgerman said the media attention has given him a valuable platform that he’s using to encourage people to support hurricane relief efforts. (He suggests going through Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits, to determine how to give.)
Morgerman himself plans to return to the Philippines in February to document the area’s recovery three months after the typhoon. You can follow Morgerman’s adventures on his Facebook page, iCyclone.