Thursday, June 22, 2017

Just Another Speed Bump

If you've read my last blog, you know that I've been having issues with my back for roughly the past two years. Back in August 2016, I had a bilateral microdsicectomy on the L4-L5 disk that was supposed to fix my herniated disk. I started having issues with my back again, and from November-March I had multiple MRI's and appointments with my neurosurgeon who performed my surgery that previous August. After being told multiple times that nothing was wrong, I was faking it, and I was being ridiculous and needed to man up, I finally went to see a different doctor, who performed a simple bending X-ray to check on the stability of my disks. My L4 vertebrae was unstable and unaligned, and the disk was slightly re-herniated, and we decided that a second surgery was needed to correct the mistake from the first. May 10th, 2017, I had a spinal fusion of L4-L5 to permanently fix the instability and remove the possibility of having another problem with the disk. Today (June 22nd, 2017) I had my 6 week post op appointment, and everything looks great and I'm back on track to having full mobility and strength in no time. I no longer have to wear my back brace and have no limits on what I can do, and at this point, any physical activity will only strengthen the ligaments and muscles in my lower back. Because this was my second surgery on the area, not only did he have to perform the fusion, but he also had to remove a lot of scar tissue, especially from my left side, so my sciatic nerve on my left side is still very sensitive. I actually just regained the ability to put my sock on my left foot without much pain this week. I feel like I've wasted away a lot of the past year, but as I start PT soon it's only up from here, and I can start to put this whole debacle behind me. But enough about that, lets get on to the plans for StormCruzzer!

With most of the past year spent trying to get my back fixed, StormCruzzer is nowhere near where I had planned. But then again, when does anything ever go exactly as planned? Back in October 2016, we had a booth at the Poquoson Seafood Festival that was a huge success. At the time, we were in the planning stages of giving paid storm chasing tours to the public this past spring, but my back had other plans. Luckily, we had Alex Thornton (a fellow meteorologist and great friend), officially join the StormCruzzer business, and he was able to take the StormCruzzer out for 5 weeks this past spring to chase with other fellow Virginia Tech students and alum. Overall it has been extremely dull storm season, but they still managed to get some pretty awesome footage and bring the StormCruzzer back in one piece!

That brings us to now, and boy do we have some huge plans for the next year and a half! For starters, we're making four big changes/mods to the truck in the next two months.

1. We're replacing our current camper shell with a much tougher, better organized, and easily modifiable camper shell. (Pictures to come at the end)
2. We're fishing our bullet resistant debris guards for the cab windows. With the new camper shell having no windows, it's a lot less time work to worry about.
3. We're finally wiring up all off-road LED lights to a much better control panel. Eight LED pods mounted on the roof rack, 20" light bar and two fog lights mounted in and on the front bumper, and two reverse lights on the back bumper, wired into an easy to use touch screen control module.
4. We're adding a 60 (and maybe another 30) gallon gas tank to the truck to allow us to go longer between fill ups while chasing, which could be crucial in getting to a storm on time.

We're putting a bit of a rush on these mods to try to get them all ready before the peak of hurricane season, where the'll all be extremely handy. This hurricane season will be similar to the last, where we will chase any hurricane that makes landfall on either the East Coast or Gulf Coast, as long as the truck is ready. We were in consistent 75-80mph gusts and near 100mph consistent wind tunnel effect winds in Hurricane Matthew last fall, so we feel extremely comfortable getting up close and personal in the vehicle in anything under a Category 4. We'll still Chase Cat 4-5 storms, but we'll stay a little further from the eye than we would normally.

We have a booth again this year at the Poquoson Seafood Festival, and by that time we will be officially selling seats on our Spring 2018 Storm Chasing tours. As soon as the Seafood Fest is over, we're making the biggest modification of all to the StormCruzzer; we're stretching the cab of the truck to add a third row of seats! When we're out chasing, especially if we're giving tours, our number one concern is safety. In the words of Dave Carroll, one of my professors and storm chase leaders at Virginia Tech, "There's always another storm. You only have one life." We've struggled for a while deciding the best way for us to give storm chasing tours. Should we go with two armored vehicles? Or should we buy a van and armor it instead? Ultimately, we found a way to get the best of both worlds, and stretch the StormCruzzer. We'll have the ability to bring a larger group with us like we would with two vehicles, while having a much more comfortable and safe ride than we would in an armored van. It also brings down the overall price, allowing us to charge less per person for a week long tour. While the truck is being stretched and the entire interior is taken out, we're also getting a full interior roll cage installed. Will we ever need it? The chances are extremely low. But does it hurt anything? Nope! It's just an extra safety feature that we want to install that will hopefully never be used.

We aren't sure on the amount of storm chasing tours that we'll be giving in Spring 2018, but the number will be somewhere between 2-8. Two is worst case, eight is if everything goes well leading up to spring. Either way, we should still be out chasing for nearly two months, capturing and bringing you the most extreme weather footage we can encounter.

July-November are TBD.. We're working on something huge, and want to make sure it's official before we announce it, but it'll be a huge leap in exposure for StormCruzzer and the storm chasing community, that's for sure.

That's all I have for now, I'll post updates over the next few weeks as we make progress on making the StormCruzzer more hurricane proof. Hopefully we'll get a chance to test her out in one later this summer/fall!

Bed cover from ARE we're installing soon (Click to enlarge)


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Journey That Led Me Here

*This is more of a Blog post about my past 10 years than a FB post but if you should definitely keep reading :)*
The post is a brief overview of my path to and through Virginia Tech,  the making of the StormCruzzer and StormCruzzer LLC, and the progress and struggles that I’m dealing with now Some of the following will be pretty hard to talk about.

I want to get something off my chest, and I don't mean it to brag whatsoever, I'm saying it because I want you to know you can do literally anything you set your mind to.

Growing up, I had always loved extreme weather. My first memory of weather occurred when I was very young. It was the first time I was allowed to stay home alone and my parents headed out to dinner. A severe thunderstorm came through, and I was scared to death. I called my parents asking how soon they would be home, telling them about my fear of the storm. The thing is, this whole time, I was sitting right beside our storm door, eyes glued on the branches swaying and snapping in the winds, and heavy rain blowing sideways.

Fast forward a few years to when I attended a college fair where Virginia Tech had a booth. The main attraction of their booth was a display of their upcoming Meteorology program. I had always loved extreme weather and grew up a huge Hokies fan, so it was the absolute perfect combination. Sadly I didn't care or try too much in high school, so my grades weren't high enough to get into Virginia Tech straight out of high school. The meteorology program was supposed to start in fall of 2008, so I was pretty upset. I attended Thomas Nelson and enrolled in their 2+2 program with guaranteed acceptance into Tech as long as I kept a 3.5GPA. A year and a half went by and Tech still hadn't gotten their meteorology program. I changed my area of focus to architecture, then engineering at TNCC, and almost gave up on meteorology. I enjoyed engineering, but I didn't have the passion about it that I did meteorology.

I decided to attend Coastal Carolina University to study Marine Science, as they have an awesome Hurricane Research Center, and multiple upper level meteorology classes. My first year at CCU was amazing. Amazing friends, classes, atmosphere, campus, sports, everything was great. It was my first time living away from home so it was a huge learning experience, and that seemed to help get me through. The second year, however, wasn't so good. 90% of the friends that I made the previous year either graduated, transferred, or dropped out. I went through a very rough stage of depression, and was at the breaking point when I randomly got on Virginia Tech's website. THEY WERE OFFICIALLY ANNOUNCING THAT THEIR METEOROLOGY PROGRAM WAS STARTING THE NEXT FALL! I was ecstatic! I called my parents immediately (it was around 3am) and told them the news. We talked over the next few days and decided that I was going to come home to work on some of the pre-requisites at TNCC so I wouldn't have to take them at Tech.

Fast forward to 2012 and I was working on my first semester at Virginia Tech. I had finally made it, but the journey had just begun. My professor for a couple of my meteorology classes announced that each year he leads a storm chase class out in the mid west. Somehow I hadn't heard about it until then, and I geeked out. I applied for the class, was accepted, and went on a chase that following Spring.

I had grown up watching the Discovery TV Series "Storm Chasers," featuring Sean Casey and his TIV2, Reed Timmer and company with their Dominator vehicles (Both Sean and Reeds vehicles are built to intercept tornadoes), and Tim Samaras, an engineer turned storm chaser, who put his engineering knowledge to work helping lead the field in ingenuity. Tim wasn't just about the adrenaline rush. He loved researching the science behind it. He holds the world record for recording the fastest pressure drop, with one of his probes measuring a 100mb drop in pressure in just 12 seconds. Tim was one of the most well respected, and even careful/safe chasers there was. He was my storm chasing Idol.

On may 31st, 2013, we were in El Reno, Oklahoma with the Hokie Storm Chasers, when we decided to dip south. We saw a very high potential for a dangerous weather outbreak, and due to the terrain, road network, and chaser convergence (traffic from storm chasers), we decided to play it safe and catch other storms that we forecast to initiate further to the south. As we watched our storm grow, we noticed a monster storm parked directly over El Reno. The radar velocity signatures showed a probable tornado, but we didn't know just how bad it actually was. After our storm died out, we took to social media to search for facts and pictures about the El Reno storm. We saw reports of a massive tornado (sometimes hard to take serious sometimes with the amount of false reports that come in), and kind of brushed it off until we saw more and more reports of injuries and even a few deaths. Later that night, we heard the awful news that Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young were killed in the tornado. This hit me pretty hard as he was my idol in the storm chasing community.

I had thought about making my own storm chasing vehicle eventually, but that trip solidified my decision, and caused me to completely revamp my process and final project. Tim Samaras and company were trying to outrun the tornado in a Chevy Cobalt down a dirt road when the tornado overtook them. Reports from a car of similar size and weight 100 yards ahead them said that the driver had the petal to the floor and couldn't surpass 45mph, due to low traction and an extremely strong head wind. I went from wanting to build a vehicle just to chase in to wanting to build a tank of a vehicle, with enough power to push through almost anything, while remaining safe, reliable, durable, and still comfortable. After the chase, I spent the rest of the summer devising different vehicle builds, scrapping them, and revising a few different plans until I got to the point where I was extremely happy with the end result. I had planned on spending maybe $10,000 on the vehicle after buying it to beef everything up to make it safer, etc.. I decided to go with a Silverado 3500HD Dually for many reasons which I won't go into in this thread (could write a full essay on why I chose that vehicle), and luckily enough, my uncle was actually selling his 2011 to buy a newer version. We purchased the truck and went to work.

First off, let me start by saying that I never imagined I would actually get to the point where I owned the base vehicle to build up to storm chase, let alone get to where I am now. I had been working throughout high school and some of college so I had a good bit of money saved up for the vehicle. I was also lucky enough to have my wonderful parents throw in some bonus cash as an early graduation present, to get the vehicle project off the ground. The first year, we planned on just lifting the vehicle, Rhino Lining the body of the truck, and installing radios and laptop mounts so we could communicate and gather information about the storms and atmosphere quickly. In November of 2013, I spent 20-30 hours writing up and sent out roughly 100 emails to all sorts of different companies asking if they would be interested in sponsoring the vehicle. As the project was extremely new and truck was currently completely stock, I wasn't expecting much, as I had nothing to show but the truck. I though that if anything I might get a 5 or maybe even 10% off discount. I received no after no after no after no, but wasn't too worried about it. I hadn't put too much work into it, and had thought it was a long shot anyways. Then one night I got an email from a company telling me they were extremely excited to jump on board with the project, and of course I was ecstatic as well. I got a call from them a few days later, and received a 25% discount on my purchase of a lift kit for the StormCruzzer. I started to get a couple more emails coming in with offers like 25, 33, even 50% off some products, and felt like I was in a dream. I never would have imagined I would have my own sponsors.

Fast forward to May 2014, and I had three paralyzing anxiety attacks, three days in a row. I had never experienced one before, and thought I was having a heart attack at the time (so did the paramedics the first time I was in the ambulance with them). The attacks were so bad that I would pass out, and become completely paralyzed, and could literally feel the adrenaline pumping through my stomach and chest (I thought I was bleeding internally at the time because it was so bad). The following week, I was extremely emotional and my hormones were all out of wack. I would cry when I was happy, cry when I was sad, cry when I was mad, and had no idea why it was happening. I ended up having to withdraw from that semester at Tech to go home and recuperate. I was in no condition to drive, so my amazing Dad actually came to pick me up. On the way home, I got an alert of a tornado warning nearby (we were near Richmond), and at the snap of my fingers the anxiety was 100% gone. I went into storm chase mode and navigated us safely home. The remining 2 hours of the trip I had no anxiety problems whatsoever. Two weeks went by. and it was time to make a decision. We had planned on conducting our first solo storm chase out in the Mid-West, but weren't sure if it was going to happen due to the anxiety and severity of the situation. after talking with my doctors, and explaining how the storms helped me cope with the anxiety, we decided that I was okay to chase. We conducted our first chase that year, and I had 0 problems with my anxiety over the whole 10 days.

Once we returned, I went to work on continuing to design the StormCruzzer. I was also working part time as an intern at WeatherFlow, so I was building up funds to spend on the vehicle. Over the next two years I sent out 1000s of emails to different companies asking if they would be interested in sponsoring our project. At the start, 99% of them said no, but as we added more and more to the vehicle and the companies saw promise, more and more wanted to come aboard. During this time, I was still struggling  bad with anxiety. My social anxiety was extremely bad, to the point where I would think everyone was constantly staring at me and judging me, and it caused me to miss a great deal of classes. I didn't do so well with the classes with participation grades, but the classes I could study and do work from just at home in I did alright with. I spent the summer of 2015 brainstorming different paths to take StormCruzzer with a great friend, Hans VanBenschoten. Our plan was to start giving storm chasing tours in 2017, and work on private forecasting and student outreach until then. We started our private forecasting business in the fall of 2015, but living 300 miles apart, dealing with school and resulting anxiety, preparing for tours, a back injury, and much more, we decided to put it on hold. It was out first “failed” business venture and may not be the last, but it didn’t stop us, and didn’t hinder us. We used it a learning experience and have gained a lot of new knowledge since. 2015 and 2016 we again chased out in the great plains, and had tremendous success. We caught an amazing anti-cyclonic tornado in Simla, Co., sold the footage to The Weather Channel, and shared our video with Thompson Reuters who then distributed the footage world wide, where it was aired on major news networks in over 20 different countries. All the hard work was starting to pay off! Although it had gotten much better, I continued to struggle with school in a few aspects due to my anxiety.

In the Fall of 2016, after 8.5 years of college, I finally graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Meteorology. My dream had finally come true, but my journey has only begun.

A little bit about where both StormCruzzer and I am now:

In Sepember of 2015, my lower back gave out while playing basketball. It was the first time I had experienced any nerve pain (didn’t know that was what it was at the time). I had broken bones playing sports in the past, but a broken bone compared to what I experienced was maybe a 2/3 out of 10, this being a 10. I went to an orthopedic doctor there where I got an x-ray and was told nothing was structurally wrong. They chalked it up to a pulled muscle and told me I was fine to resume normal activities. I injured it again playing football later that fall, and then again in the gym in the spring, and each time they told me it was just a muscle and told me not to worry about it. Summer of 2016 the pain got so bad that I went in for a second opinion to a doctor here at home. I had severe nerve pain all the way down both legs, and had trouble even going on a 10-minute walk. I was given a steroid injection, and when that didn’t help, the doctor ordered an MRI. I went in to get the MRI read and found out that I had a severely herniated disk at L4-L5. The doctor that I was seeing had just retired from his surgical practice, so he referred me to a different doctor and set me up with an appointment with him for the following day. I went in the next day, and due to the severity of the problem and timing with school closing in, decided to have surgery the next day. Surgery and recovery went well at first, and I even got back to feeling 100% roughly two months after surgery. I went on a 31-hour Hurricane Hermine chase and 63-hour Hurricane Matthew chase just two months after surgery, and had absolutely no pain. I was ecstatic. About a month later, the pain started to come back, slowly at first, but continuously.  It continued to regress, so I made an appointment with my surgeon to get checked out again, and had an MRI scheduled. The results came back with nothing structurally wrong, so I was discharged. Jump ahead three weeks and I had a good amount of relief from the pain, and after talking with my physical therapist, decided that I would be okay to go on a storm chase down in Dixie Alley. The chase went well and I had minimal pain for most of the chase. A couple days later, the pain came back, worse than it had been since surgery. A week and a half later, I made another appointment with my surgeon due to the severity of the pain as I was sure that I had reinjured it in some way. At the appointment, I was told that nothing was wrong and not go come back in unless the pain was 10/10 and I couldn’t walk. The main reason for the appoint was to get advice on what to do next since the pain was so bad, so I was extremely displeased with how I was treated. The physician’s assistant completely threw out all my symptoms and rushed me out of the office and told me once again not to come back. No progress was made in trying out to find out what the next step should be. I was pushed under the rug again and told not to come back. After a few second opinions and unnecessary drama, I was scheduled for another MRI and appointment with the surgeon.  Again, I was told that nothing was structurally wrong and was rudely rushed out of the appointment, and told that I “need to man up because at this point I’m being ridiculous,” but after a heated conversation I was finally scheduled with a pain management specialist. Why they couldn’t have just done so two months prior, I still don’t know.

A little back story on the pain. It’s not just “my back hurts.” If you’ve ever experienced nerve pain before you understand where I’m coming from. I have constant nerve pain radiating from my lower back down into my legs. If I move or twist the wrong way, I have a severe shooting pain in my lower back that feels like my body is being cut in half.  I cannot sit for more than 20 or 30 minutes without extreme pain, and without my legs going to sleep.  For the past weeks I have been working from home, mostly in bed, and until last week, I was in bed for 16-18 hours out of the day, getting up every once in a while to get everything moving and keep from getting tight. For the most part, I work from my computer, and am unable to get much work done sitting down, so I have to resort to working while lying in bed.  

As of writing this post, I’m scheduled to start Physical Therapy again March 6th, and am currently waiting to hear back from the Pain Management Specialist about my appointment with him. I’ve been working the past week on strengthening my core and stretching everything out, and have managed to slowly start to ease the pain. I still cannot sit for long at all. But the overall pain is down from a 7-9 to 5-7, which is a huge improvement. I’m now able to work and focus without the help of opiates, and am making progress in the right direction.

As for StormCruzzer, we’ve had to put public storm chasing tours on hold due to my back pain. Although it is a pretty big shot to the gut, as it’ll be the first year in 5 years that I haven’t done a big great plains chase, but in some ways it may be a blessing in disguise. With finishing up school, dealing with my back problems, getting ready to start a new job, and a myriad of other things, and figuring out if I would even be able to chase, the tours have been on the backburner this winter. I started working full time as a Financial Planner with Vector27 Financial Group in January, so luckily I do have a steady job to keep me going throughout the next two years (and hopefully many more to come), and also to make money to put into the StormCruzzer and potentially next vehicle J. Having the tours start in 2018 instead of 2017 gives us much more time to get ready for the tours, work on the vehicle/s, and get more storm chasing footage for advertisement (Alex will still be chasing this year).

I know this post is pretty ADHD and jumps around a bit as I kind of just added in excerpts as they came to me, but I want to close with the main reason I started writing this blog. I saw a video by Mike Rowe from last year where he was telling people to not follow their dreams because it will ultimately lead to failure. I say screw that. If you truly want something bad enough, you’ll do what needs to be done to make it happen. It took me over twice as long to graduate from college as most people, but I finally accomplished it. Did I think about giving up and calling it quits? More times than I can count. Did I fail along the way? You bet I did. Are there days where I feel like giving up now due to the back pain? For sure. But what keeps me going is the fact that when I get old, I don’t want to look back and say “I gave it my best shot,” knowing that I really didn’t. I want to look back and say “I did that,” and feel a sense of accomplishment, knowing that I strived to do what I love and never gave up. I also want to say that there’s no way I would be where I am now without the love and support of family and friends and mentors that I’ve met along my journey thus far. Frank (Doc) Malone has been a mentor and teacher when it came to building the StormCruzzer, so I want to give him a huge thanks for that.