Published on February 18th, 2014 | by Josh Hafner
YP Spotlight: Jennifer McDermed, a budding storm chaser
Jennifer McDermed reveres tornadoes in a way some people reserve for lions, or bears, or God.
They’re huge, powerful and could take your life in an instant. But when you’re in their presence, she says, they’re grand and beautiful. Even majestic.
“You see one and you want more,” said McDermed, 22. “You feel so, I won’t say alive, but you see one and everything stops. You’re so focused on it … I love feeling the wind, the force.”
So McDermed fears tornadoes, yes, but she’s not afraid of them. She chases them.
At 16, McDermed got the keys to a Jeep Cherokee and began storm chasing, the pursuit of a fascination with severe weather that lead to her studying it in St. Louis and coming to Des Moines last fall. Here, the meteorologist for WHO-TV informs central Iowans daily about snow, sleet or whatever other weather might come our way. And maybe, come summer, even tornadoes.
“You know in kindergarten how you’re supposed to draw what you want to be when you grow up — a firefighter, a teacher, a policeman?” McDermed said one morning last week at WHO’s downtown studio. “I drew a tornado with cows flung into it. I’ve always wanted to be a meteorologist.”
McDermed arrived at the studio, as she does most mornings, at around 2:30 a.m., she said, in sweats with her hair in a bun. A handful of staffers are there by that time, including senior WHO meteorologist Jeriann Ritter. By 3:30 a.m., she had already compiled her forecast for the day, analyzing the atmosphere’s layers, surface and pressure field using a variety of online data and programs.
By 7:30 a.m., she had changed into heels and a purple dress and gone through hair and makeup. For the sixth time that morning, she positioned and stilled her 5-foot-5-inch frame before the studio’s giant green screen for an update. A producer’s hand lowered near the camera. Then, it pointed toward her.
“Good morning, I’m meteorologist Jennifer McDermed waking up with you on channel 13.2. Today will be another cold day. We’ll be reaching the teens, though, which is improvement. However, those wind chills will make it feel below zero for the majority of our afternoon.”
McDermed’s first Iowa winter has been a cold one. She graduated from Saint Louis University last spring and, after a few months working as a reporter and weekend meteorologist in St. Joseph, Mo., arrived for one of the coldest winters in Iowa’s recorded history.
On Jan. 5, the day before negative-30 degree wind chills shut down Iowa schools and jilted businesses, McDermed drove to Dick’s Sporting goods to stock up on thermals and Under Armour, presuming she would trudge out into the cold for a live shot the next day. No, her superiors later told her, we’re not sending you out into that.
“I think her biggest asset is she’s a go-getter and loves the weather,” said Ritter, who has taken McDermed under her wing during WHO’s morning programming. “You can’t teach that passion.”
That passion developed on the northwestern edge of Atchison, Kan., the hometown of fearless women like Amelia Earhart. There, during summers in McDermed’s childhood, her father would spot a thunderstorm rolling in, break out the lawn chairs and invite the family to watch. His youngest daughter, more than any of his three children, took a liking to it.
“I’ve never had an interest myself but she
sure did,” said Kevin McDermed, the division chief of a manufacturing company in Kansas. “She became fascinated with how clouds move, how heavy rains fall. It isn’t anything that my wife and I tried to promote.”
Kevin McDermed and his wife didn’t promote their daughter’s storm chasing, either, but they didn’t exactly stop it: Jennifer McDermed’s high school jaunts to nearby countrysides expanded once she reached college.
That’s when she and fellow classmates would chase storms on weekend car trips from St. Louis to Oklahoma or South Dakota to Texas, cross-referencing conditions to predict just where and when severe weather events might occur.
Specifically, of course, tornadoes. McDermed owns a glossy book of photos she took during her college storm chases. Its pages display ecstatic, smiling 20-somethings, gesturing over their shoulders to the towering, black funnels just miles behind them.
If McDermed could control the weather, if she could drag her hand across the horizon and affect vorticity and jet streams, dew points and temps, she knows the ideal tornado she’d create:
“I would want a massive, mothership mesoscale thunderstorm. Dry, not rain-wrapped. A dry one. Either in Oklahoma or northern Texas where it’s flat. Not a ton of grass. That kind of clay stuff.
“I would want one of those with a huge wedge tornado eventually to form. Something that’s so photogenic and beautiful,” she said. “That’s what I would want. That would make me really happy.”
McDermed loves tornadoes. She’s counting down the days to severe weather season like a kid counts down days to Christmas. But she understands the wreckage and tragedy tornadoes can leave in their wake, even if she’s never seen it up close.
An off forecast on one of her storm chases resulted in her team traveling to southern Missouri last year instead of Oklahoma City, the same day an EF5 tornado killed 25 people near the city and injured nearly 400 others.
Another time, when tornadoes were touching down in Missouri, she called her cousin who was driving through the state. The sky’s green, her cousin said. Not good. McDermed panicked, frantically using a laptop to find her cousin’s location and assist until the storm passed.
“It wasn’t an adrenaline rush at that moment,” she said. “It was scary.”
So yes, McDermed loves severe weather. Yes, she’s never seen the fatal side of it up close. But her job is to help make sure she and other central Iowans don’t have to.
“Right now my goal is to produce an accurate forecast and produce a message so once severe season rolls around I can (help people find safety)” she said. “That’s the goal.”
With that in mind, McDermed is soaking up as much professional knowledge as she can.
She stays connected with WHO’s weather team, constantly texting and emailing Ritter, Ed Wilson, Brett McIntyre and Megan Salois. The Weather Channel is on always in her downtown apartment, the way ESPN drones on in others. Viewers send the newcomer emails on how to pronounce Iowa towns — It’s Newton, as in “Newt-un,” not “New-tahn.”
One of McDermed’s longtime viewers, her dad, always pictured his daughter ending on the deep-research side of meteorology or out tracking storms, he said, not beamed into the homes of thousands.
“She didn’t major in meteorology with the goal of necessarily being on TV,” he said, “but she’s very happy with the way it’s turned out.”
And rest assured, his daughter said, severe weather season is only two months away, and she still has weekends off: “No way I’m going to stop chasing.”