PLAINVIEW - Across this part of the country, when dark clouds move in and winds begin to whip around at breakneck speeds, West Texans typically run for cover. The sometimes volatile weather across the panhandle and south plains has been known to drive people into their homes or storm shelters.
Jason McLaughlin is the exception. When severe weather hits, that's usually his signal to head out on the road. McLaughlin is a storm chaser and weather aficionado, operating from his home in Plainview.
A native of Wichita Falls, McLaughlin will graduate on Saturday from Wayland Baptist University with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, with a minor in physical science. And though the end of his undergraduate career means the end of one stage in his life, it also means he's that much closer to realizing his lifetime dream.
After graduation, McLaughlin will begin graduate work at Texas Tech University in their atmospheric science department, with dreams of one day working in storm research.
McLaughlin's interest in weather began at an early age, he recalls.
"I was always interested in storms as a young child," he recalls. "I used to drive my parents crazy talking about weather. I kept wanting to learn more about it."
As soon as he could read, young Jason began absorbing all the information about storms and weather he could find, reading library books and visiting weather research centers with his father. In the seventh grade, when the science curriculum called for a lesson on weather, McLaughlin took the pulpit, more well-read on the subject than his teacher.
During his eighth-grade year, he began storm chasing with a group in Wichita Falls, traveling all over the region following severe weather. Once he could drive, the chasing became a solo effort, which he preferred. He also obtained a ham radio license that allowed him to maintain communication with the National Weather Service offices while on the road. He also began attending severe weather conferences offered at the NWS offices in Norman, Okla. each year and regular storm training classes offered to the general public.
McLaughlin said there's never been any doubt in his mind what his career pursuit should be, given his strong love for weather. In the fall of 2000, he moved to Plainview to work on his bachelor's degree at Wayland. The storm chasing continued, and he began to build up an arsenal of radar equipment and other instruments at his home, soon evolving with technological advances into high-powered software that tracks weather patterns.
In the early years, his storm chasing vehicle was an old jeep outfitted with several gadgets on the back. Nowadays, the gadgets have shrunk down to handheld models he can take in a regular automobile. McLaughlin points out that his equipment is very similar to what TV weathermen use to keep viewers informed on weather conditions.
That capability and his expertise landed him a partnership with KCBD-TV NewsChannel 11 out of Lubbock a few years back that will continue through his graduate work at Tech. He first visited with the station in 2002 about serving as a remote spotter in Hale County and the northern and eastern reaches of the station's coverage territory. Nothing formal came of the meeting, but when McLaughlin showed up in early May 2002 with video footage of the tornado that struck the town of Happy, KCBD took notice. They purchased the tape and asked Jason to chase storms for them.
In that role, McLaughlin covers from Clovis, N.M. south to Seminole, east to Matador and north to Tulia for the station. But he's been known to go further in any direction just for his own enjoyment. At times, his wife Jeana, a junior biology major at Wayland, will accompany him on the road.
He also began an email list service to employees and others on the Wayland Baptist University campus a few months back, using his software system to send automatic weather alerts and updates. The response was quite positive - he has about 78 people on the list now - and has gotten good feedback from others.
Over the years, McLaughlin said he's seen some great storms, mentioning Happy as one of the highlights from a weather perspective.
"I was parked about two blocks from the storm and saw some incredible things," he said. "The side winds off that tornado nearly blew my Jeep over."
Though most people fear severe weather, McLaughlin said he's never felt in great danger because he's learned to "read" the storms so well he knows how to get to safety. Only in one instance does he recall being a bit unnerved, and that was around a particularly volatile storm.
Forecasting weather is difficult, he explained, because there are so many variables at work that can change in an instant without warning. Sometimes those instant changes mean severe weather comes and sometimes it means weather conditions suddenly dissipate. McLaughlin said the chasing aspect of weather study is the most enjoyable part, though, because of the adrenaline rush. In fact, he said chasing is almost a form of relaxation for him because he can put all other worries away and focus solely on the severe weather.
"I like weather so much because you never know what's going to happen," he said. "It's the guessing that gives you the thrill."
Approximately 75 students will receive diplomas Saturday at Wayland Baptist University's commencement ceremony, slated for 2 p.m. in Harral Memorial Auditorium.