It's silly, and a little bit sad, the way that Phoenicians crowd around to watch a summer rainstorm. Packed onto front porches, posted at windows, pulled to the side of the road, we ogle rainy weather as if it were an eighth wonder, a heretofore unseen miracle that may never visit us again. Okay, so we don't see a lot of wet in the desert. But standing around staring at it is kind of pathetic. Take a picture. It'll last longer.
That's what Susan Strom would do. Strom likes to be referred to as a stormchaser, the official appellation of people who travel the country in pursuit of wild weather. Strom (yes, that's her real name, although she's best known as "The Lightning Lady") is a professional photographer living in Fountain Hills who's obsessed with our monsoon, particularly with thunderstorms and lightning. Her photographs of lightning have been published internationally, and, in honor of the monsoon, Strom's wild-weather photos are on display at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park Gallery through the end of the month -- proof that she's an artist, and not just some weather weirdo.
New Times: What's the thing with you and lightning?
Susan Strom: It all started with a severe weather event in Scottsdale in 1994. I'd just moved here and had no clue about monsoons or what to expect. I moved here in July, and here comes this huge storm. I didn't think the desert had that kind of weather. Anyway, I was home alone and there was a tornado warning. All I knew was earthquake preparedness, and so I was like, "Do I get under a table?"
NT: But why lightning? Why not tornadoes or, I don't know, hail?
Strom: I've been fascinated with lightning since I was a kid. My dad had a lot of earth science books, and I was the little kid who'd be under the covers at night with a flashlight, looking at books about lightning. It's just really intriguing to me.
NT: And you photograph it.
Strom: Once I started studying lightning, I knew I had to photograph it. And you wouldn't think so, but lightning is really hard to photograph. My photographs got gradually better. And I'll bet you didn't know that the average lightning is about six miles long.
NT: Let's say I knew that and I just forgot. But I guess I don't understand why anyone would be into weather. Do people think you're insane?
Strom: I get one of two responses: Either I'm a rock star or a freak. Sometimes people think it's great, and they have a weather story of their own they want to tell. Other times they're like, "You're a little too weird for me." And they certainly don't get the whole photography thing. It's either, "I don't want to know, I'm terrified of you" or they think it's great that I'm out there going 100 miles an hour chasing a storm. If nothing else, it's a good conversation starter.
NT: But weather is what people talk about when there's nothing else to talk about.
Strom: It's totally true. But with stormchasers, the weather is the first thing we talk about.
NT: So there's a whole community of people who just travel the country looking at weather?
Strom: Oh, yes. There are Web sites, and two conventions every year. And stormchasers are just as fascinating as the weather. You have wanna-be meteorologist types; you'll have people who photograph it; people who are looking for tornado footage to sell; and there's just the people who think it's cool to pile the family into the car and go chase a storm. Hurricane chasers and tornado chasers are probably the largest group, and then lightning chasers are probably the smallest group.
NT: Among groups of people who chase weather, you're the rarest.
Strom: Yeah. A lot of people think it's going to be great to go chase some weather, but then they get out there and find out it's really a lot of driving. You can go 700 or 900 miles and nothing. You're driving all day, not stopping for food, and that's how it is. If you're chasing, say, tornadoes, and you're spotting them half of the time, you are a phenomenal chaser. You're like a legend.
NT: I'm guessing you get together with other weather lovers and compare notes.
Strom: Oh, and photos! People are like, "Hey, what did you get in Wyoming?" and someone takes out a photo of a twister.
NT: Isn't it sort of, I don't know, dangerous to be chasing lightning around? It's kind of, uh, electricity that comes out of the sky.
Strom: Yes. There's a margin for error. You don't necessarily know where lightning is going to hit. And don't believe what people tell you: You can get hit by lightning, and if you do, you'll be in a world of hurt.
NT: What should I be doing to ensure that I don't get hit by lightning?
Strom: I try to avoid being the tallest object in any given area.
NT: During a storm.
Strom: Right. Also try to stay away from things that might attract lightning, like mailboxes or telephone wires. I can't believe the stupid things I see people doing during an electrical storm. I've seen people playing softball, or out walking their dog in their bathrobe.
NT: These are stupid things to do even when it's not storming. And yet you're out actually chasing lightning from pillar to post, and pointing a camera at it. That seems dangerous, too.
Strom: Yeah, but I know how to stay safe. I'm in my car, or finding a building to stand in to protect myself. I'm not out riding a bicycle in a thunderstorm, which is just crazy.
NT: Not as crazy as standing outside, holding up a big metal stick.
Strom: During a lightning storm, people should unplug stuff. If lightning hits the roof of a house, it can travel through electrical conduits. Also, you shouldn't touch plumbing like sinks and toilets or take a shower during a lightning storm, because the plumbing is metal, and can act as a conductor.
NT: What if I'm dirty or I have to take a shit?
Strom: (Laughs.) You know, I heard a story about a woman in Ohio who was paralyzed, and she was on the toilet during a thunderstorm and her house got hit and she was thrown across the room. And when she came to, she could walk again. That story may be true.
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NT: People who are afraid of lightning -- are they just great big pussies?
Strom: Well, if you want to get over your fear of storms, educate yourself. I used to think all kinds of crazy things about lightning, but once I found out how it really works, I wasn't.
NT: Is it true that lightning never strikes twice?
Strom: No. Lightning strikes the Empire State Building 23 times a year. Lightning likes hitting objects, things that stand out. That's something to know in a thunderstorm: Go inside. Lightning wants to hit you.