York County storm chasers say Irma could have been worse

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
  • Part of their venture is to supply people with a firsthand account of lessons learned, as well as support those who were affected by natural disasters.
  • "It was a strong storm, but it was not a catastrophic storm," founder of S&S Storm Chasers Brad Sweitzer said.

Standing in Hurricane Irma’s midst, S&S Storm Chasing and Forecasting Team national lead storm chaser Scott Pennewill said his skin felt as if it was being pelted by pellets from a BB gun.

Pennewill and Brad Sweitzer drove from York County to Lakeland, Florida, not only to chase the storm but also to help in relief efforts. Part of their venture is to supply people with a firsthand account of the hurricane as well as support those who were affected by natural disasters.

The hotel parking lot of where S&S Storm Chasers rode out Hurricane Irma. Submitted/photo

“The way it hit and the way it came through Florida, it was a strong storm, but it wasn’t as strong as it could have been,” said 40-year-old Sweitzer, founder of S&S Storm Chasers.

Sweitzer, of Springettsbury Township, is taking college courses in meteorology and explained that the forecast for storms of this magnitude changes rapidly. In the end, he said, "it was a strong storm, but it was not a catastrophic storm."

"A tree down in a yard ... that's better than a house being leveled," Sweitzer said. 

Irma's punch: Pennewill said when the team set up their two weather vehicles — Chase 7 and Chase 5 — it was eerie to hear the storm approaching Lakeland, which is between Tampa and Orlando. He couldn't see the storm because its initial punch was thrown at night. 

“You just braced yourself, and in no time, the storm was on top of you,” the 32-year-old Paradise Township resident said.  

Wind gusts were 20-25 mph when they arrived in Lakeland, Pennewill said. But that quickly changed as gusts jumped up to 110 mph.

“The weather was actually nice Saturday," Pennewill said. "It was humid and very breezy. The weather started going downhill in the evening, overnight, it started to ramp up.”

Protecting life and property: The duo said they believe in protecting life and property, which is why they chase storms. Sweitzer said they rely heavily on team member Joe Cioffi, a 30-year meteorologist veteran, who supplies them with direction on storm chasing trips.

Part of Imperial Swan Hotel & Suites was impacted by Hurricane Irma. Submitted/photo

“Nobody knows weather at 100 percent,” Sweitzer explained. “You always learn something new out of each storm.”

Relief efforts: To help displaced Floridians, they said they purchased as much fuel as possible at gas stations that still had fuel and then handed it out to those in need. They said they also brought bottled water and Walgreens gift cards to help residents restart their lives.

The hotel where S&S Storm Chasers stayed in Florida was structurally sound, however, some of its exterior was ripped off when Irma made landfall. Submitted/photo

“You’ve got to respect weather,” Sweitzer said. “People say extreme weather events never happen in Pennsylvania. But we’ve gone to structures – solid brick – and they’re leveled. It does happen. It’s more than snow in Pennsylvania. We strive to provide the most advanced notice, it’s not the forecast.”

Sweitzer said anyone who is interested in donating to help Floridians' relief efforts should donate to reputable organizations such as Red Cross of Central Pennsylvania.