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Hurricane Kate in Key West, Florida (by: Michael Laca)  

Hi! My name is Michael Laca, I am a native South Floridian and veteran hurricane chaser with over 30 years experience. A fourth-generation Floridian, I was born in Miami, Florida and have lived in South Florida ever since.

My life-long fascination with severe weather began after experiencing a severe thunderstorm in central Florida in 1978. That summer I began using my family's newly purchased VCR (back then called a VTR - Video Tape Recorder), to videotape news reports and specials on hurricanes. The first recording I made was of Tropical Storm Amelia's formation in late July, 1978. One year later, in the summer of 1979, Hurricane David devastated portions of the Caribbean before turning northwest, skirting Miami, and making landfall near Palm Beach, Florida. All the excitement and anticipation of that event cemented my love of severe weather, particularly hurricanes.

Coming from a family with a long history of hurricane experiences in Florida, I had always heard stories from relatives who witnessed many of the Great Florida hurricanes. Tales of the devastating storms that struck Key West in 1919, Tampa in 1921, Miami in 1926 and West Palm Beach in 1928 were always being shared. I can vividly remember an aunt's first-hand account of a man mortally wounded by flying debris in downtown West Palm Beach, as the second half of the violent 1928 storm began. My family's experiences with tropical weather continued with the numerous Florida hurricanes of the 1930's, 40's, Hurricane King in 1950, and the back-to-back landfalls of Hurricanes Donna (1960), Cleo (1964), Betsy (1965), and Inez (1966). All of these stories and experiences fueled a great desire to learn more about these amazing storms and ultimately to experience them myself.

In August of 1980 a monster storm, Hurricane  Allen, ravaged portions of the Caribbean and Texas and I was glued to every advisory and news report. Unfortunately, for a aspiring tropical meteorologist and storm-chaser, after Allen the Atlantic-basin entered a relatively long-stretch of inactivity. In the summer of 1981, a relatively weak Tropical Storm, Dennis, crossed Cuba and made landfall in South Florida, producing extensive flooding. Though minimal, Dennis is notable as the first 'named' tropical system that I documented photographically. During the next two years of inactivity, I passed the time honing my knowledge of meteorology and tropical cyclones, reading virtually every piece of literature I could find. I scoured libraries, bookstores and universities for every text available... devouring titles like:  "Hurricanes" by I.R.Tannehill; "Atlantic Hurricanes" by Dunn/Miller; and "The Hurricane and It's Impact" by Simpson/Riehl.

By 1983, my fascination with hurricanes and tropical meteorology had evolved into more of an obsession. I had begun photographing every significant weather event that I encountered...  thunderstorms, high-winds, lightning, flooding, etc... In the early summer, I spent some time with relatives in Key West and had my first significant waterspout encounter. I photographed a beautiful tapered funnel that developed just north of Key West and lasted for nearly 30 minutes. With the exhilaration I experienced, I knew that this was something I wanted to do as much as possible. Later that summer, Hurricane Alicia became the first  hurricane since Allen to strike the U.S., and I wanted desperately to go to Galveston, Texas to experience it. Unfortunately, I had to settle for watching it on the news and listening to advisories on NOAA weather radio.

During the fall of 1983, I started spending a lot of free time at the National Hurricane Center (NHC)... which, at that time, was located in Coral Gables, Florida, very close to my house. I made friends with several of the employees there, including the director, Neil Frank. One of the NHC historians, Alvin Samet, allowed me to go through the center's archived photos and purchase extra copies for $2.50/each... needless to say, I probably funded an entire ad-hoc research project with the amount of photos I purchased that summer. In addition to the photos, the library at the NHC, as well as at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) on Virginia Key, provided a wealth of historical knowledge and books on tropical cyclones and their effects.

Then in early 1984 a simple event became the first piece to the puzzle that kick-started my chasing career. A local news stand, "Al's News", started carrying the monthly periodical "Weatherwise". While the publication had already been in existence for many years, and I had seen old back-issues in the National Hurricane Center's library,  this was the first time that current issues were carried in a store that I frequented. I immediately picked up the latest issue and was overwhelmed, an entire magazine devoted to meteorology... with numerous articles about severe weather and hurricanes!

In one of the first "Weatherwise" issues I purchased, there was a classified ad from a professional meteorologist, Steven Steinke, who was looking for other meteorologists and weather enthusiasts to start a new monthly periodical on meteorology, and to serve as authors for specific columns. I wrote to Steven, providing some samples of my writing, and he paired me with Marc Mailhot (a private meteorologist in Maine) to be co-authors of the new publication's tropical column. The magazine was incorporated as "The American Weather Observer" and Marc and I were responsible for the "Tropical Topics" section.

The second piece to the puzzle came on my birthday in 1984 when my family, knowing my love of severe weather and photography, gave me a brand new VCR/Camcorder set. Finally, I was able to be mobile and shoot video of every storm I came across... I think I filmed an afternoon thunderstorm that very day. In September of 1984 Hurricane Diana formed just off the Northeast Florida coast. Somehow, I convinced my mother to let me fly to Jacksonville and stay with relatives, as Diana was initially forecast to move onshore near there. Unfortunately for me, Diana veered off to the north and northeast, making a loop before finally striking North Carolina. Though I didn't intercept the center, Diana is notable as the first hurricane I truly 'chased'. Later that fall, I once again went north to chase Tropical Storm Isidore. This time I did intercept the center of the storm, however, Isidore was so weak that it barely produced any significant weather at all. But, it didn't matter, I was gaining valuable chasing experience.

By late fall, I had written several articles for the "American Weather Observer" and had submitted my work to the prestigious American Meteorological Society (AMS). In late 1984, at 16, I was granted an Associate Membership to the AMS... at that time I was the youngest person ever granted membership.

The third and final piece of the puzzle came in December of 1984. Having read "Weatherwise"  for close to a year, I noticed in the classifieds section that a couple of "storm-chasers" were offering their videos for sale. One in particular, from Hurricane Diana earlier that summer, caught my eye. Since I myself had chased Diana and had missed its landfall in North Carolina,  I was extremely curious to see what it had been like. I ordered the tape and within days received not only the tape, but also a phone call from the storm chaser and videographer... Jim Leonard. I explained how I was obsessed with hurricanes and severe weather and Jim explained that he was just as obsessed and had been documenting hurricanes and tornadoes for several years. He wanted to know if I was interested in seeing all the footage he had and, needless to say, I invited him over immediately. The day Jim came to my house for the first time, a rare December hurricane was prowling the Atlantic northeast of Puerto Rico at its peak, Hurricane Lili! So, with all of Jim's archived footage and Hurricane Lili churning up the Atlantic, Jim and I definitely had a lot to talk about.

Over the next several months, Jim and I became good friends and by the summer of 1985 had made plans to chase together. The hurricane season of 1985 didn't disappoint and it wasn't long before Jim and I were headed out to Key West to intercept the developing Hurricane Elena. After moving into the Gulf of Mexico, Elena's track became highly erratic and Jim, Richard Pasch and I spent the next three days criss-crossing the Gulf states from Louisiana to Florida and back, finally intercepting Elena at landfall in Biloxi, Mississippi. As a category three, with 120mph winds, Elena was a personal milestone as the first major hurricane that I intercepted, as well as having the most amazing eye passage I have ever witnessed (to this day).

After Elena, and with Jim's mentoring and guidance, my chasing career took off and is still going strong today. This is a partial list of my interceptions, to date (major hurricanes listed in RED):

     
Hurricane David (1979)
Tropical Storm Dennis (1981)
Hurricane Diana (1984)
Tropical Storm Isidore (1984)
Tropical Storm Bob (1985)

Hurricane Elena (1985)
*
Hurricane Gloria (1985)

Hurricane Kate (1985)
*
Hurricane Bonnie (1986)
Hurricane Floyd (1987)
Hurricane Florence (1988)
Hurricane Gilbert (1988)
Hurricane Hugo (1989)

Hurricane Bob (1991)
Hurricane Andrew (1992)
Hurricane Emily (1993)

Tropical Storm Gordon (1994)
Hurricane Erin (1995)
Hurricane Opal (1995)
Hurricane Fran (1996)
Hurricane Georges (1998)
Hurricane Irene (1999)
Hurricane Frances (2004)
Hurricane Jeanne (2004)
Hurricane Katrina (2005)
Hurricane Rita (2005)

Hurricane Wilma (2005)
Tropical Storm Ernesto (2006)
Tropical Storm Barry (2007)
Tropical Storm Noel (2007)
Tropical Storm Fay (2008)
Hurricane Gustav (2008)
Hurricane Ike (2008)
Tropical Storm Bonnie (2010)
Hurricane Igor (2010)
Hurricane Irene (2011)
Hurricane Isaac (2012) *
Hurricane Matthew (2016)
Hurricane Irma (2017)
* Intercepted multiple times.

In addition to the interceptions above, I have either directly, or indirectly, experienced over 20 additional named tropical cyclones and countless other severe weather events. During the last 25 years of my chasing career I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed and documented some of the most amazing and dramatic hurricane events in the Atlantic basin. Most notably Hurricanes Hugo, Opal, Andrew, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

My photography and videography have been used worldwide in numerous text books, magazines, advertisements, television programs, marketing campaigns and other media including "Weatherwise", The Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Discovery Channel,  The Weather Channel, The BBC, Duracell and others.

For the last nineteen years, I have maintained this website, TROPMET.COM, dedicated to hurricanes, severe weather, storm chasing and photography.

Over the last twenty years I have also worked as a Sr. Producer of Interactive Systems for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

Aside from hurricane chasing, in my spare time I also enjoy movies (especially horror and sci-fi), music, reading, fishing, South Florida history, nature photography, video games, comic books and animation.

 

   
Michael Laca  
   
Hurricane Hugo Approaches Puerto Rico (by: Michael Laca)  
   
Michael Laca at the 1935 Hurricane Monument in the Florida Keys.  
   
Waterspout in Key West, Florida, 1983 (by: Michael Laca)  
   
Michael Laca  
 
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