As thousands of people were fleeing the coast of North Carolina Thursday, Bill Hark got in his car in Richmond, Va., and headed straight for it.
It was a harrowing journey -- 12 hours through hammering rain and howling winds, dodging downed power lines and fallen trees. But for Hark, one of a small, unusual group of hobbyists called "storm chasers," Isabel was irresistible.
"It was a lot stronger than I expected," said Hark, 36. "It was exciting for the strength of the wind, and I got some great video of a falling tree."
Hark is a physician with an allergy and asthma practice in Richmond. For as long as he can remember, he's been fascinated by weather. As a young boy, he rented videos of big storms. By the time he finished medical school, he was scheduling his vacations during tornado season, traveling out to the Plains to spot twisters.
Hark is not alone. Where other people see destruction and fury, storm chasers see adventure and beauty. Most of them, lifelong addicts of extreme weather, charge straight for the eye of a storm when everyone else is escaping it. Unlike the fictional chasers in the 1996 film Twister, who follow only tornadoes, real storm chasers seek out all types of extreme weather. Many actually prefer chasing hurricanes because they last longer than tornadoes, and have much larger centers.
Jesse Ferrell, 29, founder of Weathermatrix.net, an online community of more than 7,000 weather enthusiasts, estimates the number of serious chasers in the United States at 500. The majority are men. Ferrell said they are not to be confused with "storm spotters," who track from a safe distance.
"There aren't that many hard-core chasers out there," said Ferrell, who chases storms during time off from his job with forecasting service AccuWeather. "They are the guys who really get in there and get up close."
Storm chasing is not a hobby most weather professionals endorse. "We don't advise that anyone do this kind of thing," said Scott Kiser, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization. "If they [storm chasers] want to be in harm's way, then that's their business. But when they are exposed enough to take pictures and be out in the wind, then they're not in a smart, safe place."
Still, Kiser said, the number of storm chasers keeps growing.
What's the attraction? For many chasers, it's the adrenaline charge that comes from experiencing dark skies, gale winds, lightning and swirling debris.
"It's so exciting to see so much energy, so uncontrolled," said David Hoadley, 65, of Falls Church, Va. Known as "the old man of chasing," Hoadley drove eight hours on Thursday to Elizabeth City, N.C., where he checked into a nearly empty Holiday Inn and waited for Isabel, which he watched from a parking garage.
"To me, a storm is this grand, eloquent expression of the natural world," he said. "Yeah, it happens to be dangerous, but for me it's a way to feel connected with something so much bigger than we are."
Hoadley had hoped to see a hurricane-spawned tornado -- the holy grail of storm chasing --but he missed the few twisters that Isabel generated.
While the thought of seeking out a twister powerful enough to level a building or lift a car is frightening to most people, chasers pride themselves in being fearless in the presence of storm.
"Storms are not terrifying to me," said Jim Leonard, hailed as a legend among storm chasers. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've wanted to be right in the eye of them. It's not that I'm a thrill-seeker, it's just that I love the anatomy of a storm."
Leonard is one of the few storm chasers with enough experience and sheer bravado to have turned his hobby into a career: selling video and photographs of the world's worst storms to television networks and documentary makers. His resume is a list of horrific hurricanes, tornadoes and his specialty, typhoons.
"I've learned a lot about how to intercept them," he said. "It's about getting in the right place in the worst possible conditions."
But the path of a storm cannot always be predicted, and most chasers confess to the occasional miscalculation -- or brush with death. In the thick of Typhoon Omar in Guam in 1992, Leonard narrowly missed being crushed by a flying roof.
Unlike Leonard, most storm chasers stick closer to home, occasionally making trips to Tornado Alley -- the Plains area between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachians where twisters are most frequent. For aspiring chasers, there are tour companies located in the alley, which offer guided chasing trips in the peak months of May and June. For about $3,000, tornado watchers can take a 10-day cruise around the Plains; there's no guarantee, of course, that a storm will be spotted.