Environment

Into the eye of the storm: Video producer James Reynolds goes to extreme lengths to document the impact of a typhoon

by Daniel Traylor

Staff Writer

James Reynolds has his eyes on his camera’s viewfinder, but also on the debris from a broken roof that’s darting about in the wind as Typhoon Jebi leaves its mark on the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2018.

The peak of the storm has arrived, and as we stand mostly exposed to the violent winds and encroaching debris, the city has gone quiet.

Everyone sensible has sought refuge indoors, but our only shelter at this moment is a white hatchback parked nearby.

With little warning, a piece of broken roof suddenly lurches toward us and Reynolds tells me to take cover behind the car.

“Bit of a punch in this typhoon,” says Reynolds, a Japan-based video producer who makes a living by documenting powerful storms, erupting volcanoes and other natural disasters around the world.

Rather than showcase the aftermath, Reynolds prefers to go into the heart of the action, be it finding the best spot to document the center of a typhoon or climbing a mountain to get a prime view of a volcano.

Reynolds has documented about 60 typhoons over the years and many of them, especially those on the main island of Honshu, dramatically weaken and end up having relatively little impact.

However, his intuition about Typhoon Jebi held up. The storm, which at one point was a Category 5 during its approach to Japan, made landfall in Shikoku’s Tokushima Prefecture on Sept. 4 last year.

It was the strongest typhoon to hit Honshu in 25 years, killing 11 and injuring hundreds more.

Kansai International Airport was flooded, and a tanker carried by the winds slammed into the only bridge connecting the hub to the mainland.

“It was absolutely not what I expected,” Reynolds says of the storm during a follow-up chat in Tokyo in March. “I was expecting it to be a straightforward, easy day out, without much to worry about. But we did end up having quite a lot to worry about.”

Weathering the storm: James Reynolds checks his equipment ahead of Typhoon Jebi making landfall in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR
Weathering the storm: James Reynolds checks his equipment ahead of Typhoon Jebi making landfall in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR

Flipping the switch

The day before Jebi is due to make landfall, Reynolds picks me up at a rural train station in northern Mie Prefecture just off the expressway. The forecast track shows the storm making landfall anywhere from Shikoku to the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. Reynolds makes the call to drive to Wakayama and stay for the night. We will wake up early, check the latest forecast and decide where to go.

“It’s very much about getting to the right place,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds, 35, left the United Kingdom for China in 2006 after graduating from college, enrolling in a language school and engaging in what he lightheartedly refers to as an “extended period of bumming around.”

After a year and a half, he landed a job with a TV production company, working on “the lowest rung of the ladder” to set up shots for current affairs programs and documentaries. He had been documenting typhoons as a hobby since 2005.

“Slowly, the seeds were sown to start doing the kind of business I do now,” Reynolds says.

In 2007, he got his first inquiry from a production company interested in licensing his footage, prompting the realization that he may be able to turn his hobby into a job. In 2009, Reynolds joined his girlfriend — now his wife, a native of Tokyo — in Hong Kong and, after looking for work, he started trying to monetize his hobby, eventually establishing his own company.

While he was able to pay the bills, it wasn’t an immediate success.

“I almost pulled the plug in 2012,” Reyonlds recalls. “If there had been a job I could have had, I would have taken it.”

Reynolds considered sending a resume to a news network or seeking work with a production company. But then his business took off.

“It’s like someone flipped a switch,” Reynolds says. “I’m always worried someone will flip it off.”

The shift came as Reynolds established a growing library of content, which production companies and news outlets pay to license, along with a solid online presence to promote his work. Reynolds moved to Tokyo in 2016.

His work now ends up on the news and in documentaries, TV series and Hollywood films. Excerpts can be found on his YouTube channel and he updates his Twitter account — @earthuncuttv — when he goes on the road.

“I really value the freedom,” Reynolds says of the irregular work schedule, which allows him to spend time with his kids, who are 5 and 3 years old. “If I were hired by a network, it would kill a lot of the passion. I do this because I like it, I don’t see it as work.”

Reynolds isn’t the only one making a living by documenting natural disasters. However, he’s among a very small group of professionals who do it on a global scale.

U.S.-based Josh Morgerman, who calls himself “a hardcore hurricane chaser,” is one such peer. “James and I are among the very few dudes who chase hurricanes and typhoons internationally in a really hardcore, committed way,” Morgerman says.

However, there are some key differences in their work.

“Firstly … I’m a stormchaser, through and through — and my focus is even narrower than that title suggests, because I only chase hurricanes or typhoons,” Morgerman says. “James is way more versatile. He has a wide appreciation for all of Earth’s violent processes, meteorological and not.”

And, Morgerman says, Reynolds is good at what he does.

“No matter how rough and violent the conditions, he somehow always manages to get these gorgeous, beautifully composed shots. I don’t know how he does it,” Morgerman says. “He has a great eye … framing shots that are both aesthetically pleasing and that really capture the brute force of the natural events he’s documenting.”

A man boards up a building in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, ahead of Typhoon Jebi in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR
A man boards up a building in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, ahead of Typhoon Jebi in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR

‘A little bit swirly’

At 5:45 a.m., we meet in the lobby of our hotel in the city of Wakayama. We’re taunted by the smell of freshly baked bread but it’s too early for the complimentary breakfast. We stick with coffee as Reynolds, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, prepares his gear: a Sony Z150 camera, a backup DSLR camera, a fleet of GoPros, a device to measure air pressure, a rain jacket, rain boots and a helmet.

This is when I realize I should have brought a helmet.

Jebi is now on course to make landfall in Shikoku or possibly off its east coast. However, the uncertainty means that a gamble on trying to get to Shikoku in time could backfire, so Reynolds decides to stay in Wakayama and head south, even if it means missing the eye of the storm.

After a convenience store stop to stock up on provisions and a short video for Twitter that outlines our plans for the day, we set off for the coast to scout possible shooting locations.

On the way to Gobo, we find ourselves on a coastal road, with crashing waves to our right and a rocky cliff to our left. Reynolds says that we wouldn’t want to be here when the storm is at its worst.

He describes a key part of his work as “continuous risk assessment” in terms of finding the best shooting location balanced against potential danger.

“I primarily do this so I can enjoy the whole thing,” he says. “If I’m fearing for my life, I’m not doing it right.”

At close to 9 a.m., we arrive at an area of Gobo near the port that Reynolds had identified as a potential shooting spot. However, the roads leading there have already been closed.

Another part of the coast nearby also looks to be potentially risky, so Reynolds reverts to a common fall-back: the parking lot of a shopping center farther inland. He had noticed it as we drove past earlier because it had a roofed portion outside that could provide shelter. And the building itself could provide cover if the wind suddenly shifts.

By 10 a.m., the winds start to pick up and customers dwindle. Reynolds sets up his camera, sticks a remote-controlled GoPro camera onto a fence on the edge of the parking lot, and heads into Tsutaya for another important mission before the worst arrives — buying gifts for his kids.

At 11:30 a.m., the peak has arrived and we begin our dance with the roof debris. Things finally begin to calm down by 1 p.m. We’re soaked and exhausted but unharmed.

“Obviously the priority is safety — you don’t want stuff falling on your head,” Reynolds later says, re-evaluating the Gobo location. “But even then it was getting a little bit swirly.”

For anything stronger, Reynolds says, the only safe place would be indoors. Not long after Jebi, Reynolds found himself in the Philippines documenting Typhoon Mangkhut, a Category 5 storm that went on to slam Hong Kong.

As the storm was approaching on Sept. 14, Reynolds was interviewed on “State of the Nation,” a newscast on the Philippines’ GMA News TV.

At the end of the five-minute interview, host Jessica Soho asks Reynolds why he was heading into the worst of a storm in the first place.

Reynolds gives some background on his work but focuses on one key point.

“I really just try to get as many people to see the footage I shoot and my reports,” he says, “so everyone gets a greater understanding of the dangers of these typhoons and what they can do — and just how powerful they are.”

He would find out just how powerful Mangkhut would become not long after.

“It was a brutal storm,” Reynolds recalls, describing the scene from his hotel on the northeastern tip of the Philippines. “The windows of our hotel started exploding in.”

He ended up getting trapped on a balcony.

“I was trying to kick a door in. I was like, ‘This is my Hollywood action man moment.'”

However, the door remained intact, wedged shut by a window frame.

“Kicking doors in is a lot harder in real life than in the movies,” he says.

Video producer James Reynolds takes footage of waves after Typhoon Jebi had passed through Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR
Video producer James Reynolds takes footage of waves after Typhoon Jebi had passed through Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR

‘Heightened threat’

Japan is hit by several typhoons each year, with an average of 2.9 making landfalls on Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu over the period from 1951 to 2018, according to data compiled by the Meteorological Agency.

While there has not been a notable increase in landfalls, some experts point to greater and faster intensification of tropical cyclones worldwide.

One study, published in September 2016 in the journal Nature Geoscience, analyzed various data sets and concluded that typhoons making landfall in East and Southeast Asia had “intensified by 12-15 percent over the previous 37 years, with the proportion of storms of categories 4 and 5 having doubled or even tripled.”

The study links more intense storms at landfall to strengthened rates of intensification, “which, in turn, are tied to locally enhanced ocean surface warming.”

“Projected ocean surface warming … suggests that typhoons striking eastern mainland China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan will intensify further,” the authors write. “Given disproportionate damages by intense typhoons, this represents a heightened threat to people and properties in the region.”

Robert Speta, a former NHK World meteorologist who now works for News10NBC in Rochester, New York, has been tracking every typhoon in the Western Pacific since 2009, first with the U.S. Navy when he was stationed in Japan and later with NHK. He also runs a website devoted to typhoon tracking.

“My experience … is the sea surface temperatures as of late have been abnormally warm across the Western Pacific,” Speta says. “This is allowing for typhoons to grow stronger than years past.”

Gerry Bagtasa, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines who holds a doctorate in remote sensing and atmospheric physics from Chiba University, says climate change is expected to lead to a decrease in the number of tropical cyclones overall but causes those that form to be stronger.

“Records are already showing that the frequency of intense typhoons is on the rise,” Bagtasa says.

However, he adds that things get more complicated when it comes to assigning blame for stronger typhoons on warming seas.

“The truth is, there are a lot of things yet to be understood about typhoons, and the most reliable data we have is just five or six decades old, which is relatively short,” Bagtasa says. “While we do see increasing trends in typhoon intensity, natural variability is still a major factor that can obscure most analysis.”

Beyond the raw data, Bagtasa sees a clear value in what Reynolds does on the ground. Academics, he says, almost “never understand the experience of being inside the storm.”

“With James’ work, it really brings everyone literally to the center of the storm,” he says, “and, with it, comes a better appreciation of such natural phenomenon.”

Speta is also a follower of Reynolds’ work — and a friend. He and Reynolds first exchanged messages through an online weather forum when Speta was in the navy.

“We were basically two huge weather geeks in the Western Pacific and had a lot in common,” Speta says and, when askedabout Reynolds’ work, he is quick to offer a mountain of praise.

“In the United States there is Jim Cantore for The Weather Channel. The joke is that if you see him at your place, you should worry,” Speta says. “James is East Asia’s Jim Cantore.”

The roof of a gas station in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, is damaged by Typhoon Jebi after it struck in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR
The roof of a gas station in the city of Gobo, Wakayama Prefecture, is damaged by Typhoon Jebi after it struck in September 2018. | DANIEL TRAYLOR

Counting his blessings

With the worst of the storm over, we set out to survey the damage Jebi has caused. Light debris can be seen everywhere, some older buildings have lost roofs and many traffic lights are facing new directions after having been thrashed about in the wind.

We then try heading back to the city of Wakayama, finding two different potential routes closed due to debris on the roads. The new plan is to head over the mountains toward Nagoya, with Reynolds engaging in a battle of wits with the navigation program on his phone. (Even during a restroom break, his phone advises that he “head southwest.”)

Instead, we head northeast toward Nagoya. As we near the city, Reynolds’ phone is ringing on repeat.

It’s likely a producer at CNN International looking to get him on the air. But with his focus on finding his way to his downtown Nagoya hotel, he has to ignore the calls.

Finally, at just after 9 p.m., he parks the car outside his hotel and dials in to the network.

Despite the 15-hour, water-logged day, he was in good spirits, giving a detailed account of the storm and its impact on Wakayama and beyond.

During our chat in March, Reynolds made clear he wouldn’t trade the experience in for anything.

“Absolutely not,” Reynolds says.

“I am blessed,” he says, adding that he would never consider taking up a new line of work. “I’m probably one of the luckiest people around, to make a career out of what fascinates me and to make a career out of what was a hobby. For that I am extremely thankful, and I try not to take it for granted.”