This entry originally appeared, with slight modifications, as the main feature in the Fall 2006 issue of the Grub Street Free Press.
Click on any photo to see an enlargement.
Early June 2006 and I’m flying to Nebraska. As we land, my seatmate, a pleasant-faced woman, asks whether Omaha’s my final destination.
“No ma’am,” I say, practicing politeness. “Oklahoma City.”
“Why?” she says in the voice reserved for the mildly insane.
I pause, then tell the truth: “I’m going stormchasing.”
She rears back as if I’ve shown her a shoe-bomb, then pushes past me and down the aisle before I can yell: “It’s research!”
My second novel is about stormchasers, and I’m hoping this trip will fill in some important blanks that armchair research can’t. Do chasers really eat Twinkies for breakfast? Say, “Dude, it’s the Finger of God”? What’s it like to drive into a deadly storm instead of chickening out and cowering in a barn?
There’s only one way to find out.
Tornado Alley extends from the Dakotas southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the flat Plains states, warm and cold air collide, providing combustion for the planet’s most violent storms. That’s exactly what I’m hoping to see when I arrive, in my rented Grand Cherokee Laredo, in Oklahoma City. First, though, I have to find my chase partner, photographer Marcia Perez.
Meeting Marcia is scarier than getting sucked up by a funnel. Tempest president Martin Lisius matched us via email as “media consorts,” meaning we’ll follow the tour van in our own vehicle. We’ll be together 24-7 for a week, in the Laredo by day, sharing motel rooms by night. What if it’s hate at first sight?
Luckily, the first thing Marcia says is, “Let’s get Starbucks,” and I’m giddy with relief. We might appear polar opposites: Marcia’s a left-brained, raven-haired Latina architect from Texas; I’m a blonde German-Jewish writer who lives down the street from John Kerry. But when it comes to coffee and chasing, we’re instant kindred spirits. Starbucks in hand, aware it’s probably the strongest brew we’ll drink for a week, we settle into a Ramada conference room for orientation.
There are approximately 200 professional stormchasers in America; two of them are running this tour. Soft-spoken Brian Morganti, 56, is the official leader, in charge of finding our storms. Gray-bearded, floppy-hatted Kinney Adams is the driver and co-guru. In his other life, Brian sells cabinets in Bernville, PA. Wisconsin native Kinney gardens and edits chase videos. We’re trusting these men with our lives.
Tempest’s clients are a demographic grab bag. Californian Barton Frets is a “repeat offender” who saw a tornado during his 2005 Tempest tour. Bill Edwards from Michigan, who’s here as a birthday gift from his wife, admits, “I wanna see some action real bad.” Virginian Nancy Meyers is accompanying her husband Ben “because I have a boring job,” and Jason Harris from Arizona says, “I’m here because I’m fascinated by flying cows—YEAH!” Younger brother Nick Harris adds, “I’m here because Jason wants to see flying cows—YEAH!”
Don’t hold your breath, I think, ever more grateful I’m tailing the van. I wouldn’t want to be riding shotgun when the Harris brothers discover that stormchasing is more driving and downtime than danger. My smugness evaporates when Brian enumerates potential hazards: lightning, rattlesnakes, flash floods, ankle-breaking prairie-dog holes, electrocution from wire fencing. “Kinney, what’m I forgetting?” he asks.
Kinney smiles languidly. “Make sure the van doors close behind you,” he says, “ ‘cause otherwise, in high winds, they’ll take your arm or leg off.”
“Questions?” Brian says.
Nobody says anything.
“Let’s hit the road,” he says.
Our first chase day begins with a briefing. In the lobby of the Concordia (Kansas) Super-8 Motel, Brian projects the Storm Prediction Center’s website onto a wall to show us where we’re going and why. With our wireless Internet and Baron ThreatNet radar, we have a leg up on the chasers of yesteryear, who had to skywatch and guesstimate.
But finding a tornado is still as much luck as science. Supercells—the mammoth, rotating thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes—require many ingredients: warm and cold air, humidity, wind shear and a cooperative cap (an atmospheric layer like a pressure cooker lid). If the cap’s too strong, the storms underneath can’t grow. If it breaks too soon, the fledgling storms fizzle. Ideally, the cap stays on long enough to let storms build steam—until whammo! they punch through and become Supercells.
It’s amazing tornadoes ever develop at all. In 2006, not many have; there hasn’t been one in Tornado Alley since March.
“That’s today’s probability,” Brian says grimly, pointing to a 5 % trough over South Dakota. “It should be fifteen or more. But it’s our best bet.”
“We trust you,” says Nick Harris, pouring breakfast—a 72-ounce Sonic Pepsi—down his throat.
The 250 miles to South Dakota pass quickly. Marcia and I are entertained by “Sven,” our NOAA weather radio android who emphasizes all the wrong syllables: “At 3 p.m., the NAtional Weather SERvice in NorFOLK issued a severe thunderSTORM watch.” We create a chaser reality show called The Van. We talk about guys.
By five PM, when we stop at yet another gas station in Yankton, SD, we’re getting punchy. Brian stays in the van to consult the radar while the rest of us roam the aisles, looking for trouble. Nick Harris rips open his third bag of Oreos and says, “That’s just nasty,” about my pork rinds. Kinney smokes and squints at the bright sunny sky. Nancy and Ben Meyers squabble over the last desiccated sandwich in the Sunoco cooler.
Then Kinney says “Let’s go!” and we race to our respective vehicles. There’s a tornado warning for Mitchell, five miles north.
As we blow through open farmland I see what the local radio’s warning us to stay away from. Up ahead the sky’s a dark bruised color—the underside of an anvil cloud, spreading from the Supercell. On our ham radio, Kinney confirms, “Laredo, we should intercept in about fifteen minutes.”
“Copy that,” I say and focus on not screaming with fear. “You don’t think they’d do anything that’d, like, kill us, do you?” I say casually to Marcia, who’s scrambling into the backseat for a better angle.
“Nah,” she says.
“Fabulous,” I say and fervently hope she’s right.
The clouds grow darker and more defined, pressing down on the fields like a lid, letting in only a slice of lemon-colored sky on the horizon. This is what I’m watching, since that clear slot—in front of a black rain shaft—is where the tornado will form.
“Whoo!” I yell as we turn off the highway, “WHOOOO-HOOOOOO!” I can’t help it. I’m so scared I’m about to cry, but I’m laughing too. Kinney parks on a gravel road and I follow suit. Marcia snaps picture after picture and everyone grabs camcorders and starts filming. Now everything is utterly silent except the whistle and roar of the wind—which flattens the surrounding grasses and drops the temperature twenty degrees while we watch the clear slot. And pray. And wait.
Suddenly the wind switches direction, making us stagger. Egg-sized raindrops fall. But otherwise, nothing happens. The Supercell just keeps moving overhead, muttering thunder, the world’s most giant and powerful animal.
Finally Brian shuts off his camera. “You can stick a fork in this,” he says disgustedly. “It’s done.”
It’s hard to tell who’s most disappointed as we head back to Nebraska. I’d vote for Brian and Kinney, since they’re responsible fortrying to give clients their money’s worth. At $2500 a pop, that’s serious pressure. But they’re also bona-fide storm fanatics, and when our Supercell won’t play, I half-expect them to shout, Not fair!
I don’t mind. I’m busy marveling at the post-storm show: all around us, the landscape glows baby-aspirin orange, fluorescent yellow-green.
Over the next week, a pattern emerges. We wake, bolt whatever breakfast’s available, chug translucent coffee during morning briefing (except in York, NE, where there’s a Starbucks!), and drive. And drive and drive. The 2006 storm season is so freakishly lacking in storms we’ll travel hundreds of miles a day to catch one.
We criss-cross the Plains from Wyoming to Iowa, stopping frequently at gas stations to snack and check the ThreatNet. Wherever there’s the slightest risk of severe weather, there’s a chaser cluster: vans with antennas and SkyWarn stickers, meteorology undergrads eating BombPops and beef jerky. The tour leaders stand apart, trading information about something—anything—we can chase.
A good chase director keeps a mental index of local attractions to distract the crew from mutiny. We visit the Pawnee National Grasslands, the Devil’s Tower, the Corn Palace.
Sometimes, we’re luckier. In Kadoka, South Dakota, we watch a storm grow from cottonball cumulus to a monster Supercell, and I get to “punch the core”—drive straight through its precipitation shaft—before it peters out.
In Rosebud County, Montana, Brian and Kinney find a huge storm hovering over the lonely grasslands like a spaceship from Independence Day.
The mothership starts spinning off babyships before our eyes; at one point I gape up at what looks like the sole of a giant’s shoe and realize it’s the footprint of a Supercell, a cloud billowing into the stratosphere.
But the only tornado we see is one I make from a taco chip, biting it into a funnel shape our last night of the tour:
And the ones Marcia and I watch on DVD, once everybody’s sadly parted ways and we’re back in Oklahoma City, at her parents’ house, analyzing Twister.
“Oh my God,” she says scornfully, “look how fake that funnel is.”
“Tscha,” I snort, “and that’s a real Supercell—as if!”
We go into hysterics when Bill Paxton predicts a storm’s approach by letting dirt trickle from his hand. Marcia’s father, who’s been watching with us, shakes his head and leaves the room.
“You girls are obnoxious,” he says.
“Chick chasers!” we yell and high-five.
After the movie I hug Marcia goodbye and drive off to catch my flight. My last hurrah with the faithful Laredo, on which I’ve put over 4000 miles. In Tornado Alley, where I still haven’t seen a tornado.
Has it been worth it?
Jason Harris would say no: “Next year, we’re going, like, rock-climbing.”
Same for amiable Bill Edwards: “I’d have a better chance of seeing a tornado if I stayed in Michigan—though at least now I’d know what I was looking at.” (A week after the tour, a tornado touches down near Edwards’s home.)
But I’m thinking of sunbathing at the Citgo in Chadron, Nebraska. Of Kinney explaining the structure of a Supercell. Of chasers converging on a dirt intersection that newly defines “the middle of nowhere.” I know how to eat healthfully at gas stations (sunflower seeds, V-8, string cheese), what ham radio frequency chasers use (146.52 MhZ), that Super-8 is the “chaser chain.” I have a better understanding of the majestic machinery of big weather.
Am I disappointed I didn’t see a tornado? Sure. Would I do it again?
In a York, Nebraska minute.
(Editor’s note: On August 24th, two months after her Tempest Tour, Jenna finally spotted an F3 tornado in Waterville, MN while chasing with a captive partner: her mother. Jenna credits Tempest for providing the knowledge that enabled their safe and successful intercept.)