I Went Tornado Chasing with a Bunch of Storm Enthusiasts
Jun 27 2013
All photos by Anthony Ho. Shattuck, Oklahoma.
There was a moment a couple of days ago while being blasted in the face by a 50 mph concoction of dust, manure, and hail the size of ping pong balls that I thought, Enjoy yourself, you're on vacation.
I was a Brit storm chasing in Lubbock, Texas. This was the combined result of a decade's worth of tornado nightmares, an unhealthy appreciation for the film Twister, and a massively overdrawn debit card.
A week before I arrived in the US, one of the largest tornadoes to ever set down on Earth tore a path across Moore, Oklahoma, claiming the lives of 24 people.
A devastating loss of life, but as a friend incisively pointed out, "You must be fucking gutted to miss that, mate."
A day before I arrived, the experienced and respected storm chaser Tim Samaras also lost his life when a second round of ferocious storms hit the Midwestern state. His truck was later found flattened, having been thrown half a mile through the air. I later discovered that Tim was a drinking buddy of the man who was in charge of safeguarding me from the world's wildest weather for the next week.
Just outside Lubbock, Texas.
Therefore, it was with an odd air of gruesome anticipation and quiet respect that I boarded my flight from London Heathrow. Ten hours later, in Denver, Colarado, I met the team and fellow storm aficionados in the hotel lobby.
In a nearby conference room, we tried hard to pay attention to an almost laughably 90s "orientation" video presented by a local TV weatherman named Bob.
Bob explained what to look for and how to stay safe. I wrote down a few notes on potential shelters—"Ditch, not bathtub"—before we headed out into the wilds of Tornado Alley.
Among the 12 others also along for the ride was a Welsh family, a middle-aged couple whose favorite film was Irreversible, a very dry Swiss guy who worked in pharmaceuticals, a loud Australian railway worker, and my favorite, a short Chinese ex-cop from Florida named Anthony. All were armed with large digital SLR cameras. This was a package holiday for that very small cross-section of society for whom adrenaline-seeker meets meteorological nerd.
There was something brilliantly ramshackle about those in charge of the tour, too. Mike was the endearingly awkward meteorologist. Jase was his goofy right-hand man. And Matt and Rob were the drivers who formed an odd double act, obsessively used the van-to-van walkie-talkies, and proudly displayed a dazzling array of luminous, tornado-themed T-shirts.
Rob in one of his twister T-shirts. Photo by Chris Boyd
They studied weather models and maps each morning, pointed meaningfully at seemingly innocuous cloud formations, and placed bets on where to take the convoy to best encounter a twister. From them, I learned about inflows and outflows, mammatus clouds, and gust fronts—scud and mesocyclone.
Some days we chased until late into the evening, as tornados usually form between 4 and 6 PM. Some days we sat in the baking heat of deserted gas stations, squinting at scattered clouds that never got their act together. For all the gizmos and flashing LED screens, at its heart, storm chasing still relies on watching the skies, waiting, and gut instinct.
En route, we took in the sights—rundown windmill farms, sand dunes, and UFO research centers. Though I'm sad to say we never made it to Wakita's one-room Twister museum.
"They have a can that Bill Paxton drunk from during filming," Rob told me enthusiastically.
Local folks clocked the weather equipment on top of our vans from time to time and immediately wanted to know, firstly, "Y'all storm chasing?" And secondly, "Is a twister going to hit here?"
The in-van meteorological radar.
The second of which I was unable to answer with any degree of authority. And regardless, I didn't seem to be fully understood any time I muttered something through my gloomy northern English accent.
There was, however, an overriding sense of people just getting on with things here, regardless of what nature threw at them.
In Dodge City, we parked outside a motel to spent the night, just as a torrential downpour of rain started to beat the hell out of the streets.
Across the road, a man in chef's whites perches unfazed on the edge of the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette like he was lounging by the pool on his first day back from military duty.
We drove a lot, too. We drove through Kansas and Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and New Mexico—hundreds of miles a day in pursuit of thin air. Hours were spent scrutinizing every rising, passing cloud and every possible funnel shape in the sky. Days seemed lost to never-ending roads. It quickly became an addiction. Occasionally I tried to sleep in the van or listen to Anthony's police stories—mostly of practical jokes so intricate and ridiculous that I wondered whether any criminals actually got caught in Florida.
When factors finally aligned and I found myself on the verge, confronted by colossal swirling black supercell lit up by a hundred thousand flickering lightning flashes, it was difficult to feel anything but complete awe.
There was no doubt to me as the air pulled and pushed that we were all meaningless in the grand scheme of things. To an agnostic, this was the closest I would get to a close encounter with God.
This awe changed instantly to mild terror when Mike started violently punching the van's horn. One of the only things the group remembered from the orientation video was that that this meant "Get the hell in the vehicle now."
In the confusion, half the group was knocked to the ground by freight-train-speed winds. As we pried open the van door, the onboard computer repeated the words, "Warning, you are approaching a rotating storm. Please exercise caution."
The radar screens were filled with reds and yellows that looked like they were about to eat the vehicle. We hit the gas and took off swiftly, gawping at the twisting wall cloud forming in the rearview mirror.
It's fair to say that storm "chasing" is probably more accurately described as storm "identifying-and-then-running-away."
Essentially, the job of the storm chaser is to document, to spot storms, notify weather centers and newsrooms, and ultimately give anyone unlucky enough to be in the path of an oncoming storm enough time to get to shelter.
Despite this, the obvious excitement involved threatens to turn quiet appreciation into an extreme sport. TV Shows like Storm Chasers have encouraged a generation to quit pussyfooting around and to recklessly head gung-ho into the storm core. Anyone with a smart phone can now download a number of radar apps and ride out unsupervised onto the great plains themselves.
This inexperience and recklessness on the roads may go some way to explaining the sad death of Tim Samaras. As it turns out, a personal friend of Mike's. There's talk that Tim, his son, and a crew member may have been caught in a traffic jam caused by amateur chasers when the unpredictable twister hit.
Back in Lubbock, it was quickly becoming apparent that we had found ourselves in the middle of one of the largest thunderstorms to move through the area in a good 30 years. Power lines sparked out as they hit buildings and crashed down on the tarmac, hail cracked the windshield, and flash flooding threatened to drown both vehicles.
"If you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end," said Jase, looking over his wraparound shades, "get on the ground immediately, you're about to get hit by lightning."
"Thanks," I said, "but my hair's been doing that for the last five days."
We survived the night and woke to find at least one motel in town without a roof, and our courtyard full of stranded refugees.
And almost as soon as it had started, some 2,500 miles down the road later, the week drew to an end.
Some seemed disappointed by the lack of twister touchdowns we witnessed. Others were still shaken by thoughts of flash floods engulfing trapped cars. And a few, like myself, remained completely overwhelmed and changed by the landscape, the people, and the troubled skies.
"Was it like that film Twister?" asked a friend when I got back.
"More like the made-for-TV version, Tornado, starring Bruce Campbell and Ernie Hudson," I said. "But all the better for it."
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