Whirlwind Tourism

Thrill seekers endure wind, hail, and truck-stop food for funnels

BY Dan McGraw

We were somewhere between Ottumwa and Cedar Rapids when a primal fear took hold deep within us. Cruising by Iowa cornfields at 60 mph, a roiling and rotating thunderstorm in a jaundiced sky was about to drop a funnel cloud less than a half mile to our left. Over our right shoulder was a beastly midnight- black storm a few miles away, shooting lightning bolts to the freshly plowed fields. The air was thick with the smell of wet dirt and fresh manure. None of the cows moved. The two storms were moving toward us in a meteorological pincers movement. As we raced ahead, I looked over at Charlie in the passenger seat and noticed he was laughing maniacally as he got his long-lens camera ready. "What really makes this funny," Charlie said, bracing himself with his hand against the dash- board, "is that we have no idea how much danger we are in:' He was dead right on that score. For five days Charlie Archambault, a U.S. News photographer, and I had been following a van filled with eight people-two seasoned storm chasers and six hardy tourists who had paid $1,800 each to be brought to this precarious spot. And while we fretted that an errant cow might soon crash into our grillwork, the passengers in the van were doing what tourists normally do, taking videos and still pictures. Their tour guide, David Gold, 28, a doctoral candidate in meteorology at Texas A & M, calmly explained that his computer analysis indicated they could stay in front of the storm on the left and outrun the one on the right. He spoke of isobars and outflow boundaries but not one word about fatalities in trailer parks and flying cows. Weather junkies. This tour is the latest in adventure vacations, capitalizing on the death and misfortune of others. It sounds completely crazy, but storm-chasing tours are gaining popularity among those whose favorite TV show is the five-day forecast on the Weather Channel. About a half-dozen companies will take vacationers out in search of 100 mph winds, baseball-size hail, and the occasional funnel cloud. Prices range from $1,500 to $2,000 for 10 days to two weeks. The tours operate in prime tornado season, from April through June. All the companies have Internet sites, and most tours fill up several months in advance.

This was Gold's first year operating his Silver Lining Tours. Like other tours, Gold's group meets in Oklahoma City- the heart of a wide swath of the Great Plains known as Tornado Alley. For the next 10 days, Gold and his driver and meteorological sidekick, Sean Lyons, would search for the best possible storm sites. The most absurd aspect of storm-chasing tours (aside from driving into menacing storms) is that you never know from day to day where you will end up. Could be North Dakota. Could be West Texas. One thing you can count on is a lot of driving, 600 miles on some days.

The group embarking on Silver Lining’s- tour seemed to have little in common. Francis Marley, a retired police officer from Worcester, Mass., and his wife, Veda, were given the tour by their children as a retirement gift. Meeno Vander a maritime meteorologist for the Dutch government wanted to see some American severe weather. Mark Chatten an information technologist in England had been studying meteorology since he was a kid. . Cindy Young, a shy book editor from Toronto, came because she had always been fascinated by severe weather, while Bill Hopkins, a software analyst from Austin, Texas, joined the tour to get over fears he harbored about tornadoes from his childhood in Lawrence, Kan.

tornado copy.JPG (14471 bytes) Supercells. The first day we made our way to southeast Nebraska, where Gold's computer indicated that a host of super- cells-the monster storms that spawn tornadoes-would begin to pop up in late afternoon. And right on cue they did, just south of the small town of York. As we zigzagged on country roads, we soon realized that storm chasing is an art not unlike bullfighting. The key is to always stay in front of the storm and always have an escape. Before long we were standing on the side of the road, staring at a wall cloud-a formation that is like a rolling pin parallel to the ground. Wall clouds will sometimes be forced up in the middle, forming rotating funnel clouds that are perpendicular to the ground. This particular wall cloud threatened to form a funnel but never quite did. Later, after sunset, we watched another wall cloud tease us as we drove through golf- ball-size hail.

 Over the next three days, we learned that storm chasing can be an inexact science at best. We spent 16-hour days driving and eating truck-stop food. The typical day would begin with Gold and Lyons hunkered in front of their laptop computer, downloading data that would predict wind speed and moisture content in different parts of the country. We would make our way toward the optimum area for tornadoes, and every two or three hours Gold would pull over at a truck stop to download more data. Having been chasing storms for 10 years, Gold seemed to know the location of every truck stop on the Great Plains. He favored those with phones at the tables (for easier downloading) and Subway sandwich shops.

From Kansas to Missouri to Nebraska and South Dakota, we found nothing. We'd drive for three hours. Stop to download. Gold would order a turkey sub and a Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, study the latest radar, and mutter about conflicting models. We would drive three more hours. More Yoo-Hoos and turkey subs.

But on the fifth day, we awoke in Lincoln, Neb. to storm sirens wailing and news that Frank Sinatra had died. A tornado : had been spotted south of town and was moving toward us at 45 mph. While the Nebraska Legislature hid in the basement of the Capitol three blocks away, the tour camped on the hotel balcony, grabbing their video cam eras to record a storm with winds clocked at 100 mph. Gold was unimpressed. As he went to take a shower, he told the group, 'When you see rubble flying by get me." Gold knew that the real storms that day would be in central Iowa, near Ottumwa. And after the Lincoln storm passed, we loaded our vehicles and sped to the east. The conditions all day were eerie: A haze hung over the farmland, but the winds were blowing at about 30 mph and the temperature approached go degrees, conditions that breed catastrophic storms. 'I'm really afraid today," he confided to Charlie and me at a truck stop. "There is a good chance for storms of biblical proportions."

Black beast. We arrived in Ottumwa as the sirens began. Every few minutes an annoying woman on the radio kept telling us to seek the shelter of an interior room or to lie face down in a ditch. The storms were moving northeast at 45 mph, but the roads ran north-south and east-west in a grid. We drove the right angles; the storm followed the hypotenuse. We outran the black beast and hung with the roiling monster storm. And for the next 90 minutes, we stayed in front of that storm. Occasionally, it would drop a funnel, only to pull back. The sky was a yellowish purple, the wall cloud spinning and teasing, sometimes just a few hundred yards from the road. We chased, often at unsafe speeds, waiting for the tornado to form.

We came to Bellevue, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, and realized the road ended there. The nearest bridge was 25 miles away. We stood on the side of the road and watched as the wall cloud spun about 1,000 feet over our head. Ten minutes later, the storm dropped a tornado across the river.

I half expected the group to be bitterly disappointed, but they were exhilarated. They had come to see severe weather and were rewarded. Gold told Charlie and me that the storm we outran earlier in the day had spawned a "wedge" tornado a half-mile wide on the ground. The tornado flattened the town of Washington, Iowa (population 7,074) but lolled no one. At one point we were about 5 miles from the wedge tornado, and if we had gone straight instead of turning left, we would have run right into it.

We decided we were a journalistic curse to the group, and Charlie and I bailed out after so many close calls. But two days later, near Minot, N.D., the group caught their tornado, a slender stovepipe funnel that destroyed a road- side tavern and lolled some cows. They viewed it from the safety of 6 miles away. And like golfers documenting a hole in one, the group took videos and sent them to the Weather Channel.

(Courtesy: U.S. News & World Report, June 8, 1998, pp. 58-61)

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