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Dispatches from Days 1 & 2 -- May 13 -14

Day 2 - May 14
Nightfall & Stormy Visions
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  9:30 p.m. CDT

Tornado-wise, things are finally starting to look up.

Chris Howell has been sitting at his laptop printing out all kinds of weather data he grabbed off the Internet from the College of DuPage in Illinois.

Brian McNoldy is studying a handful of the brightly colored printouts. CAPE – Convection Available Potential Energy -- is good in western Texas and right where we are. That means there's going to be lots of energy in the air tomorrow to  provide lift for updrafts. Surface winds and upper-level winds are conducive to creating a necessary shear. Dew points are in the mid 60s.

Brian McNoldy (standing) and Chris Howell look over weather data at the Copa in Medicine Lodge. They’re finding promising patterns heading in the team’s direction. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

Many good/bad things have to come together to even produce the conditions favorable to produce one of the country's 1,000 annual tornadoes. Tornadoes are never guaranteed, but Brian says "it's a vast improvement over today."

It's still too soon to know where to go tomorrow. They will look at weather data for several more hours. "This is going to be a hard one," Brian says.

On one hand, Brian and Chris are cautious and humble about their predictive abilities. But on the other they know from last year's chasing that they know what they are doing. Last year they were on the scene to watch a tornado be born near Coldwater, Kansas, not far from here.

"We nailed that one," says Brian. "That was our storm. We were there first and we had pinpointed the location to within five miles. We beat everybody, including the universities."

As for tomorrow, Chris says things are going to happen right here or to the east -- in eastern Kansas or western Missouri. They won't drive that far east, however, because the terrain there is not good for chasing. It's too hilly and there are too many trees. They learned that the hard way in 1998.

"If it happens, and if it happens here," Chris says, "it'll be in late afternoon -- 5 or 6 p.m. is when they usually start to happen." In any case, there's no rush. They'll have all day tomorrow to study the data, watch the clouds and feel the atmosphere.

Tornadoes eventually show up somewhere in Kansas in May.

The trick is knowing where and when in time to get there.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map       Author's notes      The Chase Team

Day 2 - May 14
Back from Dodge
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  6:30 p.m. CDT

When they're just killing time and praying for bad weather, tornado chasers can be excused their eccentricities. Earlier today they piled into both cars and caravanned across 100 empty miles of cattle ranges and farm country to get to Dodge City, then never saw a cowboy hat or re-enacted gunfight. We never even set foot on Boot Hill.

We did find the tourist trap/restaurant that Nancy had spotted while cruising the Internet. Its Web site boasts of "Butt-Busting Beans" and buffalo steaks. We saw some long-horned steer up close and personal as we drove into the place. But the owner said sorry, he wasn't opening till summer, no matter what his dang Web site said.

We settled for the all-American Hitch n' Post truck stop, a homey place the chasers had been before. We joined a Mother's Day mob of families who were consuming a great home-made buffet of turkey, beef and mashed potatoes. Then we headed back to Medicine Lodge under a disappointingly beautiful high blue sky that was smeared with thin cirrus clouds. Not a sprinkle was possible under those conditions Brian and Chris agreed, much less a tornado.

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Tornado-chasers Geoff Mackley, left, and Brian McNoldy check a field of sculpture. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette) 

On the way we stopped at just outside Mullinville to gawk in disbelief and wonder at a rich display of roadside political folk art. Stretching along Route 56 for at least a quarter of a mile, it is a standing army of hundreds of colorfully painted sheet-metal sculptures that take equal advantage of the location's constant high winds and the protections of the First Amendment.

Four rows deep and sometimes 10 feet tall, the politically loaded works of folk art are protected by a barbed wire fence. Many are outrageously funny and provocative. And nearly every sculpture has been outfitted with paddles, blades, propellers and fans of some shape that whir, spin or turn in the wind.

Artistically and politically sophisticated, plastered with hand-printed signs and slogans, the collection amounts to an unpassable poli-sci test for all but the most addicted junkie of politics. They comment on every scandal or controversy of the 1990s, from Waco to Monica's stained blue dress. They are definitely not recommended as a family tourist attraction.

And poor Geoff. He was as suitably astonished as the rest of us by the prolific and bold expressions of free speech rights. As a New Zealander he had no way to make sense of the messages this whistling wind farm of the right-wing was broadcasting. But neither would 90 percent of all Americans.

The roadside attraction is apparently the mad creation of a very talented but mighty annoyed right-wing metal sculptor named J.T. Liggett. No one was around to ask, and no one was charging admission. And Liggett didn't answer a phone call placed to the number he proudly advertises.

No matter who is responsible for this sharp slice of Americana, he loves Ron Reagan, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. And he hates Bill and Hillary Clinton, all their subordinates and their political allies, not to mention everyone to the left of Charlton Heston and Alan Keyes.

As for tornadoes and those who chase them, he offered no opinions one way or the other.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map       Author's notes      The Chase Team

Day 2  - May 14
The Great Plains
U. S. Route 160, Kansas  11:00 a.m. CDT

We’re off to Dodge City, "the queen of the cowboy towns," which is 100 miles west and north of Medicine Lodge. It’s easy to see why Kansas is so perfect for tornado chasing – and why so many of its tornadoes don’t hit anyone. With 2.8 million souls spread over a land mass almost twice the size of Pennsylvania, there’s hardly anyone to hit.

The landscape along U. S. 160 is gently rolling, impressionistically splattered with dark green pine trees, carved up by ravines and gullies, rippled and wrinkled with low, scrubby hills. Dots of cattle are scattered out on the range lands in bunches of six or 10 and herds of 50, heads down. They’re every where, keeping the grasses mowed unnaturally low on their side of the barbed wire running along the side of the two-lane highway.

The chase team assembles around Observation Zero, starting with, left, Allan Detrich, Brian McNoldy. Nancy Bose, Chris Howell and Geoff Mackley. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

After 15 minutes, we pass a farmhouse with the standard set of outbuildings protected by mature oak trees. There are steel storage tanks and windmills. And a few, dinosaur-like wells bobbing up and down, taking steady, little sips of oil or natural gas from under the vast emptiness of the Great Plains as they gently rise in elevation toward the Rockies. It’s another 15 minutes before a second farm house whizzes past.

Thirty tornadoes could slice through here in the next 10 minutes and never hit a living thing.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map      Author's notes      The Chase Team

Day 2 - May 14
The calm before
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  10:30 a.m. CDT

Merry Mother's Day.

The excitement of tornado chasing has been doused by good weather over Tornado Alley.

Weatherwise, not to mention otherwise, nothing is going to happen today. Based on Brian and Chris' knowing prognostications and crunching of the kind of weather data that meteorologists like Joe DeNardo understand but is too esoteric to torture TV viewers with, the team has decided to stay right here.

The TV weatherman in Wichita is talking about some disturbed air coming across the Rockies and has dropped hints of possible thunderstorms as early as tonight in southwest Kansas.

Today we'll be stuck in the 70s but tomorrow will be warmer and bad weather will be within striking distance.

By tomorrow this county seat of 2,500 rurally sprawled folks will be the happening place to be. Today it's a quieter story, a day to rest and wait.

We'll try to find something to do. But the Kansas High School Rodeo was last month and it won't be till September that the town celebrates Indian Summer Days.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map      Author's notes      The Chase Team

Chase Day 1 - May 13
The Day's End
Medicine Lodge, Kansas 10:40 p.m.

It's so quiet here in the middle of Middle America you can hear a pickup truck door slam a quarter mile away. The Indian Oven, the town greasy spoon, closed 10 minutes ago.

The chase team is ensconced in two $44 rooms at the Copa Motel, where they spent almost a week last year. It's like a beloved vacation home to them.

To save money, we're three to a room. It's like a slumber party for people who work at Radio Shack. Everywhere you look there are cameras, computers, cell phones, printers and luggage.

Geoff Mackley, the world-roaming danger seeker and adventure camera man, is sound asleep on the floor of Room 53. Sleeping on floors is an improvement over his usual beds. In the last six months he's slept in the festering jungles of Indonesia, on the rocky rims of erupting volcanoes in Japan and on ledges at 18,000 feet on Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina.

In Room 54, Chris, Nancy and Brian have been monitoring various weather sites. Things are said to be looking especially promising for mid-week. Now they're starting to watch "Something About Mary" on Allan’s DVD-playing laptop. I'm going to join them.

I hope there aren't any tornadoes in the movie. I'm too tired for any nightmares.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map       Author's notes      The Chase Team

Chase Day 1 - May 13
On the road
Midway, Kansas  5:20 p.m. CDT

We’re headed straight west on U.S. Route 54 through fields of foot-high green wheat as far as the eye can see. Nancy, Brian and Chris lead the way in their heavily loaded Chevy Venture minivan that Nancy rented in Kansas City for $1,177.00 for two weeks.

Allan, Geoff and I are in Allan’s Isuzu Trooper. On the Trooper’s hood is OZ, Observation Zero, the Lexan dome into which Allan will put a Sony digital video plastic dome, weighs 25 pounds and can be staked into the ground with steel rods. The plan is to get several miles out in front of a tornado, stake OZ into the ground, start the camera and hope that the tornado passes over or near it. Allan hopes to get footage never seen before.Tornadoes aren’t coming our way just now, however. It is still a beautiful blue-sky day. We’re headed for Medicine Lodge because of its central location and western Kansas is more likely to be the place where bad weather will form on Monday.

Chris Howell, 31, who has been studying bad weather in the Great Plains for 15 years, says it’s too cold and too dry for tornadoes. The temperature is 58 and the dew point is 28 degrees – dewpoints in the high 60s are ideal for the creation of storms.  Chris, who is listening a NOAA weather report on a portable radio scanner says this good weather is a case of bad chaser luck. The weather is more Arizona than Kansas in May. But that’s the way tornado chases go. May maybe the peak time for twisters in Tornado Alley. But Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate – at least not today.

But moister, warmer weather now rolling over New Mexico and west Texas above the Rio Grande River valley is moving eastward and heading toward Medicine Lodge … bringing unstable weather our way.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map       Author's notes      The Chase Team

Chase Day 1 - May 13
Heading out
Wichita, Kansas  10:30 a.m. CDT

Whoops! I’m almost too late. Nancy Bose, Geoff Mackley, Brian McNoldy, Allan Detrich and the new guy, Chris Howell, are already in the parking lot, loading up their vehicles. I’m going to run and catch them. They were almost ready to head out the airport to pick me up. Turns out the French TV journalist won’t be joining us on this chase.

The chase team's packing up to head out toward Medicine Lodge, about 80 miles west of here. They want to get in position for some big weather heading our way. A cold front has moved in, the same one that brought the bad weather in Chicago last night,. In Wichita the weather now is beautiful, crisp, sunny and cloudless – terrible weather for tornado chasing. Nancy said she’d rather be back home in New York where it’s supposed to be nasty today. But the warm, juicy weather is coming Monday and they want to be in Medicine Lodge as a base. It’s a rural, flat, one-McDonald’s town where they’ve set up base camps for the last two years -- a good place to chase tornadoes and a central location where they can go south into west Texas or north into Nebraska.

Off we go.

-- Bill Steigerwald

Team locator map       Author's notes      The Chase Team

Chase day 1 - May 13
Delays and arrivals
Wichita, Kansas 7:56 a.m. CDT

What a horrible nightmare.

It had nothing to do with tornadoes. Or with being trapped in a minivan for a week with five people who take vacations to go hunting for the best bad weather they can find. And it wasn't that recurring dream I have about six tornado funnel clouds coming twisting toward my boyhood neighborhood of Birdland.

This dream was much scarier, because it seemed so real. It was -- let me try to remember this right - something about being trapped in this really huge, airy, modern building, with windows for walls and thousands of unhappy bedraggled people scurrying around.

It was really weird. Long lines everywhere you looked. Hundreds of guys in suits yelling into cell phones. College kids having picnics with McDonald's food on the floor. Outside, all these big airliners were buzzing around - on the ground. And get this, they all had something really stupid written on their fuselages - "United Airlines," I think it was. Can you believe it?

Anyway, there was other strange stuff. It was dark and raining real hard and lightning. A man with colorful maps on a big TV screen was talking about Chicago being inside a tornado warning box. My dream even had irony in it.

The worst part of the dream were all the smiling people in uniforms who crouched behind colorful counters banging on keyboards and giving out erroneous information. You know those dreams where you can't catch a ball or you are running and running but never get to where you're going? It was kind of like that, only for eight hours.

"You missed your 3:20 connecting flight to Wichita by five minutes, sir. Flight 561 to Wichita will leave at 5:30, sir. Flight 561 will leave at 7:30, sir. Flight 561 will leave at 10:40, sir. Honest, sir. Bad weather, sir. Thank you for trying to fly United, sir."

The nightmare went on and on. I'll bore you no more with details. Many of you have had the same bad dream. It involves a search for a hotel room. Miles of walking. More long lines. A piece of luggage. Language from a professional journalist not suitable for the day before Mother's Day. A ride in the dark in a nearly empty airplane.

It finally, but unmercifully, ends with me standing around in a chilly, lonely little city in the Great Plains at 1:30 a.m., waiting for a taxi driven by a woman with a Wichita accent who says she has been driving a cab since 1951.

That's almost as long as it took me to get from Pittsburgh to the Comfort Suites in Wichita. When I arrived my old friends the tornado chasers were already tucked in bed, happy and excited as children to be back in their beloved Tornado Alley.

I think I hear them in the motel lobby now. I'm going to go down and reunite with them after two years. I hope they didn't have any nightmares about beautiful weather.

- Bill Steigerwald

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