History makes the chasers a smarter bunch
By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff WriterCopa Motel, Medicine Lodge, 2:20 p.m. May 15
Brian McNoldy and Chris Howell are hoping history will repeat itself on Wednesday, the day they expect big thunderstorms to spawn tornadoes not far from where they are sitting.
Last year the team had a close encounter with several small tornadoes near Coldwater, Kansas, not 20 miles from here. It was no accident: They crunched data for three days and had its location pinpointed so well they knew what county in Texas its birth cloud was born in.
Under the right conditions, a tornado-spawning storm can almost literally come out of a blue sky. A single, innocent-looking fluffy cumulus cloud that from the ground is the size of five full moons can, in less 30 or 45 minutes, become a massive, towering, severe supercell that can produce a tornado in the next hour.
Thats what happened at Coldwater last May. After studying data for two or three days, the team was ready. At 2 p.m. they saw the storm approaching on the radar sites their laptops were interneted to and left the Copa. They drove south into Texas, looped back to Kansas, went to their predetermined spot. They were in the bestand safestspot to place for viewing a tornado: the southwest side, which is where tornadoes usually form.
As the storm approached, Brian, Chris, Allan, Geoff, Nancy and five other chasers belonging to the MESO group waited. One of the three vehicles was "McWar," the mobile weather lab the team has built out of a 1991 Dodge ambulance. (The lab, which the MESO team will use in next weeks round of chasing, is crammed with radios, computers, six 16-inch computer screens and a lightning detector.)
As they watched, the sky over the flat empty land turned an evil black green. Lightning was striking all around them. At about 6 p.m., two tornadoes showed up less than three miles away. For the next 2 ½ hours, as the team raced along beside and behind the twisters, Allan Detrich shot videos and still photos, including the ones on this page.
What did Brian and Chris think when they saw those tornadoes drop out of the clouds, just as they "knew" they would?
"I was thinking how great it was to see the result of all that forecasting work," says Brian.
"Ive have been forecasting storms on the Great Plains as a hobby for 15 years," Chris says. "Last year was my first chaseand my first tornado. Some people chase for 20 years and never see a thing."
"We have an incredible record," Brian says. "Two years, two giant storms and several tornadoes."
"I have a feeling well be three for three," said Chris confidently, despite the fuzzy blue sky.
What is their greatest fear, the thing they worry about most when putting themselves in front of tornadoes?
"The greatest fear is being hit by lightning," says Brian, who is 6 foot 5. "Thats very serious. As soon as you step out there, youre a target. You have to play it safe and stay in your vehicle as much as possible and stay as low as possible.
"Its absolutely flat out there, and youre the highest thing out there as soon as you stand up. Geoff knows. He almost got fried last year."
"Oh, yeah, thats true," says danger-cameraman Geoff Mackley with a laugh as he opens up another yogurt.
"When I saw the tornadoes forming I thought it was a good time to find a place to hide. I crouched down in a ditch to see if that was a good place. The moment my hand touched a small pipe coming out of the ground an arc of electricity a foot long discharged and I heard a loud crack."
Brian, the young man of science, explains what was happening: Electrical charges had built up in the ground and before lightning could strike Geoff had shorted out the circuit.
Geoff came close to dying. But for a guy whos used to camping out on the rims of active volcanoes and running around with cameras in the middle of cyclones, thats nothing special.
"It was just one of those things," he says with a laugh. "Occasionally molten lava lands near you. Thats another one of those things."
He was afraid when he heard the loud crack. But thats because he thought he had been bitten by a snake. Snakes, which dont exist in his native New Zealand, are one of only two things that really scare him. His only other fear is being in a town at dinnertime where there is only fast-food restaurants.
Chris and Geoff dont fear tornadoes, they respect them. "If you respect them, you can stay safe," said Brian. "If its fear, you start doing stupid things."
Speaking of which, Geoff says "I wonder if you could drive a tank into a tornado?" Hes completely serious, and hed take all his cameras with him. But Brian says, "No, youd get flipped. They toss freight cars around."
Brian and Chris dont want to get that close to a tornado. But by the time Wednesdays nasty weather arrives, they plan to know exactly where to be.
"Well spend a lot of time the next two days looking at data and computer models," Brian says. "When it comes down to the time to leave on Wednesday well know exactly what road to be on and where, not just the general area or the county."
"Ill have that down pat tonight," Chris says. "Tuesday night Ill probably have it down to the half-county. We have a lot of experience. Were not like those yahoos out there. You cant wait until the same day of the outbreak to start looking at the data and make plans."
Right now, Chris says, he knows for certain that on Wednesday big thunderstorms will begin to pop out of central Nebraska, central Oklahoma and central Kansas, where we are.
"Tomorrow well narrow it down to a two- or five-county area around here," Brian says with equal Accuweather confidence. "Another 12 to 18 hours after that, well have the roads picked out for you."