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History makes the chasers a smarter bunch

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Copa 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.

That’s 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 best—and safest—spot 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 week’s 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 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.

"I’ve have been forecasting storms on the Great Plains as a hobby for 15 years," Chris says. "Last year was my first chase—and 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 we’ll 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. "That’s very serious. As soon as you step out there, you’re a target. You have to play it safe and stay in your vehicle as much as possible and stay as low as possible.

"It’s absolutely flat out there, and you’re the highest thing out there as soon as you stand up. Geoff knows. He almost got fried last year."

"Oh, yeah, that’s 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 who’s used to camping out on the rims of active volcanoes and running around with cameras in the middle of cyclones, that’s nothing special.

"It was just one of those things," he says with a laugh. "Occasionally molten lava lands near you. That’s another one of those things."

He was afraid when he heard the loud crack. But that’s because he thought he had been bitten by a snake. Snakes, which don’t 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 don’t fear tornadoes, they respect them. "If you respect them, you can stay safe," said Brian. "If it’s fear, you start doing stupid things."

Speaking of which, Geoff says "I wonder if you could drive a tank into a tornado?" He’s completely serious, and he’d take all his cameras with him. But Brian says, "No, you’d get flipped. They toss freight cars around."

Brian and Chris don’t want to get that close to a tornado. But by the time Wednesday’s nasty weather arrives, they plan to know exactly where to be.

"We’ll 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 we’ll know exactly what road to be on and where, not just the general area or the county."

"I’ll have that down pat tonight," Chris says. "Tuesday night I’ll probably have it down to the half-county. We have a lot of experience. We’re not like those yahoos out there. You can’t 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 we’ll 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, we’ll have the roads picked out for you."

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