Into the eye of the storm
PONCA CITY, Okla. A sunny afternoon can turn ugly real fast in Tornado Alley, and its about to.
On May 24 the atmosphere over north central Oklahoma and south-central Kansas is a weather bomb ready to go off. At 3:28 p.m. in Ponca City, a town that owes its prosperity to oil, not grain, it is a sticky 85 degrees. A hot 12 mph wind blows off the ocean of green wheat from the west. At 69, the dew point is excellent lots of moisture hangs in the air, but not too much to drown a tornados delicate birthing process.
The sky over the Motel 8 is cloudless, but it is far from blue. Its the color of dull pearls, an extremely unstable mix of highly energized air that serious tornado chasers like John Bender, Nancy Bose, Brian McNoldy and Dave Ott can get high just looking at.
The four were strangers, with only a common interest in bad weather and tornadoes, until they found each other on the Internet last year. Bose posted a desperate "I wanna go chase tornadoes" plea on the Storm Chasers Home Page.
Hundreds of e-mail messages later, the foursome and Geoff Mackley, a danger-seeking TV news cameraman from New Zealand on vacation who joined them, met each other in person four days ago in St. Louis. There they rented a Winnebago and drove into the heart of Tornado Alley during the height of tornado season.
Bender is the unofficial team leader. Hes a veteran storm spotter from northern Illinois who packed nearly $30,000 of radio and electronic gizmos into his Ford Escort, including a homemade lightning-strike detector he hoped to be able to test.
Bose, the teams secretary-treasurer-cheerleader-tour guide and the catalyst of the trip, is a mother of teens and a car saleswoman from Verbank, N.Y., a few counties north of New York City. Shes been terrified/fascinated/nutty about tornadoes ever since she was 5, when she had to hide from one in a storm cellar on her parents Michigan farm.
McNoldy, the youngest team member at 22, is a 1998 graduate of Lycoming College from Reading, Pa., who has a degree in physics and astronomy. And Ott, 39, is a cattle farm-grown former commercial airplane pilot who owns two Subway outlets in Dickinson, N.D.
The chase teams real-life adventure wont resemble anything as exciting or dangerous, or as ludicrous, as the movie "Twister," which made finding a tornado in Oklahoma look as easy as finding a cloud in Pittsburgh. In fact, their odds of catching a tornado are almost as slim as the average Americans chances of being hit by one, even in Tornado Alley.
Notwithstanding "Twister," the nightly network news reports or Western Pennsylvanias recent brush with funnel clouds, tornadoes are rare beasts. The 100,000 or so thunderstorms in the United States each year spawn only about 1,100 tornadoes, most of which occur in the spring in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Kansas.
Most are relatively weak, kill no one and do little more than tear up wide swatches of wheat fields in sparsely populated places like Kansas, a state twice the size of Pennsylvania but with 9 million fewer people. Only about 20 a year are so-called "killer tornadoes" like the super-powerful one that took 32 lives and destroyed Pleasant Grove, Ala., on April 8.
Bender, Bose, McNoldy and Ott will each spend 10 days and $1,500 on their trip. They will drive almost 3,000 miles in four states trying to get as up-close-and-personal to a twister as they safely can. And thanks to their sharp bad-weather predicting skills, good teamwork and a little luck, Bender, Bose, McNoldy and Ott will find themselves closer than they should be to a tornado after only three days on the road.
The hottest time of the day is 4 p.m., when towering thunderstorms can begin exploding out of the sun-baked Great Plains like atomic cotton balls. Sure enough, by 4:51 p.m. May 24, a tornado watch is already posted in northwest Kansas.
An hour later, a southeast-bound train of thunderstorms is forming along a 200-mile weather front across Kansas where cold and warm air masses are bumping, rubbing and shoving against each other.
In the chasers motel rooms in Ponca City in north-central Oklahoma, the Weather Channels lead story at 6 p.m. shows the ominous line of swelling green corpuscles with their angry yellow-red centers. Its angling right at the chasers. The teams decision that morning to drive south to Ponca City from Emporia, Kan., and not chase any other storm clouds they saw along the way, makes them look like geniuses. They are directly in the path of the most severe weather in the whole country, and they love it.
But relying solely on the Weather Channel is for laymen, not self-taught meteorologists like quiet John Bender. Hed rather check out Internet sites showing CAPE data (convective available potential energy) than sleep. Hes in the chasers rented Winnebago, staring into a laptop connected to a web site showing Doppler radar from Wichita, 70 miles northwest.
Bender, 52, is a 25-plus year member of his hometowns chapter of SKYWARN, the national organization of volunteer weather spotting groups that works with the National Weather Service. Hes an expert at reading his Doppler: red pixels (showing wind and rain going away from the radar source) next to green pixels (showing wind and rain coming at the radar source) indicate that a tornado is probably present, either in the air or on the ground.
Two nights before, in Medicine Lodge, Kan., Bender had his laptop hooked to a Doppler radar site in Goodland, Kan. He pointed to a pairing of red-green pixels on the screen and said it was most likely a tornado. Soon after, the Weather Channel reported that a tornado had been spotted on the ground near the area Bender had been pointing to.
About 6, Bender and McNoldy, who is studying for a masters degree in atmospherics at Colorado State University, are watching a small storm cell forming 40 miles to the northwest. The cell is growing rapidly. The team meets and decides to try to intercept it. A route is planned, and by 6:30 the Escort heads due north on Route 77 toward the Kansas border, its roof bristling with four antennas, with the Winnebago following close behind.
Bose is driving the Escort. Bender is in the front passenger seat, laptop in his lap. Hes holding up an Internet-grabbing cellular phone, looking at radar sites. Hes listening to weather bulletins on both AM radio and his scanners. Hes also watching the rapidly darkening western sky.
At 6:51, Dave radios from the Winnebago that "our" cell is just to the west. The AM radio is a constant crackle of static from lightning that has been invisible so far. Passing through Newkirk, Okla., the tornado-casual townspeople are seemingly oblivious to the approaching apocalypse. They are doing their gardening, loading pickup trucks, sitting on their front stoops and porches.
Cars coming the other way have their lights on. All blue sky has disappeared. There is still no lightning. No rain. No hail. By the time the chasers cross the Kansas state line into Arkansas City and pass through the tiny town of Geuda Springs at about 7:30, AM radio out of Wichita is reporting tornadoes on the ground 15 miles to the west and northwest.
A mile north of Geuda Springs, on a slight hill in the middle of four wheat fields, the Escort and the motor home stop at Oxford Road and 110th Street. Its an intersection the chasers will remember for the rest of their tornado-happy lives an intersection that for severe-weather fiends like them will make their whole storm-chasing trip worthwhile.
Ott, McNoldy and Mackley pop out of the Winnebago, Mackley lugging his $25,000 TV news-cam and tripod. Bose is shooting her ancient video camera. A woman already there the wife of a local storm spotter warns everyone not to stand under the power lines because of the danger of lightning, yet she herself remains parked under them.
The nature show is spectacular. The north sky is angry, ugly, evil. Its a gray-black-green swirl of scary clouds some wispy, some muscular, some just hanging there, some rotating or moving upwards.
Cloud-to-cloud lighting flashes. Thunder booms. The northern horizon is stabbed again and again by vicious bolts of thick lightning. A stiff cold wind from the northeast whips the tough thigh-high wheat into waves. A lightning stroke hits a tree a half-mile away and sets it afire. Tornado-warning sirens can be heard from distant towns.
Directly north, six or eight miles away from the intersection, a distinct storm cell is moving to the southeast. Underneath the wall cloud of the cell, looking like the stem of a misty mushroom, is a slanting sheet of rain. Shrouded by that rain, Bender says, is a funnel cloud maybe two.
A local tornado spotter drives in from the north. Funnel clouds have been sighted on the other side of that rain cloud. He tells everyone they shouldnt be there and that theres a shelter in Geuda Springs. At the intersection, though the sun will not set for another half hour, it is almost dark. The first splats of rain are falling.
McNoldy and Bender, who would later say that they had inadvertently broken the rules of safe tornado chasing by punching in too close to the storms center, are studying the heavens for signs that a funnel cloud might be forming right above them. If one were to materialize, it would be on top of them in an instant and would probably be invisible until it picked up dirt and debris from the ground.
McNoldy is looking at the contrast between the light and dark clouds, where updrafts are and where rotation might be. "Id keep an eye on that," Bender tells him above the chatter of the car radios and scanners. "It could start coming this way real fast."
At 8:24 the tornado siren in Geuda Springs begins to wail. Lightning is flashing everywhere. The chasers turn their vehicles around so theyre headed for Geuda Springs, where about 50 townspeople are in a shelter under the post office. With the wind picking up in wild, wicked bursts and a few fat raindrops blowing around like bullets, they have seen enough. Its time to retreat.
Driving through Geuda Springs, however, Bose gets lost on the towns only side street. Then shes stopped for speeding by the towns boyish assistant police chief, John Tyler. The wind and siren are howling and a deluge is on its way, but Bose is unable to find her drivers license. With the local universe about to end, Tyler gives up and tells her to bring it to his office tomorrow. In Kansas, fleeing a tornado is not an excuse for going 43 in a 30 mph zone.
By the time Bose and Bender catch up with the Winnebago, the storm is raging in full fury. Visibility is near zero. Sheets of rain are being blown parallel to the ground. Water is ponding on the roads. The radio is reporting tornadoes to their north and east. Thirty miles west of Ponca City, near Lamont, Okla., a half-dozen homes and barns are being smashed by a tornado almost half a mile wide.
Parked in the storm of their lifetimes along a dark country road west of Arkansas City, the chase team has no idea where the funnels are, just that they are all around them. More are coming their way.