Of the average 780 annual tornadoes in the U.S., about 460 are in the 11 states of Tornado Alley, most in May and early June. This crazy natural weather phenomenon has made Liberal, Kansas, and Dalhart, Texas, the country's most accidental tourist spots. "It's getting crowded out there," notes Faidley. "Cars are lining the roads, people are trying to see a tornado. The traffic is getting dangerous. People hear about a tornado warning on the radio and jump into their cars to go see it."
Chaser Jay McCoy, a cameraman with KAMR-TV in Amarillo, has chased with Faidley and Henry for eight years, and his white Explorer displays hail dings like badges. Cords from his ham radio, weather radio, and cell-phone are tangled around the column shifter and the rearview mirror. But like Bernard, Henry, and Faidley, he'll spend a month next spring putting more hard miles on his Explorer, chasing again. TT
How To Catch a Twister
Tornadoes travel northeast. Warm south winds from the Gulf of Mexico meet cold west winds rolling off the Rocky Mountains and create huge, four-mile-tall "supercell" rotating storm systems that hide the sun for miles around. Chasers like to position themselves to the southwest of any brewing storm. That way, they can sneak up to avoid the preceding rain and hail. A southwest vantage is also best for photos, if the roads allow it. Chasers are on alert when a road forces them to travel on the south side of a big storm because some tornadoes hook south unexpectedly. The biggest danger in thunderstorms is lightning, which causes 100-600 deaths annually in the U.S. (three times the number resulting from tornadoes). Well-dressed chasers don't wear rings, jewelry, belt buckles, or any metal that might attract some wild current. "The majority of people killed by tornadoes are in their cars," says veteran chaser Jason Persoff. Fortunately, killers are rare: Of 39,000 tornadoes reported in the U.S. since 1950, only 50 have been rated F-5, which have winds greater than 260 mph.-P.B.