I knew we couldn't stop. The rain was so heavy I couldn't see the Bravada in front of me, so we just kept driving through the field," says Jeff Bernard, describing how his Explorer bounced over a muddy Texas wheat field, following tractor ruts, and how hard he pushed it to escape an oncoming tornado.
Bernard, a 39-year-old casino manager, was on vacation in Tornado Alley, sightseeing the notorious weather. Early each summer, hundreds of tourists road trip to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the 70 or so significant tornadoes that drop from massive storm systems besieging the region. Bernard was following a professional weather photography crew led by veteran storm chaser Warren Faidley (in a gloss-black Explorer) and electronic-systems developer Phil Henry (in a black Oldsmobile Bravada). Both of these machines had four-wheel drive-and needed it.
"I just kept feathering the throttle and the Bravada kept moving," says Henry, who was testing out a rooftop satellite antenna on his Bravada to receive real-time-weather radar images. The hailstorm approaching this group of SUVs cut visibility, and there could be a killer twister bearing down on them. "I was kicking myself for not getting the Explorer with four-wheel drive," Bernard continues. "But I live in Las Vegas, and I figured I'd never use it."
SUVs are the chaser's vehicles of choice for several reasons: The chasers live out of them for up to one month during tornado season and need accessible room for camera and video gear. Tall ground clearance and four-wheel drive are necessary when storms flood roads. On rare occasions, chasers may have to bushwhack a road through a field and need the durability of a truck.
Henry's Bravada is the fourth SUV he's built for chasing. Inside, it has a full rollcage as well as fabricated steel brackets to hold an assortment of weather, police, and ham radios, along with two laptop computers. One laptop runs a GPS map; the other has links to satellite weather images. The rear luggage compartment has tools and emergency rescue equipment. Two modifications underhood are an automatic transmission shift kit and a low-restriction exhaust.
Faidley has similar equipment in his chase SUV, but also has foot-long sections of PVC pipe fastened to the rear floor: These hold ready-to-use telephoto-equipped cameras. All the vehicles have extra amber emergency warning lights, and in Texas it's legal to use "wig-wag" circuits that alternately flash left and right headlights. "When people see us coming, they're usually ready to pull over, get out of their cars, and find shelter," says Faidley, who's been selling tornado photos and video for 13 years-you may have seen his images on the Weather Channel. "A lot of times, cops follow us because they know we're not going to get caught in a wedge." (Chasers call twisters "wedges.")
A big problem is overheating when storm debris clogs radiators. Faidley's and Henry's grilles have screens to catch sticks, leaves, bugs, and mud. Hail also can puncture a radiator, as well as smash the windshield. Faidley replaces the windshield of his Explorer once each season due to baseball-size hail damage. Everything inside the car must be fastened down, too: Faidley's seen wind gusts suck maps and clothing out of open windows.
Each day, the chasers choose a state where a storm system is forecast, then spend the day driving there, often averaging 500 miles. Storms usually don't fully develop until day's end, when the sun has warmed the ground enough to produce rapidly rising heated air. But Faidley and Henry and crew don't chase after dark or in regions with tall trees. "You'll never see a tornado coming if you're under trees," Faidley says. Each time the chasers pass a small town, they keep track of awnings and overhead shelters where they might later have to hide their SUVs from hail.
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.