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Adventure in Tornado Alley

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEWELL, S.D. -- The first time we leave the van for anything other than gas, food or sleep is in a field in western South Dakota. We are maybe 100 miles from the geographic center of the United States, which looks and feels a lot like the middle of nowhere. F We've been cooped up so long that simply getting out to look at the sky is like arriving at Disneyland. The horizon is dark, except for one hole, through which pink light seeps. Five or six miles off is a yellow curtain that is probably hail.

The sky is sneaky. Clouds hold still, then seem to shift suddenly once you look away. The altered light makes the grass intensely green. A shelf cloud rolls toward us and dangles fingers toward the earth. It must be miles away and thousands of feet up, but it looks as if that storm cloud might reach down and scoop up the prairie, might pluck us from where we stand.

This isn't a tornado. Not even a severe thunderstorm. But for our group of tag-along storm chasers with Tempest Tours, it is a very convincing preview of coming attractions.

We had started out more than 1,000 miles and 30 hours earlier in Oklahoma City, and we would cover 2,000 more miles of Tornado Alley before the week was over.

There is no place on Earth where violent storms occur as regularly as in Tornado Alley. In this 1,500-mile north-south corridor in the middle of the United States, warm air over the Great Plains and cool air off the Rocky Mountains roll around in one of nature's most powerful wrestling matches.

I was taught to avoid such weather. In the small Ohio town where I grew up, the tornado warning siren was tested each Friday at noon. Like all the kids at East Elementary, I practiced curling up nose to knees in the basement. I covered my head with my hands if there were a tornado. I did not go out and look at it.

Until now.

'The Show'

I first meet my fellow tornado tourists in a nondescript hotel conference room after a buffet breakfast in the lobby. There are five guests including me, three journalists from the BBC, two drivers and Brian Morganti, our tour director.

After introductions, we sit through a safety lecture that warns us of the nontornadic risks - hail that shatters car windows, flash floods that submerge roads. Stay away from wire fences, we are told, because they can carry the electric current of lightning for two or three miles. Tornadoes, which have killed more than 50 Americans so far this year, cause 50 fatalities a year here on the mean. Like the others, I have made peace with any dangers. We have all signed waivers that absolve Tempest Tours of anything short of strapping us to a windmill in the path of a twister.

What we want to know is whether we are going to catch one this week. The group before ours didn't, although a few guests stayed an extra day and saw one in Kansas. Morganti is realistic: We will definitely see supercell storms and, almost certainly, rotating storms. As for an actual touch-the-ground tornado, he puts our odds at 1-in-3.

I've signed on with a tour group because my chances are much greater with it than without. Anyone can drive around the Plains and scan the horizon. But not just anyone has weather satellite data, can do a customized forecast and get in position to watch "The Show."

The Show, I learn during the week, happens only when the conditions are just right to create a supercell - a thunderstorm that has a rotating updraft - the only kind of storm that will generate tornadoes.

A supercell needs four things: moisture in the air; atmospheric instability created by cold air aloft over warm air; lift so that warm air is forced upward; and a breakable cap. The cap is the trickiest. It's a layer of warm air that must keep the warm and cold air separate but just for a while, as the storm builds power. Then it has to break. If the cap is too strong, there will be no storms. If it breaks too early, too many storms form, none of them dominant enough for a show.

The Show could be nearly anywhere in 10 states. Right now, it's eastern Montana and the Dakotas - strangely far north for early June - that look promising.

"If the weather gods are with us, that'll stay there a day to two and we'll ride it all the way back here," Morganti says. If not, we'll maybe visit some national parks.

It's fair to say that no one in this room wants to see Badlands - or any other - National Park.

Weather junkies

Our 12-passenger van is wired. There are three ham radios - one tuned to weather, one for communicating with other chasers and one for backup. Morganti also has a laptop, which is running a GPS system, as well as Baron Threat Net, an XM-radio subscription service that gives him weather radar information. All his gear is configured to overlay weather data and the van's position so we can track our distance from a storm front.

Morganti, 56, is a salesman from Bernville, Pa. He started chasing in 1997 and has been working with Tempest Tours since its first outing in May 2001.

Our driver, Blake Naftel, a 24-year-old redhead, has been interested in "extreme weather" since he was 5. He collects tornado facts like some people collect sports trivia. Kinney Adams is chauffeuring the BBC trio in its own minivan.

Because some other guests canceled, we have room to spread out in our van. Of the five of us, only two are really weather junkies. One is Rick Weber, 54, a businessman from Barrington Hills, Ill., who remembers watching storms approach over the rolling hills of northern Illinois when he was 10 or 11. (He has brought along his son, Scott, 21, who seems a good sport about this father-son bonding expedition.) The other is Jack Bobo, 50, a psychologist and jury consultant from Burlington, N.C. He's a more recent convert, a Weather Channel addict, back for a second tour with Tempest after seeing no tornadoes on a 10-day excursion the year before.

The other extreme is Steve Bartolotta, 47, an accountant who lives in Fairfax, Va. Bartolotta is here to see a tornado just as one might, once, climb Yosemite's Half Dome. This is his safari of the Great Plains, a part of the United States he's never seen and seems unlikely to visit again.

On Tuesday, we don't drive as much. Storms - at least supercells - don't develop until the afternoon, so we linger over lunch in Kadoka, S.D., a burg of 700 souls 90 miles east of Rapid City. Then we loiter outside the gates to a sheep pasture on the edge of town.

The Show almost comes to us. We find a nice piece of high ground on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, south of the Badlands, along South Dakota 44.

Where Monday's storm reached down, this one shoots upward tens of thousands of feet. Paralleling the earth is a line of clouds, called a beaver tail, that Adams speculates might extend 100 miles. That whole line feeds into a trunk that corkscrews upward and explodes outward into an anvil. The sky looks like an El Greco painting, all high contrast, swirling toward the heavens.

I'm not sure whether it's an illusion, but the bottom of the supercell seems to draw closer to the earth. Then a small segment of it descends farther and part of that farther still. It's impossible to tell whether it reaches the ground - we're about five miles away - but there's no mistaking the funnel shape. It's our first tornado.

Minutes later, another tornado unfurls, slender and rope-like. Video cameras roll. Cameras click. But no one has much to say beyond, "Would you look at that?"

It is only when the second one is slurped back up into the clouds that I realize just how small the tornadoes are compared with the supercell that creates them.

There are things on this Earth that make you feel small. Whales. Mountains. Canyons. They are a fraction of the size of this storm.

Hunting supercells

Everyone feels sated Wednesday. The only chance - and it's remote - to catch great storms that day is in far eastern Kansas. But for Thursday the storms look closer to where we already are.

We vote for an easy Wednesday, with a stop at Carhenge - the roadside folk-art installation of cars arranged like Stonehenge on the western Nebraska plains. I think Morganti is disappointed in our decision.

"I just don't want anybody seeing tornadoes on the Weather Channel and complaining that you didn't get your money's worth," he says.

Valid point. Chasing storms isn't cheap. My six-day tour cost about $1,800 per person, plus airfare and meals. That's on the low end for tornado tours. Tempest is one of several such tour companies, which sport names such as Western Winds, Violent Skies and Silver Lining. The most expensive 2006 tour I found was 14 days and $3,250 - enough to pay for a weeklong luxury Caribbean cruise.

Tempest Tours is staffed by weather addicts, and paying guests subsidize their habit.

"No one wants to see a great storm more than us - Kinney, Blake and me. And you're pretty much along for the ride," Morganti says over lunch Tuesday in Kadoka.

At the end of that day, the usually stony-faced Morganti was beaming: No guest on his tour would go home without seeing a tornado. His exhilaration also seemed deeply personal. Sharing this storm with us was almost coincidental. These guys would be out here anyway - and they would surely drive farther and sleep less without us along.

I confirm this suspicion when we cross paths with Bill Reid, another Tempest Tours director from California, who's ripping around the Plains on his own.

There's a competitive camaraderie among the chasers. They have such a niche passion that only fellow chasers can fully appreciate their photos, their stories, their time-lapse, cut-to-music videos. But at the same time, each wants to be the one with the best angle on the main event. Getting a great storm to yourself is a rarity these days.

But losing a good storm is the worst. A tense moment develops at Arby's late Thursday when Reid reports that he saw six tornadoes and starts showing off his digital photos. That same day we wound up in a ditch.

Our group chased hard into Kansas, but our target storm petered out, as so many do. Of the 200,000 to 300,000 storms that hit Tornado Alley in spring and early summer, only 2,000 to 3,000 produce supercells. Only a fraction of those spin off tornadoes.

We picked a new target and sped back east across Kansas at 85 and 90 mph, listening to the weather radio buzz its tornado warning signal. We tried an unnamed road, which turned to gravel, then dirt. An ill-executed three-point U-turn landed us in a ditch. Three guys from Penokee, Kan., pulled us out with their truck and wouldn't take a dime for their trouble. We were on the road again in 20 minutes, but we were too far behind, and the roads were against us.

By the time we got to Hill City, Kan., where two tornadoes had just been spotted, the gullies were full of rainwater and ice-cube-size hail was melting along the road.

The storm gathers

On Saturday in the Texas Panhandle, the phrase "a gathering storm" is instantly made manifest.

The storm is drawing down on a wheat field, churning, starting to turn. Strips of cloud spin outward on its edges, like teeth on a saw blade. On the horizon, dust whirls on the ground, although we can't make out a funnel cloud. A few other tornadoes poke briefly at the ground before disappearing.

It's the last day of our tour, and I'm glad to add more tornadoes to our tally. The night before in Dumas, Texas, I had noticed my tornado-sighting buzz from Tuesday had worn off.

But Morganti has us on track Friday afternoon, taking advantage of the flat topography and a thorough network of little farm-to-market roads. We parallel our storm going east; this time of year, storms usually move 20 to 25 mph, so they are easier to chase than faster early-spring storms. When we disembark near tiny Vigo Park, a cold outflow drops the temperature by 10 or 15 degrees, and we all pull on jackets.

The sky is smeared charcoal and only sporadically does light define the advancing edge of the storm. It drags a curtain of obscure blackness in its wake.

"Tornado down!" Naftel shouts as he and everyone else redirect their cameras straight down the road. The northern flank of the storm has cut us off. The whole sky seems to come to a point, like an upside-down linear-perspective drawing, into another tornado. We watch it rumble along the horizon, crossing the road ahead. Although it's camouflaged against the milky sky, it's the largest we've seen all week and the closest we've come.

Eventually, it's too dark to see much, and we reload into the van for the final 260 miles back to Oklahoma City. Outside, the rain beats the roof like a tin drum, and lightning dances from cloud to cloud.

Robin Rauzi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

IF YOU GO

IN GENERAL

Chasing storms can involve a grueling amount of time spent riding in vans, so carsickness and boredom can be problems. I loaded audio books on my iPod. Hotels vary in quality, depending on where the weather takes you, but are generally budget chains. Food, likewise, is usually of the burger-and-diner variety. And it goes without saying that there are no guarantees you will see a tornado.

TOUR COMPANIES

Tour rates are per person, double occupancy, and generally do not include meals or transportation to the base city. Most storm companies depart from Oklahoma City or Denver, although the cities vary. There are often discounts for filling last-minute openings or for booking far in advance. While several tours are already sold out, booking has begun for the 2007 season.

Tempest Tours, P.O. Box 121084, Arlington, Texas 76012; 817-274-9313, tempesttours.com. The company has three remaining six- or 10-day tours before July 8 leaving from Oklahoma City. $1,895-$2,550.

Tornado Express Tours, P.O. Box 63, Edinburg, Texas 78539; 866-578-6767, tornadoexpress.com. Six- and seven-day tours weekly through July 2. $1,750.

Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, 4775 Deer Drive, Island Park, Idaho 83429; 303-888-8629, stormchasing.com. The company has teamed up with the Doppler on Wheels researchers for 2006. Limited space available on tours beginning either June 17 or June 24. $2,200.

Silver Lining Tours, P.O. Box 420898, Houston 77242; 281-759-4181, silverliningtours.com. Ten-day tours out of Oklahoma City and six-day tours out of Denver. Several tours are sold out, but booking has begun for 2007. $2,000-$3,300.

Violent Skies Tours, 7633 E. 63rd Place, One Memorial Place, Suite 3002, Tulsa, Okla. 74133; 918-459-4522, violentskies.com. Four tours available out of Oklahoma City and Denver, most lasting six days. $1,897-$2,747.

ROBIN RAUZI

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