Storm chasers ride the winds undaunted


Storm chasers Rachel Sager and her boyfriend Chris McBee pose for a photo inside of Chris’ SUV near tornado debris on May 24, 2013 in Moore, Ok. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

Officials expect that the killer tornado that leveled parts of Moore last week will turn out to be the most destructive in American history, but none of that damage, it appears, will be to the storm-chasing business.

Hundreds of amateur storm chasers live near central Oklahoma, and dozens do it professionally, hopping into their cars to rush toward tornadoes as others head for shelters and safe rooms. They compete against each other to squire around tourists during tornado season and to get storm videos that they post on their Web sites.

Chris McBee, who runs a severe-weather tourism company called Rapid Rotation Tours, was expecting a British tourist for a week-long whirl around the central plains trying to get close to tornadoes. McBee has not had any cancellations.

And the massive destruction and casualties just 10 miles from McBee’s home in Norman have not caused him to reassess the way he earns a living.

“It was a horrible thing,” said McBee, who was chasing the tornado in his heavily insured Pontiac SUV with a wind-speed detector on the rooftop when it chewed its way through Moore.

“I never want to see anything like it again. I wish it had never hit a populated area like this,” he said. “But I know if another one came up, I’d want to get in the thick of it.”

Weekly drills

People in central Oklahoma have an intimate familiarity with tornadoes. Schoolchildren are led through weekly drills every spring. Little boys and girls dream of growing up to become storm chasers the way children elsewhere want to be firefighters or doctors. Residents stand calmly outside their front doors taking video of approaching tornadoes on their phones, calculating the moment when they will need to duck inside.

Storm chasing was once a relatively rare activity, conducted primarily by meteorologists who tried to get close enough to do research that could help predict the path of future tornadoes. Now there are so many people running into a tornado’s wake so they can capture videos that there are traffic jams on otherwise lonely country roads.

This tornado does not appear to have shaken the resolve of serious storm chasers, many of whom have moved here to be closer to tornado territory.

“I wish it would,” said Howard Bluestein, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma, which neither encourages nor discourages storm chasing. “It’s becoming difficult to go out in the middle of the countryside with your mobile doppler radar and you get stuck in traffic.”

Bluestein helped boost storm chasing with his appearances discussing the phenomenon on the science show “Nova.” But interest spiked after the movie “Twister,” which was filmed in northern Oklahoma, and the Discovery Channel reality show “Storm Chasers,” featuring Reed Timmer, who lives here.

Storm chasing brought McBee, 32, and his girlfriend, Rachel Sager, 30, together. They met after she moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado to be an amateur storm chaser, a passion piqued when a microburst of air caused damage to the neighborhood where she was raised. They offer different explanations for the appeal of storm chasing.

Nine-year-old Lucas Patteson’s best friend died at Plaza Towers. He and his family survived, but their house was destroyed. Now they are trying to return to normal life following one of the worst tornadoes in American history. (A.J. Chavar/The Washington Post)

Sager says it’s the thrill of the close brush with danger.

“It’s like being on a roller coaster,” she said.

McBee says the allure is having an up-close view of the beauty in a tornado’s angry power, like a wild mustang.

“It’s special seeing Mother Nature at its worst,” he said. “It’s something you can’t control. It’s seeing something wild and free.”

Thrill seekers

McBee, who studied Spanish in college, was working in the office of an electrical company and doing storm chasing on the side until a year ago, when he and a partner founded Rapid Rotation Tours. The field is getting crowded with thrill seekers who don’t know how to chase storms relatively safely, like parking at an intersection with an escape route in mind, he said.

“The level of amateurism is way too high,” McBee said. Sometimes it seems everyone wants to get into the game, he said, adding: “A lot of people in the strip mall were standing in the lobby before a window when the tornado came, filming it with their cellphones. That’s so dangerous.”

While the professionals are undaunted by the storm, which laid waste to thousands of homes and businesses, some amateur storm chasers are reconsidering whether they want to even look at another tornado.

“There are three types of people in Oklahoma,” said Roger Graham, who used to chase storms when he was in college. His perspective has changed since he became a homeowner.

“There are those who don’t want to even be anywhere near a tornado. The biggest group are those who say, ‘Tell me when it’s coming so I can get away.’ And there’s a group that says, ‘Get me inside a tornado if you can,’ and that group is growing.”

Graham used to feel that way, too, he said. No longer.

“This storm has changed people,” he said. “It’s nice to see a tornado in the middle of a field, it’s just trees that get damaged. But then you see it hit a school, killing kids, and a hospital. Whole cul-de-sacs are gone. There’s panic and fear, all those things.

“Heck with them. I’m done with them.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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