My van, overturned in a ditch on May 28. (Jeff Lieberman)

We didn’t see it coming. It announced its arrival in a swirling cloud of leaves and twigs that sliced through the rain on the right side of the van. Within seconds, an ominous gray shadow pierced the falling debris and — in less time than it took me to blurt out an appropriate expletive — it exploded into a blinding curtain of rain and wind.

Our tour guide, a respected veteran storm chaser, didn’t waver in his assessment of our situation: “Tornado, right here! You’re in a tornado!”

I ducked for cover.

Our paths had intersected on a quiet stretch of road in a rural community south of Lawrence, Kan., at 6:03 p.m. on May 28. This was my fifth storm chasing tour. Before leaving home, I told my friend Rick, a fellow weather junkie who had joined me on my first tour in 2010, that I hoped to see a Kansas tornado.

The outside of a Kansas tornado.

Two of the four vans in my tour group were hit. My vehicle, a 15-passenger van weighing more than two-and-a-half tons, was knocked over and blown across the road. We rolled three times. I didn’t count. I was too busy hanging on and pondering whether this trip might not have been such a good idea.

As a child growing up far from Tornado Alley, I considered tornadoes my “monsters under the bed.” They terrified and, later, fascinated me. Today, on this quiet country road, “terrified” seemed more apropos.

We landed upside-down in a drainage ditch off the road. The second van tumbled about 100 feet before settling onto its side in the front yard of a farmhouse. Seat belts and air bags did their job, and everyone was able to climb out of the vans. Most of the injuries were minor — cuts, scrapes, bruises and sprains. Other than a few small cuts on my hand, I was fine.

We were lucky. Very lucky.


A second van lies overturned in a ditch after tornado encounter near Lawrence, Kan., on May 28. (Jeff Lieberman)

According to the National Weather Service, we’d been broadsided by a 100-yard-wide EF-2 tornado with winds estimated at 115 mph. It was cloaked by rain and hadn’t been reported before our encounter.

After slamming into us, the twister joined forces with a cyclonic circulation to our north and grew into a monstrous mile-wide EF-4 tornado with winds of 170 mph that did catastrophic damage to the town of Linwood, Kan. Fortunately, no one was killed, and the tornado just missed Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas.

I crawled out through a shattered side window and stumbled back up to the road. I was wet, cold and coated with mud. Blood trickled from the cuts on my hand. But I was alive. And as I stood there in a steady rain, staring down onto the remains of our van, a battered metallic carcass lying wheels-up in a ditch filling with rainwater, I recalled the anguished cry of a bloodied, but victorious, Apollo Creed in the closing scene of “Rocky”:

“Ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

A fear of twisters morphs into fascination

So, how did I get here?

When I was growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, more than a thousand miles from Lawrence, Kan., tornadoes terrified me. The foreboding black and white photos I’d seen in a weather guide gave me day sweats and nightmares. An uncle told me about the time he’d been in the Midwest when a tornado appeared “out of the blue.” On bright sunny days, I scoured clear blue skies for tornadoes. I never saw one, and I never told anyone about my fears.

Gradually, with time and knowledge, my fears faded. Terror was replaced by a sense of wonder and a yearning to know more.

I learned all I could about tornadoes and the massive supercell thunderstorms that spawned them. I studied convective availability of potential energy, outflow boundaries and triple points. I familiarized myself with cloud classifications, lapse rates, and drylines. For good measure, I watched and re-watched “Twister” and “The Wizard of Oz.” My weather-beaten copy of “Storm Chasing Handbook” has long lost its structural integrity.

Embarking on tornado tours

In 2010, I decided to take the next step. Rick and I chose a highly regarded storm-chasing tour company, and we flew to Denver in late May with anticipation and trepidation. A sticker on one of the tour vans set the tone for the week: “I DON’T brake for tornadoes but I yield to flying cows.”

We weren’t disappointed.

On May 31, the second day of our tour, a tall, graceful tornado touched down in front of us, near the little town of Campo, in far southeastern Colorado. As cows grazed in the fields around us, we watched the slow-moving twister spin across uninhabited grasslands. The sky pulsed with lightning. Inflow winds pounded us from behind. Hail the size of golf balls shattered at our feet.

I was hooked.

Photos of the now iconic Campo tornado have been featured in every weather calendar I’ve owned since that tour. And in late May 2019, I was preparing for my fifth chase. May was an extremely active period on the Plains this year. A deep southward dip in the jet stream had set the stage for an outbreak of tornadoes, and it was forecast to persist into the last week of the month.


A sleek white tornado near Wylie, Colo., on May 26. (Jeff Lieberman)

We got off to a rousing start. On Day 1, Sunday, May 26, just hours after leaving our hotel, we watched a sleek white tornado touch down near Wylie, Colo. On Day 2, May 27, a large cone-shaped tornado poked out from behind a thick column of rain near Imperial, Neb. The enormous rotating storm resembled an atomic mushroom cloud. Hailstones as large as baseballs streaked the sky.


A violent supercell thunderstorm hiding a rain-wrapped tornado on May 27 near Imperial, Neb. Hail as large as baseballs are falling on the right. (Jeff Lieberman)

The fateful day

We awoke on Day 3, Tuesday, May 28, to a “moderate” threat for severe weather in an area extending from northeastern Kansas into northern Missouri. “Moderate” is the second-highest threat level issued by the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service, exceeded only by the rarely used “high” threat. So, after spending the night in North Platte, Neb., we made our way east.

Sitting in the van that morning, I studied the SPC’s outlook: “Severe storms, capable of producing large hail, damaging wind and tornadoes are likely this afternoon into tonight from the central Plains eastward to the Midwest.” In a public statement, the SPC underscored the threat of “several tornadoes, a few intense.”

As we turned south toward Kansas, I could see cumulonimbus clouds starting to gather on the horizon. Back home, Rick monitored the storm on radar. “You may get your Kansas tornado!” he texted.

I’m not a daredevil. Contrary to popular belief, my middle name isn’t “Danger.” I don’t take foolish risks, and I don’t chase for the thrill of it. I’m not a “tornado tourist.” I hate that term. It’s an unfair and grossly inaccurate depiction of me and most of the people I’ve met on these tours.

When I took a geology course in college, we took field trips to examine rock formations. During an astronomy course, we gathered on the roof of the science building once a week to explore the night sky with telescopes and binoculars. In 2017, I traveled to Columbia, S.C., to see the total solar eclipse. I still get chills when a meteor slashes across the sky.

Studying the wonders of the universe in a classroom is a fantastic start. But it’s not complete until you’ve wandered outside and looked up.

That, for me, is the essence of storm chasing.

Reflection

During my five tours, I’ve had a front-row seat to the life cycle of tornadoes. I’ve seen how shear, lift, instability and moisture can work together to spark violent supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes. I’ve watched gentle cumulus clouds — fueled by warm, moist rising air currents — swell into cumulonimbus beasts soaring as high as 55,000 or 60,000 feet. I’ve seen updrafts and downdrafts, inflows and outflows, and teal green skies teeming with ice. I’ve heard the roar of hailstones crashing together in the clouds, and I’ve watched the mightiest of tornadoes slink back into the sky with barely a whimper.

But, to understate the obvious, tornadoes are dangerous. On average, they kill about 60 people a year. On one day alone, May 22, 2011, a tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph killed 158 people in Joplin, Mo., and injured more than a thousand others.

On May 31, 2013, scientist chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul and chase partner Carl Young were attempting to deploy sophisticated data-gathering probes in the path of a massive wedge tornado in El Reno, Okla., when their car was overtaken by a powerful subvortex that spun out from the main circulation. Winds reached an astounding 300 mph. They’re believed to be the only chasers killed by a tornado.

In my perfect world, tornadoes whirl harmlessly across wide-open fields framed by rainbows. But my perfect world isn’t the real world, and nature doesn’t always cooperate. The tornado that overturned our vans and lives didn’t care whether we had strayed into its path for educational or sightseeing purposes. It didn’t stop to ask whether we considered ourselves “students” or “tourists.” We got in its way. Period.

We were drifting south, and it was churning northeast in a shroud of rain when our paths crossed on that quiet Kansas road more than a thousand miles — and five decades — from my childhood home in Pennsylvania.

But, unlike Dorothy and Toto, we were still in Kansas when we landed.

I accept full responsibility for the choices I made that led me to that road. I understood and accepted the risks in my quest to learn more about severe weather. And, as in previous years, I came home with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the power and majesty of nature. An understanding I couldn’t glean from a textbook or video.

So, no regrets. I haven’t seen it all — far from it — but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve learned so much, I’ve met so many interesting people who shared my passion, and I’ve been overwhelmed by a sense of awe. The same awe I still feel every time a meteor soars across the sky. But now that I’ve survived a trip inside a tornado, I plan to move on to gentler pursuits.

Ain’t gonna be no rematch.

Jeff Lieberman, of Newtown, Pa., is a retired lawyer.

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