"Chasing wind" on a storm tour of Tornado Alley
For many, this week's Texas and Oklahoma twisters and their destructive aftermaths evoked childhood nightmares from The Wizard of Oz - and a conviction to stay as far from Tornado Alley as possible.
But for travelers like me drawn to displays of nature's power, those shaky, through-the-windshield scenes of bruised skies are as tantalizing as they are terrifying.
While storm aficionados have been roaming the Plains and Upper Midwest with a camera in one hand and weather map in the other since the 1950s, commercial chasing took off after the 1996 film Twister. Meteorologists scoffed at the movie's flying cows and constantly churning skies, but its sympathetic portrayal of weather geeks sparked a surge of copycats, at least 20 of whom who lead sold-out trips from Texas to the Dakotas during prime tornado season in May and June.
I tagged along with veteran chaser Roger Hill of Silver Lining Tours for a USA TODAY story in the spring of 2007, and learned that "hunting wind" is marked by long periods of boredom - think stuffy vans, fast food and monotonous scenery - punctuated with brief bouts of excitement. I didn't spot any funnel clouds, but did encounter quarter-sized ice pellets and an evening of celestial fireworks.
Hill and his fellow storm chasers, many of them male baby boomers more addicted to atmospheric science than adrenaline, are sensitive to the emotional and physical toll of a violent storm. Most tornadoes occur in the open and don't cause significant damage, and responsible chasers stay a mile or more from the action, he noted. (Hill was leading a tour out of Oklahaoma City on Monday, and witnessed the formation of the two-mile-wide tornado that tore through suburban Moore; because of its proximity to populated areas he decided against pursuing it.)
Hill is certified in CPR and first aid, and if his group encounters injured or stranded victims "the chase stops right there."
"My purpose isn't to see someone's house in shambles. It's to enjoy the storm," Hill told me. "It's going to occur whether I'm there or not."