MOORE, OKLAHOMA – Officials expect that the killer tornado that leveled parts of Moore, Oklahoma, 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 in their cars to rush toward tornadoes as others head for shelters. They compete against each other to squire around tourists during tornado season and to get storm videos that they post on their websites.
Chris McBee, who runs a severe weather tourism company called Rapid Rotation Tours, was expecting a British tourist for a week in their bid to get close to tornadoes. Nobody has canceled.
And the massive destruction and casualties not far from McBee’s home 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, just 16 km from his home in Norman.
“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.”
People in central Oklahoma have an intimate familiarity with tornadoes. Schoolchildren are led through weekly tornado drills every spring. Little boys and girls dream of growing up to become storm chasers the way children elsewhere say they 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 a tornado for 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 up-close videos that there are traffic jams of storm-chasing vehicles on otherwise lonely country roads.
The Moore tornado does not appear to have shaken the resolve of serious storm chasers, many of whom moved there to be closer to tornado territory.
“I wish it would,” said Howard Bluestein, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma, which tries to walk a fine line by neither encouraging nor discouraging 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 put storm chasing on the map, 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 in Moore.
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.
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 an up-close glimpse 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.”
McBee, who studied Spanish in college, not meteorology, 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 do not know how to chase storms relatively safely, like parking at an intersection with an escape route in mind, he complained.
“The level of amateurism is way too high,” he said. Sometimes it seems everyone wants to get into the game, he added. “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 that laid waste to thousands of homes and businesses, some amateur storm chasers are reconsidering whether they want to even look at another tornado again.
“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.”