Chasing tornadoes isn't just for thrills Experts say work helps save lives

May 24, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

NORMAN, Okla. -- As he sped along a stretch of rain-lashed highway, Gene Rhoden glanced over his shoulder and discovered that he was no longer chasing the tornado. The tornado was chasing him.

The lanky meteorologist and two friends deliberately drove into a squall near the town of Caney in southeast Oklahoma in March 1991, hoping to find a funnel cloud they suspected was spinning inside.

They cornered their quarry, a sinister blur of blue mist and churning debris a half-mile wide. But it turned on them, bearing down on Mr. Rhoden's Cutlass Supreme from the west at about 50 mph.

"We had to really just floor it," said Mr. Rhoden. The 100-to-150 mph vortex missed by a quarter-mile, shattering the windows of a van just behind them.

Each springtime, about 40 storm chasers begin prowling Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and Kansas -- the heart of the Midwest's "Tornado Alley." They're hunting for nature's most violent storms, funnel clouds that can cut through fields, farms and neighborhoods like a power saw slices through a piece of plywood.

Some people chase for the thrill of it. Some are amateur weather enthusiasts. Some are hunting videotape for the evening news. But a few scientists at Norman's National Severe Storms Laboratory and the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology scramble after tornadoes to find out what makes them spin, so that they can predict the storms earlier and more accurately.

Tornado prediction is no trivial task. During the 1980s, tornadoes killed about 60 people a year in the United States and caused $1 billion in property damage annually.

While tornadoes rarely touch down in Maryland, they are not unknown. Eight small ones struck the state in August as part of Hurricane Andrew's parting shot at the East Coast.

So far, no chaser has been killed by a tornado. Still, racing after one is obviously riskier than boccie. What drives chasers,amateur and professional,to go looking for trouble?

"Some people like the adrenalin rush," shrugged Mr. Rhoden, a 27-year-old University of Oklahoma undergraduate. "It's exciting. It's entertaining. I'm more alive when I see storms."

Norman is probably the tornado capital of the planet. About 1,000 touch down in the United States each year, roughly 75 percent of those produced worldwide. And central Oklahoma sees more tornadoes per square mile than anyplace else.

Chasers spend weeks driving hundreds of miles, often in pouring rain and battering hail. They eat fast food, stay in cheap motels and spend thousands of dollars, all -- if they're lucky -- to glimpse a couple of funnel clouds roto-tilling the prairie.

Seeking 'frog-stranglers'

About eight out of nine times, veteran chasers come up "busted," meaning they don't see any tornadoes. Most of those they do see are relatively small and short-lived.

But on rare occasions, lucky chasers will get to witness what some call "frog-stranglers" -- the mammoth storms that can churn up winds as high as 300 mph, last up to seven hours, travel as far as 200 miles and cut a furrow of mayhem up to 2 miles wide.

Some chasers are in it strictly for the thrills.

"I like to see the storm come at me," said James M. Leonard, who works part time chasing and reporting on storms for KWTV-TV in Oklahoma City. "I don't want to see it go by. I want to see it come at me, where it comes real close, where you're at the edge of its dust."

Mr. Leonard, 43, is a former public relations man for Florida Power & Light Co. who became a full-time storm chaser after the utility offered a buyout for employees two years ago. First he moved to Guam to watch typhoons, which is what hurricanes are called in the North Pacific.

"We had six between November 1991 and November 1992," he boasted.

He moved to Norman six months ago and over the past couple of months has put 20,000 miles on his car racing after funnel clouds.

Mr. Leonard first chased tornadoes in the early 1970s, during his vacations. It never gets stale, he said. The only thing that's changed over the past 20 years is that today he can talk about his obsession.

"Back in the early 1970s, if you admitted to chasing storms, they'd haul you off to a rubber room somewhere," he said.

Students at work

Howard B. Bluestein and a team of his graduate students at the University of Oklahoma are also out chasing this season. They're using an advanced portable Doppler radar system to try to study the variation among wind speeds in different parts of funnel clouds.

Until about 10 years ago, tornado research was limited to sending up balloons, taking ground measurements miles from the storm and making movies and photographs.

In the mid-1980s, researchers working out of the Severe Storms Laboratory here struggled over several seasons to drop a drum filled with weather instruments,aptly nicknamed "Toto," in the path of tornadoes,hoping it would get carried into a funnel cloud. That never happened.

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