Chasing around on county roads; the good-guys in white, the bad-guys in black; teams driving like maniacs at 100 mph; vehicles driving smack into one of nature's most menacing creations: the tornado. That's the way it was portrayed in the movie "Twister". In real life, it doesn't happen that way.
In the movie, chasers found four or five tornados in one day. While it's not out of the question that could happen, it is certainly not very likely. On average in real life, one out of every ten chases results in seeing a tornado. It's not unusual for a tornado chaser to start at 8:00 in the morning, finish at 11:00 that evening, and see little more than a dark cloud. Indeed, it can get frustrating spending an entire day driving 700 to 1,000 miles in search of a tornado and never see one. A tornado is like a "beast" that doesn't like to be caught.
Our typical chase day started at 7:00 a.m. First thing in the morning, we develop a weather forecast for the rest of the day. After plotting out the "hot spots" on the map it's time to hit the road. Every two or three hours we find a telephone to connect to a laptop computer. This allows us to check for any changes in our earlier forecasts. After grabbing a bite to eat from the gas station, we get to the chase. We try to find different ways to pass the time while on the road; music, games (how many different license plats can you find?), and sleep (if you aren't the driver.)
Then someone spots a storm off in the distance. Our eyes are glued to the horizon wondering how far away the storm is from our location. We find another phone, hook the computer up, and realize that the storm is ONLY 150 miles away. However, that doesn't matter because we have a storm to chase and this could be our big chance!
We get back in the car and drive off after the storm. Needless to say, our excitement is high. People in the back of the car are loading film into their cameras so they are ready if that funnel develops. As we get closer, we can start to see different features in the storm clouds.
We get in position and leave our vehicles to watch the storm. The wall cloud is about three miles away. It's not long before we realize that the storm is getting closer to us so we get back in our vehicles and start driving away from it. As we are driving down the road, someone starts to scream. "It's coming down!" Everyone moves toward their window so they can look out and see it. There it is! The thing we have been chasing for thousands of miles, they funnel dropping out of the clouds. Everyone starts to scream as the rush of adrenaline hits us. It's not a scream of fear; it's a release of frustration, excitement, and anticipation, all at the same time.
After the storm is over and we've seen all we can see, we start to two hour drive to the nearest roadside hotel. We feel like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning. Everyone is talking a mile a minute about what we witnessed: one of the most violent and awesome events in nature. It's hard to believe, even to this day, that we were only half a mile away from it.
At the hotel we hook up the video camera to the television. Watching "our" storm is like watching our kids take their first steps. Everyone is proud of our effort. We feel a great sense of accomplishment. All the planning and plotting, all the miles and driving, are not in vain. It was all worth it. However, we realize our search is not over. Tomorrow we'll wake up and start searching for the "needle in the haystack" all over again.
*Heartland StormTeam Meteorologist John Dissauer spent three weeks storm chasing through the Great Plains during the Summer of 1999 with the Ball State Storm Chase Team. Over the course of the trip, he saw six tornadoes and numerous other severe weather events.