I met Mike Casey and Bill Ford through a friend from church who happens to be a local TV weatherman for CBS. They chase under the name Storm Warn Now, but for the 2015 season, they've partnered with Minuteman Disaster Response. According to their brochure, Minuteman is a Texas-based first-responder support team that provides advanced warning of severe weather and then first-on-the-scene help in search and rescue and emergency management coordination.
I was to be riding along in what they call their Lead Deployment Vehicle, a Ford Expedition wrapped with brightly colored radar graphics with which I was to become quite familiar in the following hours. By partnering with storm chasers, who are usually first on the scene, Minuteman can gain advance warning of potential tornado-hit areas so they can deploy as quickly as possible.
But I just wanted to photograph a tornado. My mom and I were fans of the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers, and I've always found severe weather to be exciting rather than scary. As I would later see every time we stopped for gas or food, I am apparently not in the majority.
The price for my seat was letting Bill, Mike and Minuteman use some of the photos I would end up taking for promotional use. This led to a crash course in copyright issues and usage agreements from our production manager at work. I'd just as soon never mess with those things, but I guess it's a necessary evil if you're going to pretend to be a real photographer.
We left Mike's home in Willow Park, Texas at 7:02 a.m. and made our way north on I-35 toward northern Oklahoma. We were heading to an area that was projected to have a particularly high chance of tornadoes that afternoon and evening. It also happened to the be only such area in the country that day, which would lead to an entirely different natural disaster – The Convergence. This so-named phenomenon occurs when virtually every active storm chaser plays the same general area, causing traffic jams in sleepy towns and on normally empty back roads. But when there's only one option, you either take it or stay at home.
Chasing storms turned out to be exactly like I was expecting from watching the TV show. Drive all day to get to the target zone. Constantly check the laptop for radar, forecasts and road options. Call other storm chasers, all of whom seem to know each other, to see where they are now and where they're headed.
What I wasn't necessarily expecting was how much attention we received from non-chasers. Between the vehicle wrap, the anemometer and the plastic dome protecting the web camera on the roof, there was no mistaking that we were storm chasers. I caught a lot of looks from drivers on the road and even some people taking iPhone photos from their cars. And every single time we stopped for gas or food, someone approached the truck to ask if there was a tornado coming, where the bad weather would be or if it was safe to continue on to their destination. I was asked several times myself, but all I could do was point them to Mike or Bill, who were happy to answer their questions.
By early afternoon, we crossed into southern Kansas where the action was expected to kick up that evening. One of the storm chasers Mike had been in contact with throughout the day was Scott Peake, who in recent years has become well known for consistently finding tornadoes and, in the opinion of some, getting dangerously close to them. This has lead to some amazing footage and photos that I can only be jealous of.
We met up with Scott and his chase partner, Kevin Rolfs, on the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The duo, part of the four-man chase team known as the Basehunters, were driving a 15-passenger van full of tourists who had come from as far away as England and Australia to get a glimpse of this almost uniquely American natural phenomenon. The tour company, Extreme Tornado Tours, is another venture of Reed Timmer, one of the stars of the Storm Chasers show and current web series, Tornado Chasers. With severe weather still at least a couple hours away, we followed Scott and Kevin as they took their tour group on a surprise stop in Wakita, Oklahoma, where the movie Twister was filmed.
Here, as elsewhere, we were approached by locals who wanted to know if any tornadoes were headed that way. A couple kids even hugged Mike as their mom thanked him for chasing storms. Her gratitude surprised me. I'm sure there are also plenty of people who don't appreciate chasers quite so much. I almost felt ashamed to be hoping for something so potentially destructive and deadly to occur, just so I could have an adventure. But even those who live to see tornadoes are often the first ones to sound the alarm. With great, nerdy enthusiasm comes great responsibility. It's a strange tension, and one that all chasers seem to feel.
I wandered around tiny downtown Wakita for a little while, taking pictures of empty streets and dusty old buildings. Signaling me with a jerk of the head, Bill called me back to the car and we were off again, just like that. They had been watching their phones, and it looked like the weather we had been waiting for was close at hand.
A big part of storm chasing is deciding which super cell you're going to chase. Bill and Mike discussed it back and forth, looking at the radar on their phones and laptop, trying to decide which one to go after. During a brief pause at a gas station, two guys asked us if it was safe to head to Buffalo.
"Where's that?" "That way." "You should be fine, but hurry."
I wondered what they thought when, a few minutes later, we drove off in the direction they had pointed.
Bill and Mike picked the right supercell. We raced along a two-lane road with the rotating wall cloud off to our left. It looked like it could tighten up into a tornado at any second, but unfortunately, the roads didn't cooperate. We t-boned into an east-west dirt road, and for all intents and purposes, our day was finished. With the sun going down and the temperature falling, the energy in the storms were diminishing.
Another chaser, who is a friend of Bill and Mike's from the DFW area, pulled up next to our vehicle with his window rolled down. "I just filmed a tornado!" The very supercell we were chasing had produced a tornado after we'd lost track of it. Mike was happy for the guy, but disappointed for us.
After another hour or so of chasing, essentially just making sure we had exhausted all options, we called it a day and began the very long drive back home. Bill had a meeting the following morning, yet he did almost all of the thousand miles of driving that day. We got back to Mike's house a little after 3:00 in the morning. Mike offered to let me sleep in his guest room, but after a long day, my own bed was worth 30 more minutes of driving. Late as it was, tired as I was, I had a little trouble falling asleep. It wasn't adrenaline or excitement. I'm still not sure what it was. It had been a long day full on new things. And the next day would be more of the same.