5 Things You Never Knew About Chasing Tornadoes
For a select few, chasing after dangerous storms is their career and main source of income. For a somewhat less select few, it is a hilariously expensive and deadly hobby. Well, for more than 15 years, Tim Baker has ridden headlong against the raging sky demons we call tornadoes. Here's one of his videos, just to give you an idea:
We asked him what it's like to have one of the world's most ridiculously dangerous hobbies, and we found out that ...
Tornadoes Are Crowded
Most people picture the movie Twister when they think of storm chasing -- one or two cars' worth of sexy badasses roaring toward destiny. But in reality? It's a huge conga line of cars jostling to get the best view -- you know you're getting close to a monster storm when there is a traffic jam heading toward the danger. They don't show the surrounding area in the storm chaser reality shows because there are 200 cars or so around them. It's not just you versus nature. It's you and everyone with a dinged-up car and camera versus nature.
We cropped out the guy with an "Event Parking $10" sign.
This is relatively new -- just 15 years ago, a "crowded" storm might have as many as 20 chasers. But storm chasing is one of the many things social media made more popular. Nowadays, you'll find 200 people on any given large storm, making money or just striving to have the best profile pic in their circle of friends (you guys know you can just Photoshop that shit, right?). It's gotten to the point that the price of storm footage has dropped dramatically. Good footage is as hard to make as it's ever been, but shitty footage is plentiful, and let's be honest -- Fox 11 Action News of Lumpberg, Illinois, will take the cheapest option they can.
When news breaks, they're the unpaid interns you can count on.
So you get this ridiculous scene where, as you gaze upon the terrible spectacle of Mother Nature's fury, you're surrounded by cars beeping, chasers swearing at each other, new chasers panicking and blocking the road, etc. And, as you can imagine, when you double a town's population with nutjobs hunting the murderwinds, odds go up that something bad will happen. Recklessness feeds off recklessness as people compete for the best shots. One time, a new chaser rolled his vehicle in the middle of the road, blocking everyone in the path of the oncoming tornado, until someone got the kid out of the way just before he kicked off his own gritty Wizard of Oz reboot.
During another storm in Kansas, almost 250 cars pulled into a chase (I counted), and since it was rain wrapped, the only people who could go in close for good footage was Reed Timmer's TV show crew, as they had their special armored vehicles that can punch through a tornado and usually have a good chance of survival. But keep in mind that even with their fancy, specialized gear, if their vehicles had rolled and hit a power line, they'd still be screwed.
The Dumbest Things Can Get You Killed
First of all, here's what it's like when a tornado starts forming right on top of where you're sitting:
My daughter and I once chased a storm just like that one in the Texas Panhandle, and guess what -- our tire blew out right when the tornado was on the way. Lucky for me, it was near a farm, and we were able to get into a barn just before the storm hit us. The barn started bending under the strain of the winds, which snapped some power lines, which sparked a fire in the barn. Fortunately the barn managed to stay up until the storm passed, but that was the day I learned that failure to check my damned tires could be lethal.
So while it may seem endearing to imagine a scrappy storm chaser in a beat-up van going after a storm, that's a recipe for disaster. Many new storm chasers go out in junk sedans or pickup trucks with four bald tires -- rundown vehicles they figure they can afford to risk getting pelted with storm debris or hail. These people are asking to die.
Try an Italian sports car instead. You'll still die, but at least the coroner will think you were cool.
Mobility is the only thing keeping you alive, so you always need to know A) your escape route at any given moment and B) that your vehicle absolutely is going to work. You need backups of everything -- wheels, equipment, even vehicles. Remember, the worst case scenario isn't just "you die" -- it's "You die and your car becomes a two-ton cannonball hurtled toward some innocent person or house." So, yeah, you remember to check your oil.
There Are Rules
Tornadoes are unpredictable -- thinking you know what they're about to do is a good way to wind up getting impaled with debris flying at 200 mph. For example, you might not be dealing with a tornado -- here's me filming three different ones that formed around us in the exact same spot:
But observing a tornado isn't much different from observing anything else in nature that's capable of destroying you. You can't predict exactly what a grizzly bear is going to do next, but you can learn some general rules (for instance, you know with that particular creature that you're safe in a helicopter). Tornadoes are the same -- the whole reason that running toward a tornado isn't pure suicide is that there are specific rules you can follow if you want to stay alive.
Unless the two come together, in which case rule one is "Reconcile sins."
First, half a mile away is seen as the general safe distance -- the distance where, upon seeing it coming right for you, you can hop into your car and drive screaming in the other direction. But you do have to get that close in my line of work -- the best shots are the ones unobscured by rain and mist, so the less that's between you and the funnel cloud, the better. At a quarter mile out, however, you need to be really insane and/or you really need to know what you're doing. Any closer than that, and you're depending on blind luck -- remember, a tornado can change direction at any moment. You're just wrapping your head in bacon and sticking it into the lion's mouth at that point.
Second, you follow the tornado. Meaning, you make sure you're on the ass end of it as it's heading away from you, and that you damned well know how to tell the difference. If it's heading toward us and we are within that half-mile radius, we turn the other way.
"I think that's about half a mile. Go get the surveyor's wheel."
Third, make sure there is someone nearby to rescue your ass if you get bogged down. The more experienced people have "buddies" who will always help them out in a jam. I have a few out there, and we have saved each other a few times. (Note: It doesn't matter how careful you are, there are lots of ways to get in trouble when you're stalking a force of nature that can shred a brick building.) Sure, there is an unspoken rule among us storm chasers that if anyone is in trouble, we do our best to get them out -- but in a life-or-death situation, don't let the kindness of strangers be your backup plan.
Because if there's one thing we've found out ...
Tornadoes Have More Than One Way to Kill You
If I'm making this all sound like harmless, thrill-seeking fun, keep in mind that just last year famed chaser Tim Samaras and his crew were trapped in a tornado they didn't realize had turned their way. Then, in the same storm, an amateur chaser had video of himself saying, "Look where I'm at!" like he was taking a selfie, only for him to die later on in the storm. But tragic deaths from the tornadoes themselves are actually quite rare for storm chasers.
So what are we scared of? Hail, for one thing.
In a storm like this, baseball-size hail will start raining down for, like, no reason. We're talking half-pound rock-hard balls soaring at unprotected heads and windshields at terminal velocity. Try driving with baseballs hitting you in the face, glass everywhere and water streaming in through your exposed cabin. It can go from rice size to marble size to baseball size in a matter of minutes and take out everything in sight. In 2006, 27 people died during a few days of hailstorms in the Midwest. And in places like Bangladesh, over 100 people have been killed during a single storm.
But it's not just hail that is dangerous: Lightning is a huge danger as well. Chasers have been struck by lighting and permanently disabled as a result. It just comes out of nowhere. For you the odds of being struck are 1 in 700,000, but if you're going to dozens of storms a year, with hundreds of people? The odds start to look better for sweet lady lightning.
Another big danger? Dirt roads, especially those in Kansas and Nebraska. Dirt plus water equals muddy and greasy conditions. Roads even wash out. One time while chasing a tornado in Plainview, Texas, the road quite suddenly became a half-foot-high river and damn near swept my car away. You might not think of drowning as a major tornado risk, but it absolutely is. Tornadoes are Mother Nature's whirling Swiss army knife. They're just full of ways to kill you.
Yes, There Is an Actual Reason We're Doing This
This job seems crazy. Sure, there's money in it, but chasing storms isn't just about that. Most of us out there collect data on these storms -- wind speed, direction, weather conditions, barometer readings -- to help scientists more accurately predict tornadoes in the future.
I was in a storm in Kirksville, Missouri, once with 100 to 150 mph winds. I was stuck in the middle of a tornado, and the only reason I survived was because I had bulletproof glass bolted into my car. It kept the debris slamming into my vehicle at ungodly speeds from slamming into me at ungodlier speeds:
In addition to learning to always buy the name-brand bulletproof glass, we received critical readings on the tornadoes. Very few people get as close to a tornado as I was then, and having that hard-to-get data could be the key to improving some aspect of tornado prediction -- or survival. By monitoring the changes and sending the info off to weather agencies and universities, over the years we've helped develop early warning systems so fewer people are killed -- it's one reason we now have 14 minutes on average to get people to safety.
Meaning you no longer have to decide between seeking shelter and making some pre-terror mac and cheese.
Are we crazy? Yes. Can we possibly be killed? Big yes. But this crazy behavior will also save lives in the future and help us know more about a natural disaster that is still largely mysterious, thanks to a tendency to murder its biggest fans.
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