STORM CHASING USA 2011

Distance driven today: 711kms | Total so far: 11604kms

What a crazy day.. maddest chase day ever for me.

Unfortunately, the craziness came from fear and excitement, rather than actually seeing any tornadoes. Which you may think is strange for one of Oklahoma's biggest tornado outbreaks ever (sadly resulting in at least 16 deaths so far). It seems odd even to me, although there are a couple of reasons. First and foremost is my lack of understanding of US storms generally. Because I'm not familiar with them, I'm reluctant to get too close to the core especially when I'm being told that the giant tornado inside is rain-wrapped. The notion of grapefruit sized hail doesn't do much for me either, and with our experience on May 17 of hail falling unexpectedly, I'm a little gun-shy. Still, with the US storm experience so far, I'm slowly getting over that.

Today was forecast as an extremely good setup if you like severe storms. It was the first time I'd seen the Weather Service issue a HIGH risk of severe storms since I'd arrived. Most of Oklahoma and central to E Kansas was in the hot zone, so from Oklahoma City in central Oklahoma, I cruised N a bit to get myself closer to the centre of the warning area. I stopped at a very cool art deco cafe in Perry, with fabulous hospitality. Although an Aussie accent and the idea of living on the road, laying your hat wherever you end up, as they say, is very impressive to most small town Americans. Understandably so; I'm impressed by it myself.

I'm actually a little surprised that most Americans seem to have some respect, or at least excitement for storm chasers. "So, you traveling?" "Yeah, I'm driving around the country for some weather." "Are you a STORM CHASER?!" My perception that people think storm chasers are gung-ho types taking advantage of other peoples' misery is perhaps a little exagerated, which pleases me.

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After a merry old time of sipping coffee, writing a newspaper article, and being a celebrity, my arvo of chasing didn't start so great. The outback US roads are awesome... if you're going the right way. I took a wrong turn, owing to a slight misunderstanding with my GPS and 50kms (and half an hour) of being railroaded on the highway with no exits later, and I was back where I started in Perry.

A few cells had already fired about 150kms W of Oklahoma City. I couldn't decide whether to head SW to meet those ones already firing, or trust that more would arc up along the line's N, meaning I could just head directly W. I kind of split the difference and headed W towards Hennessey. On my way, a massive area straight ahead of me became tornado warned. This was the first time I was deliberately driving directly towards a tornado warned cell and I was nervous!

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I stopped for petrol and food on the way, pacing around like I'd lost my marbles. I eventually lost radar and fortuitously decided to turn on the radio. It was going nuts. Music stations had cut into a continuous live feed from a weather TV station with chasers on the ground reporting visual sightings of storm features like tornadoes. There were evidently tornado warnings up the yazoo and at least one big tornado on the ground W of Oklahoma City. I think I managed to get radar again and notice my tornado warning was gone. I did the u-turn and wondered whether I could make it back to Oklahoma City. If I followed this car, I'd have a good chance of seeing something:

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Reed Timmer's company TornadoVideos.net also does storm chasing tours. Surely they would know what they were doing. I decided to give chase, despite them honking along at 130kmh. They had obviously started where I did and were doing the back-track as well, so I didn't feel so bad.

The radio continued to go insane with incredibly detailed descriptions of what was happening, where, and what damage was being caused. The live feed was occasionally interupted by a series of beeps (which I initially thought was the station going off the air because of the storms!) and a computer generated voice outlining the tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service, and which areas needed to get underground or find shelter NOW.

The further S I headed down I35 towards Oklahoma City for a rendevous with a monster tornado, the more I started to pack my dacks. Even looking at the clouds to my SW, knowing there was a tornado back there somewhere had me shaking. On radar, the cells were very nearing Oklahoma City. The radio was now also talking of a second tornado on the ground heading towards SW Oklahoma City.

I wondered when the TVN crew would turn E, realising they weren't going to make it to Oklahoma City in time, yet they continued S with pace. They were in a regular 4WD and not the Dominator (the shielded tank-looking vehicle in the Discovery TV show) so I figured they wouldn't put their paying clients in genuine danger, yet I couldn't help but feel like I was getting too close. About halfway down to Oklahoma City, I whimped out and turned E. Hail was another element I really didn't want to confront.

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I was disappointed to lose the unintended guidance from TVN and started wandering the side roads, madly trying to figure out a place to head to. I was playing a frustrating balancing act with the radio reports, radar from about three different apps that would take forever to load on my iPhone, the normal public radar on my laptop, and my GPS. Flangs were landing around me and frequent massive crawlers sparked across the sky above me. In SE Qld, I'd be wrap with this, but I hardly cared now, knowing at least one or two tornadoes were already on the ground.

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I continued S on a back road (just E of the main N-S Hwy I35), skirting the N-S line of severe storms.. sometimes successfully, other times getting pummelled with heavy rain. No hail though, thankfully.

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After news of more smaller tornadoes around W and S Oklahoma City, and one near Perry where I started (typical!), the radio finally announced a rotating cell and wall cloud approaching Shawnee (just E of Oklahoma City), which seemed to be in reach to my S. I crossed I40, E of Oklahoma City. Holy hell, the doppler radar vehicle! It, and a bunch of others cars pulled over on the side of the road, was a good sign.

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The radio suggested this new tornado had touched down and was heading for "Twin Malls" or something, which I assumed to be in the Shawnee township, slightly further S, so I whizzed past the gathered throng. Ok, now it was heading for the casino? I wondered how I would find this casino, then googled it. It was back up on the I40 to the W! Damn.

Another u-turn and I stopped back up amongst the crazy gathering of other storm chasing vehicles, where some sort of front was visible, which I hadn't noticed when I emerged from the N!

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I had an eagle eye on this thing like I was in a Where's Wally contest, but I came up empty-handed.

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Here's some video of my exciting but frustrating chase, which is less about actual severe weather and more about my own personal experience of trying to chase tornadoes in the US. I realised I was perhaps not quite as prepared as I thought I was about confronting tornadoes. My fear of getting too close and my limited knowledge of how US storms work were both factors in my ultimately not seeing anything. Still, I think this video is still interesting to Aussie chasers about what it's like chasing tornadoes on your own in the US and how the media reacts to these dangerous situations. And then how the media's reaction fed back into my own excitement!

More storms were crossing I35 to my E, so I took off. I was low on fuel and food so I stopped at a servo. Turns out it was closed. There was quite a gathering here when I finally noticed that the man himself, Reed Timmer, star of the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chaser's" show and his revered Dominator 2 tornado chasing vehicle, were having a breather after having intercepted five or six tornados. Couldn't he have donated just one to me??

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The geek factor was so high I thought I was at a Star Trek convention. Reed, in the navy green shirt, was off in the background, apparently not caring about people taking a close look at his beastly man cave on wheels.

This is the second vehicle Reed has had built ("D2"), and he seems to have implimented a number of new additions to his weather studying arsenal since the series of Storm Chaser's that I saw.

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I was reluctant, but I finally worked up the courage to say hi to The Dude. He was open and warm and happy to speak to an Australian giggling girty. We chatted for a few minutes where he told me they'd intercepted five or six tornadoes today. I asked him whether he would continue chasing today and he said it wasn't likely, particularly as the darkness doesn't really work for the Discovery Channel shooting team.

He was also happy for a photo.

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I'm always impressed by people who love what they do so much, that they somehow naturally manage to make a living out of it. I arrived here a bit disappointed that I hadn't spotted any tornadoes, but left the place buzzing!

The line of storms continued E as the sky darkened. Chasing tornadoes at night isn't much fun, so I opted for lightning.

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Another closed servo provided a good shelter, when an interesting lump of scud came into view.

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Nothing came of it. The radar showed a dry patch to this storm's S, so off I headed to get outside of it. It was quite a core punch to get there, but nothing damaging.

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Craziness all day and I didn't even SEE any tornadoes. I wonder what'll happen when I do finally see one!