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Funnel vision

A few days with tornado chasers bring close calls with lightning bolts and jittery downtime spent waiting for big weather. Susan Salter Reynolds follows the pack along Tornado Alley.

June 28, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds

Ames, Iowa — May 29, 2004. About 50 tornadoes set down from North Dakota to Oklahoma. In Missouri, three people are killed and about 18 injured. One man dies shielding his children as his mobile home is blown across the road. Farther north, two women are killed when their home is swept away.

It's a beautiful day in the heartland of America. But for storm chasers, weather geeks and other pressure-drop thrill seekers, the weather is really bad when it's really good, and on this weather-less morning in Iowa, it's terrible. Roads end in fields of yellow mustard flowers. Tractors spit along gravel roads. Tourists speed past old white farmsteads, Cyclone liquor stores and convenience marts. Luckily, everything can change in an instant.

Almost 10 years after the Hollywood blockbuster "Twister" introduced the world to tornado-obsessed individuals who haunt Tornado Alley each spring, Mark Svenvold is on the scene, and his book, "Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America," is the weather watcher's new guide to the world of storm chasing.

"I love the sky," Svenvold proclaims. He's just given a breakfast talk at Iowa State College. Six-four, strikingly good-looking, he stands out like a beat poet at an ice cream social, probably the only person dressed in black within a 50-mile radius. It's the last stop of his book tour, and he's eager to get out of town.

When Svenvold says he loves the sky, you realize that it is no different for him than Himalayan massifs are for climbers or the Southern Ocean for sailors. Its magnitude, its majesty, its ability to bring the world to its knees -- in all its tragic dynamism -- attracts him.

"Chasing is a quasi-spiritual quest," he says. "When you come upon a storm, the world changes into a shadow world, a world that has been taken over. You have to think spatially under the cloud base. ... You have to translate what you see into God's view."

After the reading, he makes a couple of calls. He hopes to catch up with Imax filmmaker Sean Casey and with meteorologist Joshua Wurman, who has been on the road since morning.

"Go west," Wurman advises, "and call me in a couple of hours."

Svenvold wastes no time loading up a rented Chevrolet with Doritos, Mountain Dew and Wrigley's Winterfresh gum. He hits Route 30, and Ames disappears fast in the rearview. Somewhere in the West, a line of thunderstorms extends from New Mexico to central Nebraska. Tornadoes are reportedly touching down in northeastern Colorado.

In Denison, Svenvold turns south on 59 to connect with Interstate 80. Around 3 p.m., clouds have started to form. By now, he's well into Nebraska, and just past Kearney, he calls Wurman who tells him to head south on 283. Three hours later, at a gas station in Arapahoe, he overhears a warning for severe storms.

The woman behind the counter slaps the radio, as if it's broken: "Won't hit here," she growls. "Never does."

Apocalyptic dreams

April 20, 2004. Several dozen tornadoes touch down in Illinois and Indiana. The worst hits Utica, a small town 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Sirens give residents three minutes to prepare. Some 18 people take refuge in the basement of the Milestone Tap Restaurant, a three-story, century-old building. The structure collapses.

Consider what we know. Each year, approximately 10,000 severe thunderstorms cut across the United States. Out of these, more than 1,000 tornadoes occur. Three-quarters of the tornadoes in the world form in a region known as Tornado Alley, which stretches as far north as South Dakota and south into Texas. May and June are the worst months of the season.

During these months, the interstates and highways of the Midwest fill with storm chasers. On one side of the spectrum are the yahoos, people who put their foot on the accelerator without knowing why (storm chaser tour groups -- vans filled with people who pay several thousand dollars for the chance to see a tornado -- belong to this category). On the other side of the spectrum are the scientists, who are out here to learn more about these storms with the hope of someday saving lives. And in between are the artists, filmmakers and photographers who are fascinated by the spectacle, while sprinkled about are the Internet nerds who spend hours each day on sites such as WX-Chase listserv and www.stormtrack.org.

Svenvold is somewhere in the middle. Munching Doritos and speeding south, he talks about how he left his hometown of Seattle in 1990 for the Iowa Writers' Workshop and worked as a tour guide in Alaska for two years before moving to New York City, where he met and married novelist Martha McPhee, daughter of author John McPhee.

Sometime in college, he started dreaming -- "apocalyptic, beautiful dreams" -- about tornadoes. There'd be one "coming down Broadway in Seattle," he remembers, "salmon, animals, various fish, all floating in it, and it would stop at the light."

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