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Twister chasers

Tornadoes attract curious courting danger, thrill-seekers

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

OKLAHOMA CITY -- When severe weather threatens, experienced storm trackers head out to look for signs of tornadoes and report their findings to the National Weather Service and television stations.

More often than not, they find they are not alone.

Thrill-seekers, entrepreneurs and the curious are out there too, clogging roads and courting danger.

F5 Tornado Safari of Castle Rock, Colo., is one of several companies offering people the chance to see a tornado. For $1,850, the company transports people throughout the Midwest and Southwest for a week in a black, 1994 GMC Suburban.

The license plate says ''F5CHASR.'' F5 is the classification for the most intense type of tornado.

Chris Margison, 47, a letter carrier from Tacoma, Wash., took his second tour recently.

''I have seen funnels, but I want to get even closer,'' he said. ''I just like the excitement.''

Also on the tour was David Dildine, 18, of Reston, Va., who plans to attend Penn State next year and major in meteorology.

''We just don't get weather like this back home,'' Dildine said. ''This is my dream.''

Improvements in meteorology have made such tours possible. Modern weather radar pinpoints storm systems likely to produce tornadoes and accurately tracks the movements of these storms.

Popular films like ''Twister,'' and an increased focus on severe weather by radio and television stations have also boosted interest in chasing tornadoes and capturing them on film and videotape.

Greg Potter, the lead meteorologist for F5, monitors ham radio reports from storm spotters and fields cell phone calls from meteorologists in Austin, Texas, and Castle Rock. He tells the driver, Laura Cowen of Santa Monica, Calf., where to head for the best storm viewing.

He studies weather information at night on his laptop computer to determine where the tour might be headed the next day.

On one recent day, it originally looked like most of the severe storms would be in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, but by midmorning, more intense activity seemed to be forming in Kansas, so the tour headed north.

Entering Hutchinson, Kan., around 1 p.m., Potter spotted signs of rotating clouds to the east. The chase was on.

With a radar detector activated to avoid a traffic ticket, the tour driver sped to an intersection already lined with a TV station's satellite truck, two researchers from the University of Kansas with cameras on tripods, a high school teacher who moonlights as a storm spotter, and several carloads of curious sightseers.

A funnel cloud was spotted, but it never touched the ground.

Some emergency officials are concerned about what will happen when a tornado does touch down in an area filled with sightseers and tourists.

''It makes me worried that people are going to get hurt because they don't know where to go and where not to go,'' said Harry Trotter, the emergency management director for McIntosh County in southeast Oklahoma.

He said his county recently had seven separate tornadoes in one day.

''When the tornado went over the turnpike there was a gentleman who was videotaping the tornado and the debris from the storm was dropping at his feet,'' Trotter said. ''He was way too close.''

Val Castor, who tracks storms in the field for a television station, said many people who venture out to spot a tornado do not realize just how difficult or dangerous this can be.

''Most are people who just want to chase storms,'' Castor said. ''They see the TV shows and think it is a glamorous and a daredevil thing to do.

''In reality we only see a tornado once every 10 to 12 times we go out. We just put a lot of hours in behind the wheel.

''One of these days there will be a lot of casualties because of people watching storms. There is going to be an accident whether it's a tornado or a car wreck -- it is going to happen.''

After an outbreak of tornadoes, people try to sell images of the twisters to the weather service.

''I will spend the next day talking to people who want to give us their videos,'' said weather service meteorologist James Purpura. ''Some see it is a notch on a belt, 'I bagged so many tornadoes.' For others it's a personal accomplishment thing. For some it is a thrill, while others are professionals who are able to take beautiful photographs.''

The F5 Tornado Safari group never did find a tornado on the day of its recent outing.

At 10:30 p.m., the group stopped for a hamburger in Enid, Okla., after hours of trailing storms.

The tour members reminisced about a day earlier in the week when they spotted seven tornadoes in one day in Colorado.

Two hours later, they pulled into their Oklahoma City motel after 14 hours on the road and 18 hours after they woke up that morning

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On the Net:

National Severe Storms Laboratory: http://www.nssl.noaa.gov

F5 Tornado Chasing Safaris: http://www.f5tornadosafaris.com. Phone (800) 845-0383.



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