into_the_stormAdventure TravelingMom, Fran Capo in the second part of her series on chasing tornadoes with George Karounis from the History Channel’s “Gates of Hell,” and Charles Edwards of Cloud 9 Tours, ventures into the eye of the storm and gets pelted by hail.

The good thing about tornado chasing is you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. We were all told to meet at 10 a.m. in the lobby of the Guest Inn with our luggage for a briefing. George & Charles played tag team on the information.

Charles began: “You are in for an exciting two weeks, while we can’t control the weather, we can get you to the areas where the storms will be in the safest possible way. We don’t hold back just because you guys are here…we like to get as close to the storm as possible but within the realm of safety. If you really want to eliminate all risks of tornados…then stay at home…(Then he paused and looked around.) OK since no one left we will do the next best thing, keep you as safe as possible. Now there are a few dangers to watch out for, besides the actual tornadoes that we need to warn you about. George you take it from here.”

The Signs of a Tornado

George began: “There are four major things to watch out for….

1) Other Chasers. There are over 200 other storm chasers on the road driving out to get to the storms. The Vortex 2 is also in progress. Vortex 2 is the world’s largest tornado research project with over 100 scientists and 40 vehicles and that is just that one project. So stay out of the roads, look both ways before crossing and if you see us running, you should run too.” (I made a mental note to always have my sneakers on.)

2) Animals. We’ll be standing around in the plains, so beware of ticks, ants and rattlesnakes. Check yourself, and if you’re friendly– check your neighbor.” (I looked around to see what neighbor might be doing this task if the need arose…everyone just looked straight ahead.) George continued….

hands_of_hail3) Hail. It can get as big as baseball size and by the way, putting your hand over your head to protect yourself is not going to do it.” (Neither was a baseball cap, I suppose). “So, stay in the van, we may go into some smaller hail so you can experience it, but we try to avoid big hail that can smash the windshield.”

4) Lightning. Lightening is dangerous especially with metal tripods. Also avoid holding onto fences, standing on tops of hills etc. We are safe in the van, not because of rubber tires that is a myth, but because the van acts as a faraday cage and protects the occupants from the lightning strike.” (I had no idea what faraday was, but if I would be safe, and it was blocking me from getting electrocuted, I was staying inside the van-at least for the most part).

Stay Close

Charles picked up from here…” The bottom line is stay close to us and the vans. We’ll give you plenty of opportunity to take pictures, but when we say get in, it’s a good idea to listen. Forecasting is not an exact science, there are roughly 1,000 tornados in the U.S. every year, but there’s not always a road network to safely follow them. If a chaser sees 10 tornadoes a year that’s a phenomenal season.”

(I of course was praying for phenomenal! I didn’t want to have to use the will, but if it flapped in the wind…that would be cool.)

The rest of the orientation was explaining that we’d have three types of days; chase days, travel days and down days. On the down days we’d take in local sites depending on what state we happen to be in at the time.

As far as meals, we’d have two a day, big gang breakfast at some place that gives you a troughful to eat for only $3.99 – you know all the deep fried stuff you could ever want. We’d stop for snacks at truck stops, which was also the time to take your pee break. Even if you didn’t have to go, they suggested you squeeze it out of you. Why? Well they sure as hell weren’t going to pull over on the side of road and let you plop down if a tornado was chasing us.

They also touched on general hygiene. Which you would think in this day and age would be common sense…but not apparently to everybody. So they asked us to make sure our armpits didn’t stink because we’d all be sitting next to each other in the van for long periods of time, and the last thing you’d want to do is hang one of those air freshener tree things off of someone’s armpit just to give them a hint.

The last thing was, of course, the signing of the release forms. You know the ones where you say no matter what happens to you…it ain’t their fault. A common form for every adventure I’ve ever been on.

Then they handed out t-shirts, put our luggage in our vans, and we were headed toward Southwest Texas with our computer equipment and their expertise to guide us.

George explained our tornado control set up.

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Now, our first day was supposed to be just a calm travel day, getting us into position to see a storm. But Mother Earth decided to up the ante and we came swinging out of the gate.

In our van was George driving, Charles navigating, Collin, Ange and Chris Curtis. Chris has been a chasing client with www.cloud9tours.com for years. He was a big teddy bear of a guy who owned a store in Boston and was head of some online sorority. (No he’s not a transvestite…it’s a long story.) Anyway, he would write really cool daily blogs about our chasing, adding high adventure by claiming vortex pirates were after us and add any other things that his wild imagination would conjure up.

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George and Charles were watching the monitor and started to get excited. A storm was forming. All of a sudden with a sparkle in their eyes, the chase was on. George raced to catch the storm, at the same time both he and Charles kept looking up at the clouds.

Charles explained: “You see that sky is turning green. A green cloud will only occur if the cloud is very deep, which generally occurs in thunderstorm clouds. It indicates that a cloud is extremely tall. Green is a warning sign that large hail or a tornado may be present.”

Collin saw it, so did Chris. Ange and I just looked at each and shrugged. Must have been a guy thing. We didn’t see the green but pretended we did. We were like kids though. What we really wanted was to see a huge Wizard of Oz tornado complete with witch come right at us.

The excitement was contagious. Not even a few hours into the trip and we already had action. Charles started explaining what was happening on the computer monitor. “You see this red area indicates storm action. You see this section at the bottom that looks like a hook? Tornados are often located at the center of a hook-shaped echo on the southwest side of thunderstorms.”

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Then Charles pointed out the window. “You see that off to the side, that’s the bear’s cage.” At first I was looking on the ground, thinking, who cares about a bear, I want to see a tornado. Then I see him point to a distant cloud formation that actually looked like bars on a cage.

George picked it up, “The bear’s cage is a tornado slang term to describe an area of heavy precipitation and rotation. It’s a cage of rain that is surrounding the updraft of a tornado. We want to stay outside the bear’s cage, because inside the cage is the bear, which is the tornado. Outside Good. Inside Bad.”

Just then we looked at the radar data on the computer. The yellow area indicated a severe thunder storm warning, the red area was a tornado storm warning. The watch had just been upgraded.

I was twittering up a storm myself trying to keep up with all the terms, everything I was seeing and the excitement of the chase. I did 70 tweets in about a half hour! I had my son, Spencer, looking at the storm through the streaming video on the www.cloud9tours.com website that was being taken from the van’s cameras. Some of my Twitter fans were watching and commenting. There was no audio, just video on the streaming, so I was tweeting the commentary. It was like a silent movie with Twitter subtitles.

We were chasing a super cell from west of Kingfisher through Oklahoma City.
We stopped in Piedmont, Oklahoma, for a moment to take a quick photo and take it all in. Tornado sirens were going off in the area. It was cool, but creepy at the same time.

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George and Charles were looking pretty intense on mapping out roads to get us out of harm’s way just in case and the last thing I needed was to be responsible for the van being lifted away into oblivion because I was asking a question.

So I turned to my pirate buddy, Chris. He explained, “A super cell is a thunderstorm that is characterized by the presence of a mesocylone. “ I smiled. “Okay, now in English please. I need visuals.” He laughed and pointed up to the sky. ”You see that rotating cloud above us…that’s it.” I later found out that super cells have the potential to be the most severe storms. A typical super cell storm has clouds almost twice the height of Mount Everest. That certainly put things into perspective.

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Just then I heard George exclaim. “We’re in the bear’s cage!” as he started driving faster.

I looked at Ange, We both mouthed, “Yes!” (We were adrenaline junkies to the core!) Meanwhile Collin was at George’s request to make sure we were staying ahead of the massive white wall of hail that was creeping up behind us. I kept tweeting. Spencer kept texting, ” Don’t make me use that will!” My adrenaline was pumping but I felt no danger. Charles and George were navigating our exit route out of the storm.

At first the hail started slowly…but George explained this was only a sign it was going to get bigger.

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Just then, a hail core started passing over us. In seconds, hail started pounding down loudly on the van. It sounded like one of those Jurassic Park dinosaurs stomping on the roof.

George made a quick right and we pulled under a car wash shed on the east side of Oklahoma City. While most of the gang stayed inside the van, Charles got out to get some footage. He got pelted on the head.

I felt the need to go outside as well and video the hail. I wanted to feel how the golf ball size balls would feel hitting my body. A few quick pelts and I can tell you it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it hurts. With hair flying, and the strength of nature whipping around me, I did what I always do when I get an adrenaline rush: I started laughing out loud like a kid. OK, actually my laugh sounds more like a mad scientist at that point…but it comes deep from my adventure core pleasure center….

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to be continued…..