Adventure TravelingMom, Fran Capo in the first part of her series on chasing tornadoes interviews George Karounis from History Channel’s “Gates of Hell,” and Charles Edwards of Cloud 9 Tours.
Adventure TravelingMom Chases a Tornado
Thrill seekers seem to have a way of finding each other, like adventure seeking missiles. Such was the case with how I happened to meet George Kourounis, host of the TV show “Angry Planet” (And who happens to be on Tuesday Night’s History Channel Special – Gates of Hell at 8 p.m. ET Aug. 17) Anyway, George was a fellow speaker on an Antarctica adventure cruise I was invited on by our mutual friend and Thrillionaire, Nik Halik.
As George held the rope while I was ice climbing, we bonded, which is a common thing when someone is holding your lifeline in their hands. As we were comparing adventure stories he mentioned that for the past several years he chased storms with a company called, Cloud9tours.com a company founded by a guy named, Charles Edwards
Charles has been successfully and safely chasing tornados for more than 20 years. He was the first person to figure out how to see inside a tornado with the Dillocam, an invention he and a fellow student, Casey Crosbie, created when they were studying meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.
Basically the Dillocam was a 70-pound lead Armadillo-like shaped fiberglass case that could house a video camera. Its purpose was simple: to get video of the inside of a tornado.
The object was to place it in the path of the tornado, (then get out of the way fast) and let the camera do the recording as it passed overhead. Their mission was accomplished in 1977 in Perth, Kansas, when the Dillocam took a direct hit, and despite the glass on the front of the case being broken from the tremendous force of debris striking it, it recorded the first-ever video inside of a tornado. (All I can say is I hope their professor gave him an A for the project.)
Anyway, I figured if I was ever going to play Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” I would go with a pioneer like Charles. Cloud 9’s website says: “Cloud 9 is the oldest storm chase tour in operation today, we offer a choice of three, two-week storm chasing vacations (yes they call it a vacation!) in the prime of storm season. “
The six-week prime season, from early May to mid-June, only allowed for a maximum of 18 people per tour. The 18 people would be divided into two 15-passenger vans and one Suburban. (And here I was thinking I would be in some kind of armored tank!- silly me!) Each vehicle would be led by one of their four experienced tour guides; George and Charles in the first van, Mike Theiss from Florida (one of the best storm photographers in the world ) in the second van and John Guyton ( a semi-retired firefighter from Maryland who’s been with Cloud 9 since 1998) in the Suburban. These were the four crusaders that would lead us into (and hopefully out of) our up close dance with nature.
We’d be covering about 5,000 miles in two weeks chasing all over Tornado Alley which ranged from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, from the Rockies to Indiana, with most chases taking place in the southern, central and high plains.
We needed to travel light. One suitcase, and one carryon bag per person, with about 4-5 days worth of clothes. I of course knew I’d have to bring more underwear than that just in case I saw a really scary tornado and needed an emergency backup supply. Additional items included a light jacket, camcorder, camera, batteries, and something to keep you occupied during the travel days as you drive towards the next tornado.
Since the vans were basically a high tech command center on wheels equipped with computers, live internet while driving so they could plot GPS coordinates into a weather map, multiple cameras, power inverters, two way radios to communicate between vehicles, weather radio monitoring…it also had the luxury of Wifi…so you could bring your laptop and work as they drove. (Pretty convenient. Some hotels don’t even have wifi!)
It was January 2009, and the first tour from May 1 to May 15th 2010 was already sold out! I quickly singed up and sent in my $400 deposit along with two fellow Antarctica adventurers from Australia, Collin Martin and Ange Baddeley, for tour number 2, which would take place from May 15-30, 2010. The die was cast.
FAST FORWARD: May 2010
A year later it was time to leave for my trip. I was doing a speaking engagement for Toastmasters in Orlando then leaving straight for tornado chasing. Since I would be gone for 17 days I left a long list of instructions for my son, Spencer. Spencer, who is used to me doing all kinds of adventures, was getting nervous. He said, “Ma, can you please stop doing adventures that require you to write out a new will.” I laughed, smiled, then updated my will.
I then proceeded to show him where everything important was stashed. Now, It’s not that I think anything was really going to happen, but it was a way to ease my mind just in case. Last thing I wanted was to be swept away in a tornado and think, “Darn, I should have told Spencer about the time share and buried treasure.” I promised him that if I saw a cow flying past me I’d know I was too close.
He was still nervous. “Mom, Tornados are dangerous. You can’t trust nature.” I smiled, “Okay look, yes tornados can reach in excess of 300 mph and can kill. And yes, Okalahoma City just happens to be hit by more tornadoes than any other city in the U.S. And yes, the worst of these was an F5 that struck on May 3, 1999 in OK causing 36 deaths and a billion dollars worth of damage.”
He interrupted me….“And Mom, let’s not forget that a week ago, a tornado just swept through and killed a few people just a few miles from the hotel you are staying at. So what makes you think you will be OK?”
“Simple, I’m chasing with professionals and although we are driving towards the tornado while many people are going the other way, Charles and gang know the storms. Besides, according to the National Weather Center only about 60 people a year are killed by tornadoes. And those that are killed are not swept up in the tornado, but get hurt because of flying debris. Those people might have been sleeping while it hit or not in their shelters. I’m not making light of it, but Charles has been doing it for 20 years, there’s a good chance he knows what he’s doing!”
Spencer shrugged his shoulders. “Great, give me the will. Just try to be safe, please!”
“I will. By the way, I might be bull riding, noodling or petting a tiger at the end of the adventure with my friend Bonnie.” He stared at me. “Are you serious? First of all bulls can kill, so don’t do that. Ride a mechanical one if you have to!”
“I did that with you remember?”
He ignored me. “Second, what is noodling?”
“That’s when you stand waist deep in water near a cat fish cave. You thrust your arm into the cave, the catfish gets scared and puts your arm in his mouth. Then you bring it out or the water, he suffocates, you pull him off your arm, then you eat him.”
“Are you serious? Are you studying to be a redneck?”
“Well I actually said no to that one, I don’t want some catfish sucking on my arm. Doesn’t sound fun for me or the fish.”
”OK, Mom, and the tiger thing. Animals are even more unpredictable than tornado chasing. Remember Siegfried and Roy? I can’t believe I’m about to say this–Please stick with the tornado chasing.”
I smiled. “Good. I knew you’d see it my way.” I kissed his cheek.
(I did wind up petting the tiger later, but that’s a whole other story.)
On May 15h, with my son’s reluctant consent, I was the last one to arrive at the Guest Inn in Norman, Oklahoma. This was the night of the big convergence. Tour one was coming in from two weeks of chasing and we, on tour number two were going to head out in the morning.
Continue to Part 2 of Adventure TravelingMom Chases Tornadoes