tornadochaserIn part 5, the grand finale of Adventure TravelingMom’s Tornado Chasing series, her storm chasing group gets to see a tornado that happens maybe only once in a lifetime. True luck was with Fran Capo, our adventurer, take a look at what she got to see up close and personal in 80 mph winds.

DAY 4 – May 19, 2010 –  CLOUD9TOURS on Australian TV- Broom, Texas

Ever since the movie Twister, people are fascinated with storm chasers, add to that the fact that the new series “Storm Chasers” is doing well in the ratings and you have a new “hobby” that people are fascinated with, that is except for the people that live in the direct line of wind fury.   Needless to say when our caravan pulls into a town it makes people a tad nervous.

They’ll causally come on over and ask, “Sooooo…anything you guys know that we should know?”  Half the time we were just stopping to take a pee (shouldn’t we be leaving one instead?) or grabbing a hand full of junk food to sustain us until a real food stop. But sometimes as I mentioned the truck stops are a convenient meeting spot to hang out at while we wait for the next storm to surface. During that down time all the pranksters come out. Chasers love to play jokes on each other. The shenanigans can range from putting sausages on each others car antenna’s to throwing peanuts at each other, to spray painting the other vans windows with funny sayings to putting things underneath fellow chasers vehicles that make them think something is wrong with their car.  It’s a community and Charles, George and Chris are some of the top pranksters in it. In fact they seem to thrive on it. Charles may look quiet on the outside, but don’t let that fool you…he’s always got a stash of some throw-able food source or gadget on hand that he can use to “get” the other guy.

Storm chasing also attracts the media – Big Time.    On this particular day, both an Associated Press (AP) reporter and an Australian camera crew came out to chase with us. Of course I quickly used this opportunity to interview the interviewer.

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As soon as the interview was over we headed out. A Super cell along Highway 33 and a funnel cloud near Guthrie, Oklahoma was brewing so we needed to get out there. We literally lost the AP reporter two minutes after leaving the truck stop, “Hey these people have to learn to keep up!”  Actually we didn’t do it intentionally but this is not a  “ Grandma, I gotta go slow sport.”

The Australian camera crew was better. They followed us closely for a few miles, then the camera guy got in our van to get the inside scoop of how Charles and George operate. In the process though we lost the host of the show, Angelina. She was following us in her own rental car, somehow got distracted and started to follow a different van.   We called her cell phone and tried to route her to where we were. Since the host was MIA, Ange nudged me; “Fran you host it…now’s your chance.” I was ready. Ange and Collin were trying to quickly transform my New York accent into an Australian one.  The cameraman was getting nervous. Lucky for him we found the host a few miles later in a truck stop. (Oh well, I think my New York accent might have been a dead giveaway anyway.)

With the foreign TV host in cue, we were off racing again.  Since there was only this one storm brewing on the map it became, Storm Chaser Central. We stopped briefly to get some footage of the storm as it was coming.

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Every storm chaser around was converging in this one place, on this one highway, chasing this one storm.  Hundreds of cars lined the road. The last thing you want to be is stuck in traffic as a major storm is coming…There is no place to go! The radio announcers were talking about how bad the storm was.

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At one point, we managed to start going again but it got pretty hairy. The radio stations were announcing for people to get into their shelters…now!

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Mike in the chase van behind us, had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting the flying debris of a house. Yup, the shutters of a house were literally ripped off and flying in the road just a few feet in front of him.  At that point, I looked out the window to see if I saw any floating cows. Nope I was still safe. Although I did think I heard mooing at one point.

At some point shortly after that on the same highway 35, the Suburban, the last car in our trio, became the first.  And as we were driving on the road, one of its tires grabbed the dirt on the side of the road and was pulled off into a ditch. It was now stuck in the mud and the storm was moving closer. 

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Then without saying a word, George stopped the van. He and Charles hopped out. Like a well oiled NASCAR pit stop crew, they took a ten ton tow rope out of the back of our van, hooked it up to the back of Mike’s van, attached it quickly to the Suburban that was stuck in the mud, and in less than a minute, poof! It was out… just like that, leaving a long line of tire tracks behind. The Australian camera guy was taping away, I was flipping it, everyone was cheering, and we were back on the road trying once again to outrun the storm.  The delay though caused us to be in the hook of the storm, which is NOT where you want to be.

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Later we found out other chasers weren’t so lucky. Some got stuck in dirt roads as well, but were unable to get out on their own. The farmer whose road they were stuck on charged them $1000 bucks to tow them out through his cornfields.  Hey, everybody’s out to make a buck. 

DAY FIVE – Thursday, May 20, 2010
We were headed to Salina Kansas, the spot where world record adventure aviator, Steve Fossett took off and landed from for his first solo non-stop flight around the world. No world records for us that day, although we did eat at a Japanese restaurant in the middle of Kansas, which in itself is a bizarre concept. We also met a nice young Kansas couple that said they are not afraid of tornados, they said they are too used to them. I guess it’s like New Yorkers with rats, muggings and fast talkers. 

DAY 6 – Friday, May 21, 2010
Travel Day.
Heading to Colorado into the town of Burlington, where there is an R-rated country Karaoke club run by a Chinese family. You just can’t make some stuff up.

Since it was slow day I figured it was a good time to pick Charles brain. So I asked him to explain the F scale for me. (And we ain’t talking music. )

He said, “Tornados’ are measured on a EF scale.  EF stands for Enhanced Fujita. Fujita was the man who developed the F scale it. The F scale was originally used to determine wind speed in the Hiroshima bomb, and nuclear destinations.  Prior to 2007 it was just an F scale. After 2007 it was called an EF scale. They are comparable, but terminology changed. Fujita died before the enhanced scale was used. The scale is based on a one to five with EF0 being the lowest, EF5 the highest. The scale is used to determine wind speed and damage on the ground AFTER the tornado hits, kind of like an autopsy of the tornado. So if a tornado is on the ground and hits nothing, it’s an EFO. The shape and size of a tornado has nothing to do with its rating. Size does NOT matter with a tornado.”  He smiled. “You got that?” I nodded. Then Charles went back to doing a puppet show on the dashboard with stuffed horses, pigs and cows for those watching his streaming live video.

It was like traveling with Rain Man…. brilliant with a touch of bizarre…just the way I like it.

DAY 7 – Saturday, May 22, 2010 – OUR FIRST HUGE TORNADO
Georges 40th Birthday – A BIRTHDAY WISH COME TRUE

We started the day in the parking lot, decorating George’s van with balloons, dousing him with silly string, hiding some of his stuff that he needed, and just the general annoying things that one does to a person on his birthday that you think you can get away with.

So what was George’s wish? To see a bunch of tornado’s on his birthday. Come on, is that too much to ask? The guy never gets to spend his birthday with his wife because he is out chasing, the least the Tornado Storm Gods can do is answer the guy’s prayer.

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A few hours later… the excitement began. Prayers do come true, even for scientific agnostics.  It was an amazing storm chasing day…we saw a tornado in front of us…we were on a dirt road that the police had blocked off but let us through.  The TIV (Tornado Intercept vehicle) was in front of us and got a direct hit from a tornado, which is exactly what they wanted to do. However two telephone poles were knocked down and the power lines were on the ground, so they could not go any further.  The driver from the TIV got out and ran to our window…we took a direct hit, lines down, turn around. Then he jogged back to his TIV.

We were at the edge of the bear’s cage, so we saw the winds swirling around us. It’s as close as you want to get, without being swept away. We had to turn our van around to get out. We were yelling to people coming this way…”Turn around, power lines down!” We told the officer what was happening up ahead.

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We kept chasing, looking for another road to catch the storm. Charles working the helm, George driving skillfully and oh so happy. Then it happened…. we saw 4 more tornados near Bowdle South Dakota. One of them was an EF4. It was the first EF4 since 2003 in South Dakota…so this was pretty special.

We were all jumping up and down like kids and hugging.  Ange and I were laughing hysterically. All of us had our cameras out. Collin was Flipping, I was Flipping…it was awesome!

We did of course then have to get out of the way of the storm…so we had to find roads out…and unfortunately there weren’t’ that many good options…so we wound up on a dirt road, which is always tricky because you don’t’ want to get stuck.

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In the tornado chasing tradition, we all had steak that night at a place called, Mavericks.  I had filet mignon, cranberry juice and shared a chocolate cake with Ange and Collin. For those who know me, cranberry juice gets me drunk, add a nice sugary cake to that and I was seeing room spins!

The hotels were all booked in the area so we drove an hour. George had engaged in some libations to celebrate his birthday, so Charles took the wheel in the massive storm. At the hotel we all stood outside in the parking lot at midnight snapping photos of lightening.  Apparently none of our mothers told us to get in from the rain. We were just loving’ life!

DAY 8 – Sunday, May 23 2010 – Day of rest.
 
All during the week, everyone in van 2 knew of fellow chaser, Ruth’s infatuation with reality TV star, Reed Timer from the show Storm Chasers. Ruth had said she’d even let him sign her chest if she saw him. Well, he was out on the road in his Dominator 2 vehicle.  We saw them in the parking lot of a hotel close to where we were staying.  So to do Ruth a favor, I made a deal with one of Tweed’s right hand guys, to let us know when he might be in the lot so that she could get an autograph.

When my cell phone text came through we were at dinner. I told Ruth.
She, her husband (who wanted to make sure Ruth really didn’t show a breast), Mike and myself, jogged on over to that parking lot.

There was her man. Hubby thought he was nice, but not impressed. “She’s got steak at home, what does she want with this hamburger.” Yet he took the photo.
She was like a little schoolgirl with a crush. I figured I might as well flip the event.

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Later at the hotel bar that night, Collin acted as my PR manager and told the bartender I was the fastest talker. I did a quick sample of my three little pigs for him on his cell phone to show his kids…Later, we ran into Liz Holtzman the producer & director of the cartoon, Pinky and the Brain. We swapped talents, I did my fast-talking for her and she drew a personalized drawing on a napkin for me. Gotta love life…ya never know who you will meet or where.

DAY 9 – May 24, 2010  –  THE BIG KAHUNA

If there was ever a day to be chasing this was it. Today was going to be a series tornado day with violent storms.  The computer screen was beaming with juicy information on where to locate them.

The chase was on. We went from south of Howes to south of Faith, South Dakota. It was about 3:30 p.m. out of the right side of the van window we could see a massive tornado forming.

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I know we were told not to judge a tornado by it’s size…but this was ONE HUGE TORNADO! And it had staying power. Usually tornados spin, touch down, turn around, and then go back up with minutes.  But this one was a quarter of a mile wide at its largest part, and stayed on the ground for twenty-two miles!
It was traveling across the plains at thirty miles and hour, so it gave us plenty of opportunity to get out and photograph it.

(Fantastic tornadoes from Howes to Faith, SD. Video is HERE http://www.cloud9videos.com/show.php?Id=105)

As we were watching this wonder of nature, George turns to Charles, “Hey Charles I got a crazy idea…” Before he could finish, Charles yells, “Drive close? Sounds good to me.” We hop back in the van and get within 200 yards of this behemoth. It is rotating at about 111- 135 mph. It was the perfect photographic tornado we were waiting for.  We all stood outside the van, posed with cameras.

Some stood behind the van as it swayed from the 80 mph winds. (Mind you hurricane winds are considered 74mph and higher.) But once again, I wanted go feel the force of nature.  So I went out in front of the van on the side of the phone, with my flip camera trying to stand upright and record it. My hair is flying wildly, my blue jacket is flopping all over the place, and then I slightly shift my feet and boom, I go flying on my side. Now I’m crawling on the ground, trying to get the shot, and of course I’m laughing.

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We keep watching and the Tornado now slowly passes a white church with an outhouse to its left. In an instant the outhouse was blown over. I just hope some poor sap wasn’t inside with his pants down.

The tornado missed the church and continued. It was awesome. Charles turned the camera on us. I was ecstatic…”I was yelling…”That was awesome…that was fantastic.” Then the next thing I know the wind caught my jacket and just like that I flew off camera again. 

Charles later sold that piece to Good Morning America. I was not the famous fast talking girl in the blue jacket that got blown away…we had a good laugh over that one. 

Another rope tornado formed off in the distance. All in all, that tornado was rated and EF2 and stayed on the ground for 33 minutes!

I asked Charles to explain the magnitude of what we just saw.

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That night again we had steak!

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LAST DAYS OF TRIP
Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 to May 30, 2010

The rest of the trip was calm storm wise but still filled with activity.  We took in local sites, like Mt. Rushmore, and Devils Tower where Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed.  We passed some towns where baseball size hail had shattered windows and dented cars. We saw some bizarre places that only one would see in the middle of nowhere unless storm chasing brought you there.
We stayed at a few more Motel 6, 7 and 8’s…Hey we were interested in chasing not the hotel amenities.)  Every morning Thad would entertain us with comedy sayings that he pasted on his hat. At dinner, Glen and I would have peanut fights and food fights would erupt in local taverns. We paid extra for that.

And all along with the joking we learned more facts. We went to a Storm Chaser BBQ at a chasers home.

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I got to go in his shelter, which basically was a cement underground closet with an air filter on top. For those who did not have shelters, they would stay in the center of their homes, or the lowest parts like the basement…just keep away from windows because the shattered glass can act like bullets and kill. Also a bathtub is a good place, with a mattress to cover you to protect you from flying objects.

We hung out by the pool, and listen to al the chasers swap stories.

Eventually as with all good things it had to come to an end. We pulled back into the Guest Inn parking lot in Norman, Okalahoma. The tour three group of chasers were already there, anxious for the two weeks to come. Lori, Charles’s wonderful wife and their adorable little dog, greeted us.  They would spend all of one night together till Charles was off chasing again and giving people the ride of their lives!
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Website: www.cloud9tours.com (Tell them Fran Capo sent ya)
Cloud 9 Tours
P.O. Box 3631
Shawnee, OK 74802
(405) 323 1145
cedwards@cloud9tours.com
Cost of trip which includes all hotels is listed on their website.
Airfare and Meals: Not included in price.
Books a year in advance.
Age Range: 18 and over