My Week Shadowing a Tornado Hunter in Oklahoma
With stormchasing tours more popular than ever, our writer set out to discover why this risky pastime is once again taking off
I’ve been hooked on tornadoes since I was a kid. I used to dream I was lying in my backyard as a black funnel cloud passed silently—and safely—over me. A shrink later told me the dream represented “safe danger,” but I never understood half of what he said, including that. As I grew older, I became a climate dilettante. I read about global warming and the coming ice age, wondered why barometric pressure affected dogs, and drew cloud charts in my daily planner. I saw Twister, of course. And I kept having that dream.
I wanted to see a real storm for myself, but there was the business of finishing grad school and raising kids. So I back-burnered tornadoes for decades and nearly forgot about them. Then, last winter, I saw a blurb in a travel magazine about stormchasing tours. I thought only Hollywood actors or meteorology nerds were allowed to chase tornadoes. But for $2,300 a week, I could, too. I justified it to my now adult children, saying that if I died, at least it would be while doing something incredibly cool.
And I did. Not die—do something cool.
I decided to book the Mayhem 1 tour with Extreme Chase Tours, one of some 20 stormchasing outfits in the country, which promises a 90 percent chance of seeing a tornado over the course of six days. Not only was the company vetted by the review site StormChasingUSA, it had fewer people per van and was relatively affordable compared with others (many run $2,500 and up). All trips are based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the epicenter of Tornado Alley, a swath of land that runs from central Texas to South Dakota and spawns many of the approximately 1,200 events each year.
While I knew Oklahoma and the southern plains were likely to produce tornadoes in May and early June, a period when cold fronts from the Arctic that haven’t been weakened on their way south meet the warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, I still had to manage my expectations—there are never guarantees when it comes to weather. But after arriving at my motel in Tulsa last summer and turning on the Weather Channel, it reported a tornado near the town of Buffalo, a little over three hours west, around 6:30 P.M. I was optimistic.
The next morning, I met owner and operator Lanny Dean: think Michael Moore with the baseball cap turned backwards. A tuft of hair sprouted through what my daughters call the “ponytail hole.” He’s a big, affable man in his mid-forties and was wearing a T-shirt with “Outlaw Chasers” printed on the front. (The back read “Show Me or Blow Me.”) With him was a guy named Mike, a forty-something out of San Antonio and my fellow chaser. Mike had already been on ten chasing tours, many of them with Dean. There was supposed to be another couple with us, but they bailed at the last minute.
Dean was seven years old and sitting in the back seat of the family car when he first saw a twisting, funnel-shaped black cloud skitter across the Texas landscape, plucking boards off the side of a barn. “Shit, yes, it terrified me,” he said. “It was the most scary, awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. It’s what hooked me.”
The fear turned into fascination. At Missouri State, he did some undergraduate work in atmospheric science (“a kick-ass field,” he said) and ended up with a Bachelor of Science in electronic engineering telecommunication. He later became a severe-weather reporter and photographer and starred in TruTV’s Tornado Hunters. Since launching his guiding company in 1999, he’s seen 581 tornadoes and 13 major hurricanes up close and has held hail the size of a softball in his hand. He’s a frequent video contributor to Good Morning America. His 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan has some 300,000 miles on it. The van’s been battered and busted, it’s sloshed through the kind of deep mud puddles you only see in car commercials, and has a shattered side mirror. But it’s clean, well-maintained, and Dean only smokes at gas stops. Between this van and his previous chase vehicle, he figures he’s driven 700,000 miles since he started as a guide. He’d been thinking of springing for a new rig.
Mike rode shotgun. A Lenovo computer was mounted to the passenger-side dashboard and a monitor to the back of its seat, so I could see what they were looking at. After Mike pulled up RadarScope, a weather app used by everyone from meteorologists to emergency responders, he and Dean started chatting about base reflectivity, super-res velocity, something called CAPE, and rear-flank downdraft. Dean eyed me in the rearview mirror, saying, “You’re gonna hear a lot of verbiage. You’re not gonna understand it, but I’ll keep yakking until you do.”
“It’s a good chase day,” he told us. “There’s a mess of convection near Gotebo, so we’re busting south.” We hauled out of Tulsa and soon passed Oklahoma City. “We’re going to play the dry line”—a separation between the warm, humid air from the Gulf and the hot, dry air from the desert Southwest—“and go for broke.” In other words, a flurry of movement driven by a rising air mass was a promising enough indicator for a superstorm that Dean felt the three-hour drive to Gotebo was worth it.
A few hours later, a mass of red dots appeared on the monitor. “Those are other chasers,” Mike explained.
“And those are just the guys with their beacons on,” Dean added. “For every dot you see, there are probably five to ten other guys like me who’ve turned their icons off.” If you click on a dot, the chaser’s name and phone number pops up. Since Dean’s a professional stormchaser, if his icon is on, chasers will start chasing him, like bikers drafting off the lead cyclist during the Tour de France.
Anyone can call themselves a chaser. There’s no licensing or certification required, just enough gall to get close to a storm and enough brains to know when to retreat. Equipment helps, but having a cell phone with a couple of apps like Dark Sky and RadarScope and tuning into the NOAA Weather Radio station will do. Stormchasing started catching on after the movie Twister came out in 1996. (Dean hated it. “Nobody—nobody—drives through a cornfield,” he said. “They just don’t.”) Spurred by its success, a handful of stormchaser shows further helped capture people’s imaginations, while the development of new technology, such as GPS units made for civilian use, made it possible for others to do it themselves. Since then it’s not only become a popular pastime among meteorologists, researchers, and photographers but adrenaline junkies who treat it as an obsessive quest, on a par with eclipse chasers and high pointers. According to Dean, the addiction is very real—77 percent of his guests are repeat customers.
Dean’s safety and expertise are among the reasons many chasers return to chase with him rather than attempt to head out on their own. And those are good reasons when it comes to this activity—according to the Congressional Research Service, tornadoes are one of the main causes of property destruction in the U.S., second only to hurricanes, which also wreak significant havoc, as we recently witnessed when Hurricane Laura made landfall. Despite this, records of stormchasing incidents show that weather-related fatalities are low compared to the risk posed by other chasers. In 2019, the community website Stormtrack reported that 12 of the 15 known stormchasing-related deaths were the result of car collisions.
We pulled off at a Kum and Go gas station to fill up the tank. Road rule: pee at every stop. Mike recalled how his best tornado video was ruined by someone chanting, “I’ve gotta pee,” like a mantra. Fortunately, I have a capacious bladder, but Dean keeps a roll of toilet paper in his glove box, just in case.
Back in the car, Dean was refining our target area near Gotebo, checking RadarScope and the real-time Doppler radar, which tracks the location and velocity of storms, and referring to GRLevelX, a data-processing and display program. His cell phone pinged with text messages from chaser friends in the area. By midafternoon, the National Weather Service had issued a severe weather warning on NOAA Weather Radio, and our area on the RadarScope screen was then boxed in yellow, indicating heightened weather activity.
The sky was dark and getting darker.
“We’re in a multicellular complex,” Dean said. “We’re banking on finding an isolated cell. A tail-end Charlie. You see where I’m going with this?” I got the cell part—the event contained many air masses that were drafting up and down in convective loops, producing force and fighting for dominance, and we needed to find an isolated cell, which has a higher chance of producing tornados because it’s less likely to be tempered by the force of others—but I wasn’t so sure about Charlie. Dean explained that this is slang for the southernmost part of a squall line that can produce the highest severe weather because it will usually deviate from the main cell cluster.
At 5:25 P.M., the county sent out a “tornado warned” signal. A red line supplanted the yellow one on the RadarScope screen.
We passed through a residential neighborhood in Carnegie, a rural town near the southwest corner of the state. Despite the tornado warning, people were gathered under porch awnings, and couples stood under umbrellas holding hands as if watching a sunset. There were guys—meteorologists, reporters—broadcasting in the rain, hoods flapping around their heads like sails, cameramen inches from their faces. We soon passed a dual-pole Doppler radar truck, which sends both horizontal and vertical electromagnetic waves that help determine if a tornado is on the ground (among other things), and an ambulance with the Red Cross symbol on it. Everyone was shooting video. Everyone was staring at the sky. The air was heavy with expectation.
When we reached Mountain View, Oklahoma, the road was clogged with chasers in their pickups. “It’s a chaser convergence,” said Dean. “The last place you want to be when you’re around a tornado is in a chaser traffic jam.”
“Why isn’t everybody inside?” I asked.
“It’s Tornado Alley,” Dean said. “It is what it is.”
Mike added, “We’re out here, aren’t we.”
Ten minutes later, we pulled onto a dirt road and watched as a black wall of clouds descended over a field, about an eighth of a mile away. Half the sky was day bright; the other half, night. Dean pointed out a small, midlevel funnel and some rapid rotation at its cloud base. Reddish-brown dirt was whirling in the distance.
“That’s an EF-1,” Dean guessed. EF refers to the Enhanced Fujita scale, which doesn’t rate a tornado by wind speed but by the extent of damage it produces. Forget Hollywood: most tornadoes—over 77 percent of them—are EF-1 or lower, moving at 86 to 110 miles per hour and strong enough to tear the shingles off a roof but not shear a house off its foundation.
I was soon standing in a field, camera in hand, looking for a funnel—that entrail from hell that sucks up tractor trailers and Helen Hunt’s father. “It’s a rain-wrapped tornado,” Dean said. “The funnel’s behind the curtain of rain. You don’t want to be driving into one of these thinking you’re just going through a storm.”
I’m thrown off by this rain-wrapped thing. It looked like a typical storm, but I could sense an unusual power behind it. And not seeing the funnel made it easier to stand there than if there were a torquing tube coming right for me. Not that that’s going to happen—because Dean’s no hotdogger. He’ll get you close to a tornado, but he won’t kill you.
Funnel or no funnel, it was a behemoth.
We watched as the black rainstorm dissipated, revealing the object of our search behind it. “There’s our tornado,” Dean said, referring to the fact that a tornado is only a tornado once it hits the ground. The whole time Mike and I stood there taking pictures, Dean was watching the RadarScope app on his cell phone. The tornado was moving closer. “Gotta go,” he said. “Now.” We piled into the van and hightailed it out of there, Dean keeping one eye on the app and the other on his rearview mirror as he removed us from its range.
By the time we’d had dinner and set out to find a place to spend the night, the motels around El Reno, northeast of where we’d spotted the tornado, were full, thanks to the chaser convergence. During peak season in Oklahoma, storms can attract a couple thousand chasers. We finally found lodging outside Oklahoma City. “Just so you know,” Dean remarked as we were saying goodnight, “seeing a tornado on your first chase day just doesn’t happen.”
He’s right. The odds of seeing a tornado—on any day of a tour—are slim. Stormchasing companies all post the same disclaimer: severe weather not guaranteed. One chaser drove up and down the Great Plains for four years before spotting his first. On the other hand, one of Dean’s tours came across five tornadoes in one day as the group crisscrossed the Four Corners states.
The next morning, I ate my cereal staring at the back of a WeatherNation TV stormchaser pickup in the parking lot. Four cups of coffee later, Mike and Dean came down, and we got to planning. Mike was paying by the day so he could opt out if there was no weather. Which is what he decided to do after he and Dean pored over the forecasts. It was a “blue-sky bust,” said Dean—no chaseable weather in the plains. Mike scrambled to hop the first flight back to San Antonio.
The tour was suddenly just Dean and me. I got to sit up front. I only hoped he wasn’t going to ask me to interpret radar images or find escape routes on Google maps. He soon decided that we should leave Oklahoma City for Springfield, Missouri, to get in a position for possible weather in the next day or two. On the 200-plus-mile drive, Dean talked about the time he drove a chase group 600 miles from Denver to Hobbs, New Mexico. Shots were poured each time they saw a tornado. Better yet, tattoos were inked. Dean rolled up the sleeve of his T-shirt and showed me a dark blue twister on his biceps.
I noticed a couple of bright orange cones in the back of the car. “What are those weird things?” I asked. “They’re probes,” Dean said. “I’m trying to determine the signature frequencies of the sound a tornado makes.” I told him I’d heard tornadoes sounded like a locomotive roaring toward you. “Not those sounds,” Dean clarified, “infrasonic sounds, the sounds tornadoes make that the human ear can’t hear.” Turns out, beneath the camo cap and “Show Me or Blow Me” T-shirt, Dean is a serious tornado researcher who’d founded his own tornado field-research company, Pacritex, in 2007. The tours pay for research, which he publishes pro bono. Support from Microsoft doesn’t hurt, either.
The following day, we’re skunked by the weather again. “Mother Nature is a fickle bitch,” Dean said. “The cold front shut us down. We need to wait for the atmosphere to re-destabilize again—get some shear, get some lift, some stuff to create a supercell to kick out a couple of tornadic thunderstorms.”
What do chasers do when there’s no weather? Field-trip. We hit the road for historic Ozark City in southwestern Missouri, grabbing a bite to eat at some joint claiming to serve the world’s best grilled-cheese sandwich. (It wasn’t bad—they just threw in some avocado; the potato salad, however, was awesome.) The day after, I yanked open the motel shades to beautiful blue skies. Dean was dejected. Time for another field trip. The choice was between the Ozark town of Branson, Missouri, home of the Silver Dollar City roller coaster and the Dolly Parton Stampede, or Springfield and the Bass Pro Shop’s Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. We chose penguins over Parton. When we stopped for gas at yet another truck stop, a few customers came over to gawk at Dean’s tricked-out van with its ham-radio antenna, roof-mounted weather vane, onboard computer, and Good Morning America ID dangling from the rearview mirror. “You a chaser?” a guy asked.
Dean gets this all the time. Like, all the time.
Most of the time he’s patient and polite, “Yes, sir. We’ve been out in the western part of the state chasing a supercell storm.” But on a bad day, when the questions keep coming (“What’s that thing on top of your car?”), he might say, “It’s a dickfer.”
“What’s a dickfer?”
Today is not a bad day. At least not that bad.
The next day, the sky is dark outside my window. At breakfast Dean texts me a screenshot from the Storm Prediction Center showing a marginal risk for severe weather near Asbury, Missouri, 80 miles west of Springfield. He tells me he was up until 2 A.M. running a forecast and passes me a hand-drawn diagram of our play for the day. It’s a swarm of blue and green markers, with curving isotherms and notations scribbled all over the page: CT=74°, LCL 1,500 m, LCF, CAPE 500-600 J/kg. He then starts talking about LEWP, ASO, CAMS, and HRRR, acronyms that sounded as if somebody had kicked over a set of alphabet blocks. After making his own predictions, Dean checked in with the National Severe Storms Laboratory (part of the National Weather Center) in Norman, Oklahoma—the epicenter of severe-weather research—to see what the “the Ph.D.’s are saying.”
Despite the slight risk, Dean tells me that the day’s readings have the best potential for severe weather on the plains. “So we’re golden,” he said. Our target area was west of Springfield, past Joplin, the site of the deadly EF-5 tornado that ripped through the city and killed 158 people in 2011. When we got there, Dean showed me the scorched earth marks—places where the tornado yanked the soil out of the ground—and the debarked trees.
“Weather needs time to unfold. Things need to happen,” Dean said. “Six P.M. is the magic hour.” By the afternoon, the temperature had dropped from 84 to 59 degrees. We had moved to Pittsburg, Missouri, just northwest of Asbury. It started to rain hard. The closer we got to the supercell storm, the less Dean needed to look at radar and models. “We’re sight chasing,” he said—relying more on experience, observation, “and your gut.” Pretty soon we lost cellular service. Dean’s text pings were silenced, the RadarScope image frozen. “Now,” he said, “we’re blind chasing.” After a minute, we hit the hail.
At 6:45 P.M., the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning on NOAA Weather Radio. “Hell, yeah,” said Dean, giving me a fist bump. “We went from a 2 percent chance of severe weather to quarter-size hail.” He jumped out of the car, shot some video, and uploaded it to the ABC server for Good Morning America. For about an hour, we watched Mother Nature in her drama-queen mode—epic lightning, ear-splitting thunder, and pummeling hail. “Anytime weather becomes a nuisance,” he said, “it’s newsworthy.”
Then, suddenly, it got quiet. The storm had collapsed, the weather morphed from monster to mouse. It left as fast as it came, leaving me wanting more but exhilarated that we’d caught one with a mere 2 percent chance.
On the last day of my trip, Dean picked me up and drove me from Springfield back to Tulsa so I could catch a flight home. The whole time he was gabbing about the weather prospects for his upcoming Mayhem 2 tour, I was wondering what the protocol was for saying goodbye to someone you just spent five days in a car with alone. The term “intimate stranger” came to mind, but I didn’t know if it was really apt or the name of some movie. When we arrived, I thanked Dean for the great experience and reached out to shake his hand. He grabbed it, yanked me toward him, and gave me a bear hug with a hearty back pat.
As I watched Tulsa become a patchwork of fields, something Dean said popped into my head: “Once you see your first tornado, it’s the best drug you’re ever gonna have. And that’s your fix. You’ll do anything to get it, and you’ll do it over and over.”
You see where I’m going with this?
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.