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.