In the Belly of the Beast: Tornado Chasers

"From here, I can coordinate our radar, tell the antenna where to spin, and look at the data, see the tornado on the screen, see where it is, which way it's going, critically how strong the winds are," said Wurman.

Caught in the Twister

Storm chasing is not always exciting. Most of the time, their team — which includes drivers, navigators, and meteorologists — is sitting around at truck stops waiting for storms to develop or driving for hours to intercept them.

Rarely does a twister chase them, but that's exactly what happened May 10 when the team pulled into the small Arkansas town of Stuttgart.

"When we go through a town, a lot of the equipment gets blinded because we can't scan through buildings," said Wurman. "Unfortunately on May 10, the tornado formed right behind us, right when we were blinded."

Wurman quickly radioed the other vehicles warning them of the fast-approaching twister, which was barreling toward them at 55 mph. Unprepared, the team decided to flee.

"We're racing east to get away from this black mass that I'm seeing as I'm looking out the turret," said Casey. "And I'm just telling the driver to go faster, go faster."

Slowed by the driving rain and howling winds, Casey realized he couldn't outrun the speedy tornado.

"So I'm yelling stop, deploy, drop the claws, and just as the claws go down, you hear that wind catching up," said Casey. "And I'm looking at that tornado moving to the south of us, and it's formed into these two black vortices wrapped around each other doing this dance. God, it was like the movie 'Twister.'"

The tornado had passed directly overhead, but because it was evening, it was too dark to film, a problem Casey has encountered with several other twisters.

"If the Stuttgart tornado had happened two hours earlier, I would have gotten my shot, my shot of all shots," said Casey.

But his disappointment was tempered by the destruction in Stuttgart. Neighborhoods were badly-damaged, lives turned upside down. In these moments, the thrill of the chase is replaced by sober reflection.

Last spring, the team got a firsthand look at the devastation in Greensburg, Kansas, after the massive tornado they were chasing left the town in ruins and killed several people.

"I don't even have a desire to film these types of tornadoes," said Casey after viewing the destruction.

For Wurman, seeing a storm's deadly aftermath crystallizes his mission.

"If we could predict violent tornadoes better, we could probably reduce the fatalities to almost zero," said Wurman. "If we could understand which thunderstorms can produce violent tornadoes well ahead of time, half and hour to an hour ahead of time, we could give warnings with much more lead time."

So on with the chase.

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