May 31, 2013— -- When a violent storm ripped across Oklahoma and leveled the town of Moore with a devastating EF-5 tornado, one group of storm watchers was not ducking for cover.
They were taking pictures.
Tornado tourists, brought by the vanload to the central plains during high tornado season, skirt the perimeter of storms as they gather and wait, cameras in hand, for funnel clouds to form and touch down.
"It's almost a spiritual thing. They want to come out, feel Mother Nature, see it, be educated, and with that education they can go home, hear a tornado warning or watch and know the difference," said Lanny Dean, owner of Extreme Chase Tours.
"As long as you know what to do, you're out there observing it from a distance, from a mile or as close as a quarter of a mile away, and we have a pretty good idea of the path it's taking, so we don't put ourselves at risk, said Charles Edwards, owner of Cloud 9 Tours, which, according to Edwards, is the longest-operating tornado chasing tour around.
This year, as storms have wreaked havoc in such cities as Moore, operators have had to balance their business demands with those of residents suffering the devastation.
"It's very tough," Dean said. "On the one hand you're excited, elated, to see the tornado, and you're able to get your guests what they have paid good money to see," he said. "When you have something like Moore, it's tough. When it does damage or it kills somebody, it's a double-edged sword. ... You can ask anybody in the chasing industry."
Dean said that he and other chasers were determined to help and send out warnings and reports to the National Weather Service as they see a storm gathering, helping to get tornado warnings and watches to civilians at home, who can then take cover.
They also help with the recovery, as Dean did in Moore, where friends of his had died in the storm.
"We were right there and tried to help and assist, you know, 'Hey, where do you need us,' not the guests, just myself and [the other tour guide]. It's unfortunate that guests see the damage, but you can't stop Mother Nature."
Dean fights off criticism that he capitalizes off destruction, saying he's just there to witness what would happen naturally, whether he were there or not.
"What I'm capitalizing off is Mother Nature, whether she is good or bad," he said.
The tornado tourism industry began in the 1990s, after the movie "Twister" was released and drew interest in storm chasing, Dean said.
After that a string of television shows and documentaries about tornadoes and their ardent trackers drummed up continued interest.
"Interest has exploded," Dean said. "Reality-type TV shows and documentaries put storm chasing on the map. That's why people are doing this. They didn't know you could do this, that you could go see serious weather, before those. This is about Mother Nature."
While the industry has grown, so have the tornadoes, the tour guides said. The past decade has seen an increase in severity of tornadic storms, with records set in the highest number of tornadoes in one month and one day, and the largest tornado ever recorded (2.5 miles wide, in Nebraska in 2004), according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We travel a lot more distance than we used to," Edwards said, noting the changes in tornadic activity over the past decade. "There's a lot of activity farther north that we didn't see in the early days of chasing. In the '90s we would stick right around Oklahoma, Kansas, maybe Nebraska. Now we've been as far up as North Dakota."
Edwards also said that he used to see EF-5 tornadoes, the most severe type as rated by NOAA, once every 10 years or so.
"Now it's every year," he said.
The trips cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3,200 per person, and companies run tours from April through August, operators told ABC News.
Depending on the tour company, a group of six to 30 people flies to the Midwest, meets with the tour guide, and spends the rest of the trip in a van on the road or in roadside motels, eating fast food as they chase gathering storm systems across state lines, and occasionally celebrating when they catch sight of a twister.
"Typically, we have a tradition where if you've seen a tornado you've earned the right to eat a steak.Yesterday we saw a good one and sat down to a nice steak dinner," Edwards said.
Rocco Fredella, who lives on New York's Long Island, attended Dean's tour the week of May 26. The tour was a high school graduation gift for his teenage son.
"This has been so far a great trip. We have great people with us, and we're not only looking for obviously a tornado but learning the process, the meteorology of it. They do such a good job of informing you, and teaching you what you're seeing as you go," Fredella said. "This is reality."
Fredella said that he and his group never felt nervous about edging so close to a deadly tornado; they felt safe with their tour operators, who kept them a fair distance from the funnel clouds and away from the direction in which the storm was moving.
"It's money well spent. If the weather just didn't work out, it's still money well spend. It's exciting and informative and hands-on," he said.