ETT2009 / Extreme Tornado Tours 2009
Denise and I were hooked on the Storm Chasers series on the Discovery Channel during the fall of 2008. During those shows, I remarked that storm chasing was one of those "bucket list" items for me — one of those things I'd like to do before I "kick the bucket" (terminology I had taken from commercials for the 2007 movie The Bucket List, I haven't seen the movie so this is not a recommendation).
I did a little online digging into storm chasing tours, including Extreme Tornado Tours, which are affiliated with TornadoVideos.net, one of the storm chasing teams featured on Storm Chasers. However, I wasn't too keen on spending money on a solo vacation. Although Denise was fascinated by the show, she had no desire to intentionally get anywhere near a tornado, and even less desire to spend the hours of riding around that such a tour would involve. So, I thought no more of it.
Then, on December 17, my wife gave me this home-made multi-page card:
The next two pages was the 2009 schedule printed from the Extreme Tornado Tours website.
Because of the cost and the time away from the family, I was still hesitant to actually go through with it. But, Denise seemed to sincerely want me to follow that dream. So, I did a lot more serious digging into the various tour companies, and finally decided to go for it! In late December I signed up for a 10 day "North Country Magic" tour on 12–21 May with Extreme Tornado Tours.
Although a big factor in my decision was ETT's affiliation with TornadoVideos.net, the deciding factor was that the base city (where I had to travel to meet up with the tour) was Kansas City, Missouri. The other tours' base cities were farther west, in Oklahoma, Kansas, or Colorado. I could handle the drive to Kansas City, and, more importantly, visit loved ones in Missouri: Aunt Connie in Centralia, and Aunt Bettie in Kansas City (whom I hadn't seen for well over a decade).
Preparing to chase storms
My hope was to take lots of pictures on the tour. Even if we didn't see a tornado, I was looking forward to watching picturesque thunderstorms marching across the plains. So, I bought a spare battery for my camera and a large capacity (8GB) memory card.
I also wanted to be able to measure wind speeds, hopefully within the inflow of a tornado, but at least within any downbursts or gust fronts we might encounter. After some online research of reasonably priced hand-held anemometers, I decided to get the Windtronic 2, assembled in Germany by Kaindl Electronics. This was the only (reasonably priced) hand-held anemometer I found which uses spinning cups rather than a turbine — in order to get an accurate speed measurement, you must point a turbine anemometer in the exact direction of the wind (a difficult thing to do accurately, even if the wind happens to be steadily in one direction); with a spinning cup anemometer it does not matter what direction you point it. Once I received my Windtronic, I held it out the window while driving down the interstate on a calm day to ensure that it was reasonably accurate at higher speeds.
Denise ordered me a nice rain coat from Land's End, since my lightweight jackets are, at best, only water resistant. I made good use of that rain coat on several occasions during the trip (while others just got wet), and it has proven useful even when not storm chasing.
The North Country Magic tours sometimes head into Canada to chase storms, so ETT's website recommended that tour guests have an up-to-date passport to facilitate re-entry into the US. I thought mid-May would probably be a bit too early for tornadoes that far north; but, I wanted to be prepared. So, for the first time in my life, I now have a passport.
ETT also mentioned on their website that, during a chase, there would be little chance to stop for food. There would normally be adequate time for breakfast and lunch, but suppers would usually have to wait until late at night since most severe thunderstorms and tornadoes occur from late afternoon to late evening. So, I stocked up on four boxes of South Beach Living High Protein Cereal Bars, a big 56oz. bag of Dark Chocolate M&M Peanuts, and a supply of sesame sticks.
The trip to Kansas City
Tour Overview and Highlights
Fellow storm chasers
According to their website, ETT normally has two meteorologists guide each tour — one to drive, the other to navigate (both keeping track of the weather to see where to go and to make spur-of-the-moment decisions on which roads to take). Since there were only three guests on our tour, ETT provided only one meteorologist to guide us: Dave Holder, an undergraduate meteorology student at Oklahoma University. Unfortunately, Dave was unable to get one of his final exams rescheduled, so he had to leave us for a couple of days and while he was gone we were guided by Matt Van Every, a graduate of OU in meteorology who is currently self-employed (in order to be able to chase more often). After spending a couple of days with us (and having some intense tornado chasing moments, as I'll describe later), Matt decided to voluntarily stay with us; so he and Dave shared guide duties for the remaining seven days of our tour.
Overview of the tour
During the ten day tour, we had four days of storm chasing and one day of damage survey. We had four days of sightseeing and repositioning, and one day in Kansas City dealing with Best Buy over computer issues (fortunately, that did not cause us to miss any weather).
We came within a quarter mile of one tornado on two occasions: once near its onset where it was approaching EF1 intensity, and then about 15 minutes later and 9.75 miles to the east as it was beginning to wind down from its peak EF3 intensity. Both times the tornado was heavily rain wrapped. This was the Kirksville, MO, tornado on 13 May.
In southwestern Nebraska, at the base of Courthouse Rock along the Oregon Trail, we experienced a 45 minute downburst with average wind speeds over 50 mph. There were several instances of hurricane force (>74 mph) winds for at least a minute, including one 15 second gust over 80 mph with an instantaneous gust of 91 mph (I'm glad I got that new hand-held anemometer!). A film crew for The Weather Channel's Storm Stories series was with us during that downburst, and hopefully in January 2010 you can watch us trying to stand up against those winds during the planned episode of Storm Stories featuring our tour.
We got to spend two days with Reed Timmer and Chris Chittick of TornadoVideos.net, following their new Storm Research Vehicle (SRV) and a Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers film crew (the day of the Kirksville Tornado and the day after). We met up with Sean Casey and the TIV along the road in OK. We saw numerous vehicles from Vortex2 as we chased non-severe storms in NE. And (as already mentioned) we spent two days with a film crew for TWC's Storm Stories.
During the ten day tour, we covered at least 3886 miles and spent about 70 hours in the van, not counting any stops of longer than 3 minutes; with stops, we spent nearly 118 hours traveling from one motel to the next during those ten days.
I had a GPS tracking key with me during the trip to record everywhere we went. I used a home-made program to convert the GPS tracks into KML files (that can be loaded in Google Earth / Maps). This animation was creating using screen captures from Google Earth showing the complete 10 day track and the track for each day.
Photo gallery and trip journal for my Extreme Tornado Tours "North Country Magic" tour, 12 – 21 May 2009.
NOTE: I have three photo albums on my Facebook page that you can peruse until I get my photo gallery / trip journal done here:
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, 1990