Chasing the storm5/15/2013
It was a phenomenon that defines irony: A town was put on the map for being all but wiped clean of it. It was five years ago, almost to the day, that Iowa made national headlines when the town of Parkersburg was ravaged by an EF5 tornado. It was an otherwise quiet Sunday on May 25, 2008. The day a town came down. Everything seemed normal, except for the stirring sky.
“It was really, really crazy out… a kind of icky-looking gray,” Tom Teeple told ABC national news a few weeks later. “Nothing was moving the whole day, and it was just like you were outside and sitting with a wool blanket over you. It was just that kind of gray.
“Little did I know that in less than an hour and a half, we’d have nothing.”
The tornado rolled in like a freight train, he said. The house shook like an atom, over-stimulated, about to burst; the roof began vibrating, the nails and nuts and bolts pulling from the rafters, splintering the wood frame.
“I was holding on to these [handrails] like Superman. I literally was. I mean, I was off the ground. And it was sucking me back to the east,” Tom remembered.
“All I could do was pray to God to help keep us in His hands, to hold everybody in His hands,” Tom’s wife Sue said, as she remembered the feeling of her husband’s body wrapped over hers like a protective shell, and in one sudden swoop, it floated away with an aggressive sucking gust, leaving her exposed and clinging to walls and floor.
The Teeples’ home was one of more than 250 leveled that day. Gone. It’s the kind of experience that can make a non-believer believe and a believer start to question. And such are the experiences that lead child survivors to grow up to be storm chasers, forever fascinated by the awesome power and science and mystery behind it, the natural phenomenon.
“I have been a fan of storms since I was a little boy growing up in Michigan,” said Jeff Jackson, a member of the Tornado Junkies Chase Team out of Bondurant. “My earliest storms I remember were of fleeing a tornado in the back of a pick-up truck when visiting family in Alabama. My dad told us he saw the tornado coming and to hit the basement while my sister and I ran outside instead to go see it. We were standing underneath the sky with my mom in our yard as the whole thing rotated around us.”
That’s what makes him, and the rest of his team, “junkies” — the kind of guys who run toward the danger instead of taking cover like most common-sense creatures.
“This, along with the movie ‘Twister’ — like every other weather enthusiast — led me to start to study meteorology to better understand the science behind severe weather,” Jackson said.
Jackson is finishing up his degree in meteorology, graduating just days from this story hitting newsstands, and he became a certified Skywarn Spotter last year. As part of his education — and his personal fascination — he has spent the last three years chasing storms, searching for the next twister to rotate around him.
“I can’t wait to combine my chase experience with my weather knowledge,” Jackson said. “I chase not just for the thrill but for the knowledge of storms with the goal of keeping others safe using social media, the Skywarn Spotter System and the National Weather Service reports.”
The Tornado Junkies aren’t the only team of storm chasers who spend a good portion of their lives, time and money speeding toward, rather than away from, the twisting tumultuous sky. Ben McMilllan, a longtime member of the Iowa Storm Chasing Network, has become old hat at this and is gaining national attention as the man on the ground at scenes like the one in Parkersburg.
“Parkersburg? I never wanna see that again,” McMillan admitted. “I saw that tornado coming, and I called it in on the HAM radio net. I was southwest of Aplington, and everybody worked together in the warning process.
“We lost some life that day, but I just can’t take that too personally. We did our job. We did all we could do.”
The goal of McMillan and the rest of the storm chasers, followers and reporters, is to increase the warning time for people in harm’s way, give them more time to prepare. With current weather-mapping technology, meteorologists and storm chasers are able to work together to give people in danger of a pending tornado an average of about three minutes to take cover. To the young and spry, three minutes seems like plenty of time. But what about to the disabled? Folks like Sue Teeple of Parkersburg who reportedly battles with multiple sclerosis and is dependent on a walker? What about a farm family with eight children of various ages who spend their day spread out across several acres of land? Three minutes ticks by in a frantic blink, and the impending doom is at the door in a breath.
“With a tornado, three minutes could mean everything,” McMillan said. “I got into this for the public safety aspect. I’m not a meteorologist, but the science part really does interest me. The weather is an un-mastered science. It’s one of the few sciences left filled with unknown mysteries.
“I love weather. I have a passion for it — for being out in the elements showing people the danger. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least somewhat about the adrenaline and fun of it, but once you’re out there, you realize what you’re doing is providing a really important service.”
Much like it has for his peers, storm-chasing has become a key presence in McMillan’s life. He drives more than 15,000 miles a year in his Ford SUV travelling up and down and in and out of “tornado alley,” predicting weather patterns, chasing writhing winds.
In 2007 the radar led him to Mankato, Minn., where a violent tornado came ripping through an old farmhouse. McMillan and his partner in the field were dodging limbs and debris on the roadway when they saw the remnants of a farm that had just been ravaged — the house left looking like crushed skeletal remains.
“We immediately stopped, because no matter what, we always stop when we see a house has been hit to make sure everyone’s OK and see if people need assistance,” McMillan recalled. “A lady comes up from the basement and gives me a huge hug. I was the first person she saw. I was able to be there for her, reassure her it’s gonna be OK. I’ll never forget that.”
TORNADO INTERCEPT VEHICLES
McMillan’s latest travel companion has been Iowa State University meteorology student Zach Sharpe. They suit up and head out into the nearest mess they can find in McMillan’s four-wheel-drive that he bought brand new in January.
“We’re basically major science nerds, sitting around looking at computer models, waiting for big storms to start up,” Sharpe admitted.
As a public safety officer for Mercy Medical Center and a certified EMT, not only is McMillan’s truck equipped with standard safety gear, but it also includes the latest gadgets a storm chaser needs to track, measure, interpret and photograph a tornado and then communicate those findings to partnering agencies such as the National Weather Services and local news stations.
“We partner with Ben quite a bit all year round,” said KCCI weather technology coordinator and weathercaster Frank Scaglione. “A lot of our live reports use Ben’s equipment, for both traffic reports and weather.”
Following the trail blazed by McMillan are the Tornado Junkies. They’ve been working feverishly for months building a “tornado intercept vehicle” (TIV) in a modest shop in Bondurant. It’s slated to be up and running sometime during this tornado season (late June). Jackson partnered with Dan Auel, who is also graduating this month with a degree in automotive collision technology. Combine that skill with a flair for weather photography and a meteorologist for a partner, and Iowa’s only TIV is born. And they named her Dorothy.
“I am amazed at how nature can produce something so small and detailed like a snowflake, or so large and organized like a supercell thunderstorm. I have decided to pursue my passion for weather and apply my knowledge of vehicles to create a tornado intercept vehicle,” Auel explained. “By doing so, our team will be able to not only document our experience to share with other severe weather fans but will also allow us to get even closer to severe weather and obtain photographs and videos, which will aid in the knowledge of these storms. We are hoping that this project will help us to pursue our dreams of getting close to severe weather and also to better the public’s knowledge of storms.”
But building a tornado intercept vehicle is about as simple as it sounds — it’s not. For one, there are only a few in existence, which means Auel and Jackson, and a third partner, Brennan Jontz, had to start almost from scratch. The original vehicle didn’t have a functioning motor, but once they were able to get a new vehicle with a working motor and transfer the TIV body, they were able then to turn their focus toward making the vehicle as sturdy and safe as possible. Using an online Kickstarter campaign, they raised more than $5,400, just passing their funding goal.
“Parking inside a tornado will be very dangerous, but we are hoping that with the funds people helped provide, we will be able to purchase instruments to measure the full force of a tornado and raise the knowledge of these devastating natural disasters,” Auel said.
“All we have left to do is install the three-quarter-inch polycarbonate windows, and the hydraulic system and send it in for paint.”
Like McMillan’s vehicle, the TIV will be equipped with computers, radios, cameras and radar devices in order to better aid the Iowa Storm Chasing Network, affiliated weather reporting agencies and hopefully the general public.
“In Iowa, so far, we’ve been lucky not to have many killer tornados,” McMillan said. “We’re very fortunate, but we always need to be prepared. We do live in ‘tornado alley.’ Where those big events occurred and lives were lost, most of them didn’t have live radar technology.”
And if you ask the team at KCCI, that radar technology is crucial to saving lives.
North of Ankeny, towering over the small village of Alleman, is the Super Doppler radar field occupied by KCCI and WHO Channel 13 weather towers. The two Doppler towers stand only yards away from each other and each with radar that spans most of the state, Scaglione said.
“The dual-pole (polarization) is currently in the process of being installed, which scans both horizontally and vertically. It will be like going from 2D to 3D; it adds dimension,” Scaglione explained. “It’s a lot more detailed radar and will make it a lot easier to detect a tornado, and while having that added technology is great, it doesn’t underrate the value of having our storm spotters on the ground to visually confirm the readings. That’s why the storm spotters are so important.”
Currently the storm chasers — unless they’re employed by the station like Scaglione — provide their time, equipment, expertise and services for free. The reward comes in other forms. For students like Sharpe, “it’s a nice hands-on experience,” but it’s also genuinely about saving lives. With a background and a career in public safety, McMillan sees it as a way to mix two passions, two callings.
“A tornado in an open field is a beautiful and majestic site,” he said. “That’s what I enjoy seeing — a tornado tearing up a field with nothing in sight.”
That respect is shared by all involved, from the auto collision repairman in Bondurant to the local weather team’s chief meteorologist. But even more than that, it’s about “increasing the warning time,” as Scaglione asserts.
“I’m just one life. If I can save 500 lives, and I’m just one, well…” Zach began. “Cops have crime, firefighters have fire — everybody has their niche.
“Meteorologists in Iowa have tornados.” CV
Check out more of Ben McMillan’s adventures at www.youtube.com/user/StormtrackerBen.