This Is What It's Like to Step Into the Middle of a Tornado

In order to understand how something falls apart, you have to learn how it is put together.
September 20, 2016

Scott Peake looked out over the gentle swell and fall of the southern Oklahoma hills to the west, and the breath caught in his ribs.

Past the oak-seamed draws and windbreaks, less than half a mile out, he spotted a man he knew. He watched him through the storm’s early dusk, and he wondered, When are you going to move, Tim?

Shortly before 5 p.m. on May 9, Peake, 30, threw his sedan into reverse and began slowly backing away, for safety and for a clearer view on higher ground. The video camera suction-cupped to the windshield, however, kept its gaze fixed. He’s setting pods down,” Peake stammered. He’s setting pods!”

The Storm Hunt
©RYAN MCGINNIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

This is what Peake saw: a silver Dodge pickup parked on a rise at the edge of a narrow dirt road, its doors flung wide, and two other tiny figures scrambling. A metal proboscis projecting from the front bumper some 14 feet into the air. A red light flashing from atop the camper shell. The oak and elm on either side of the road tossing in the wind, their canopies rippling wavelike. Slate bands of rain seeming not so much to fall to earth as to skim across the treetops overhead like a particulate river.

Peake backed up farther, until the truck’s pale headlights dwindled to two faint points. In the spreading shadow on the horizon, a mile in width if it was a foot, there was something heartbreaking about the frailty of those lights and the men near them. Experience had taught Peake that the tornado was closing in. The really big ones were like mountains that way: so enormous that as you drive toward them they seem to hover in place. But the tornado is always moving.

As it widened, it began to consume the narrow strip of prairie separating the figures from the place where the horizon disappeared. Peake was safe, but he could instinctually feel the margin for his friend’s escape closing with each passing second. He had known this man for years and considered him a mentor. The man taught him how to forecast storms and how to chase. And as he watched him stand his ground at the foot of the beast itself, Peake felt a conflicted mixture of worry and awe.

Related: Afraid of Risks? How to Be Bolder

Tim’s… Tim’s in it. Tim Marshall is about to get… Oh, my gosh.”

Peake zoomed back in and found the figures ducking through a gloom of atomized rain. The camera caught glimpses of waves propagating along the tornado’s flanks, and from this angle it looked as though Marshall could have reached out and touched them. Wow! Look how close he is,” Peake gasped. He’s a boss. He is a baller. He is… he’s….” He went silent. Stinging, wind-driven rain began to slap at his own windshield, and he knew then that it was time to leave. He wheeled the sedan around, casting one final glance back at Marshall. The headlights shining through the dark slipped from his view—and were gone.

***

Apart from the unfortunate souls who find themselves living in a town on the wrong side of long odds, everyone else has to go looking for tornadoes. A storm chaser has to read surface observations like a map; predict where something may happen and be there when it does; study the clouds when the magic hour finally arrives; and find not just any storm, but the right storm. A storm chaser must be willing to drive hundreds, if not thousands, of miles across a landscape characterized by unadorned monotony, if only for a few moments of the sublime.

Most twisters they confront will be weak, ephemeral disturbances. But every once in a while, the winds and the latent energy in the sky come into terrible alignment. Among chasers, the hallowed ground where this occurs becomes a tacitly understood shorthand. Greensburg, Kansas. Jarrell, Texas. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma. Nothing else need be said.

The 1996 blockbuster film Twister delivered a glimpse of this world. During its overstuffed vision of somersaulting farm equipment and flying cattle, a plucky team of scientists and chasers attempts to insert Dorothy, a barrel-shaped instrument package, into the core of a violent tornado. At the climax, she is finally delivered to her quarry in the bed of a driverless cherry-red Dodge pickup. Meanwhile, the protagonists, Bill and Jo, anchor themselves to a pipe with a leather belt. As the heart of the tornado passes over their heads and sucks at their upturned feet, they somehow aren’t bludgeoned to death by debris.

It’s a Hollywood fantasy, with the same connection to physical reality as a Looney Tunes short. But within the narrative there’s a kernel of truth. Scientists like Bill and Jo do exist. Their ranks number but few. These characters don’t chase so much as hunt. They don’t follow the planet’s fastest wind at a respectful distance; they step into its path.

One of them possesses a pedigree even Twister’s scriptwriters failed to imagine. At 59 years old, Tim Marshall—the man who stood in the shadow of the tornado—is a venerated chaser, as well as a meteorologist. But from here, his curriculum vitae takes a turn for the unorthodox—Marshall is also a structural engineer. Not only can he forecast the storm and pursue the tornado, he often returns to the scene, views shattered houses and buildings, and delivers rough estimates of the wind speeds responsible for their demise. He’s a grandfatherly type with chalk-white hair, mischievous eyes and a weakness for bad puns. Known equally as jester and legend among severe-weather geeks, he’s addressed esteemed meteorology conferences wearing Elvis, shark and Darth Vader costumes to drive home some tendentious, culturally topical point.

The Storm Hunt
ED GRUBB

Always a disaster bug, he was the kid who blew up his friends’ model cars with firecrackers in their suburban Chicago yards, just to see the way they came apart. Cataclysm titillates him. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, the meteoric kilotons pulverizing the countryside near Chelyabinsk, Russia—he’s a connoisseur of disaster. There are so many good things out there to feast on when you talk about destruction,” he says. Tornadoes have always been the catastrophe closest to his heart.

In the summer of 1980, as he finished his master’s in atmospheric science at Texas Tech University, Marshall accompanied Ted Fujita, the legendary scientist known as Mr. Tornado, on a survey unlike any other. Known now as The Night of the Twisters, as many as seven touched down in and around Grand Island, Nebraska, killing five and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. As Marshall walked through the ruins, he found incredible phenomena. Dozens of 24-foot, precast concrete planks—weighing 600 pounds apiece—had been lofted from the Regal 8 Motel’s roof and transformed into missiles. Some had traveled the length of a football field. Marshall was hooked. He knew he wanted to conduct more surveys for the National Weather Service. Unfortunately the federal government was in the middle of a hiring freeze. With few options, he followed in his idol’s footsteps and enrolled in Tech’s engineering school. Fujita, after all, was an engineer himself, and had already proved to the field that the two concentrations complemented each other—to intimately know not only the destroyer but also the destroyed.

 

In order to understand how something falls apart, you have to learn how it is put together.”

 

In order to understand how something falls apart, you have to learn how it is put together,” Marshall says.

He chased nearly every storied tornado since then, or at least surveyed the damage as a member of National Weather Service Quick Response Team. He accumulated terabytes of arresting photographs spanning a lifetime of turbulent springs and summers. And now here he was, approaching retirement age, his hair gone gray, then white. Age had a way of creeping up. When he was younger, he’d crisscross the plains for weeks with little ill effect. Nowadays the miles just made him tired. But he wasn’t prepared to hang up his trusty radar app and road atlas yet. Something was missing from the experience as of late—a sense of meaning, purpose. Marshall was tired of chasing for chasing’s sake. “I’ve seen a lot of tornadoes in my day,” he says. “I want to get back to science.”

Related: 4 Ways to Find Passion and Purpose in Your Life

***

If there’s a big, federally funded scientific mission underway, it’s a good bet Joshua Wurman, Sc.D., founder of the Center for Severe Weather Research, is either leading it or playing a key role. Wurman was the first scientist with the guts—or, maybe, the hubris—to go storm chasing in a box van with a Doppler radar the size of a tractor tire bolted to the back. At the time, his peers thought this sounded like an eminently terrible idea. But none of their direst predictions—smashed against an overpass, toppled in a stiff wind—came to pass. Once Wurman situated a research-grade radar into the field, the Doppler On Wheels, or DOW, began to reveal the internal currents of the vortex in ways the world had never seen.

The only trouble was the beam couldn’t reach ground level, where people live and build their homes. Trees, hills, even the curvature of the earth, tend to be in the way. The method for gathering such data is as hazardous as science gets: placing an instrument inside one of the most dangerous environments on earth. Only one man had ever accomplished the feat, some 13 years ago. He was a researcher and inventor named Tim Samaras, and he was killed by a tornado in 2013, along with his son, Paul, and chase partner Carl Young, in the heat of a deployment attempt.

The Storm Hunt
ED GRUBB

The death of Samaras, one of the most respected chasers and researchers in the field, humbled the entire severe-weather world. But Wurman wasn’t prepared to let it go. He envisioned an expedition aimed at the most stubborn mysteries of the tornado. “Which storms are going to become violent? Which ones aren’t?” he says. “One can imagine a future where if there’s a half-hour warning that a violent tornado is coming into a community, emergency decisions could be different than they are right now.”

If intensity could be forecast, the weather service could advise those in the path to shelter in place, or to leave, because huddling in the bathroom won’t be enough.

But changing the way forecasters warn communities means answering fundamental questions. Even today, scientists don’t fully understand some fairly elementary properties of the vortex, particularly near the ground. Given the inherent peril involved in obtaining observations there, precious few of them exist. Wurman wanted to try, and Marshall, he believed, was the chaser cunning enough to help him do it.

Per Wurman’s pitch, Marshall would lead one of four “Scout” teams charged with deploying a series of weather-instrument pods in the tornado’s path. Each pod weighs as much as a few sandbags, looks a bit like a wind vane anchored to a manhole cover, and is outfitted with an array of meteorological sensors.

Wurman’s plan was to hang back with his million-dollar radar and X-ray the tornado once every seven seconds to get a better idea of how rotation aloft connects to the violence below. He would also be Marshall’s insurance policy. The twister’s path is the one place even the brashest chasers avoid, but with DOW tracking in real time, Wurman had a better shot of keeping his Scout teams out of trouble.

The Storm Hunt
©ROBIN LORENSON/ALAMY LIVE NEWS

Bestowed with a research project’s tortured acronym, TWIRL (Tornadic Winds: In-situ and Radar observations at Low levels) was to be purely nomadic. The fleet would remain in the Great Plains so long as there were tornadoes to chase or until the money ran out. Marshall required little convincing. At the precipice of 60, how many more seasons could a man push his body through the sedentary long miles, bad road diet, sleep deprivation, and suitcase-living that exact such a punishing toll on every chaser? “I’m not getting any younger, and I have lots of pretty pictures,” he says. “I can do more.” Perhaps this was the chance for a chaser—who’d seen just about everything—to see something new. In early May, he packed a bag, left his home in the suburbs of Dallas, and boarded a flight for Colorado.

***

For days, Marshall and his fresh-faced assistants, Brandon Molyneaux, 21, a Millersville University student, and Jacob DeFlitch, 23, a recent Penn State University grad, had rehearsed for the critical moment along the roads near Wurman’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. The last thing the project leader wanted was for his Scout teams to freeze up when confronted with a wedge tornado roaring like a squadron of jet engines. So to simulate the scenario, they were pursued by the “van-nado,” a stolid box van lumbering east at a leisurely 20 mph.

According to the chain of command, Marshall was navigator, chief chaser and documentarian. Molyneaux and DeFlitch were the muscle, charged with hefting pods and aligning them precisely north to south. With the van-nado easing along toward them, the three repeatedly spilled out of the pickup at various crossroads. The young men would dive into the truck bed and shove a pod to the edge of the tailgate. Then each would grab a handle and take off shuffling up the road while Marshall followed behind, keeping an eye on the approaching van-nado. Although not quite pulse-quickening, after a few dry runs they were as ready as they’d ever be.

On May 5, the day the journey began, Marshall, Wurman, and more than a dozen other students and volunteers gathered outside a large steel building near the Boulder Municipal Airport, the evergreen forested peaks of the foothills to the west. Wurman offered a few benedictory words, answered questions, and closed by reiterating the goal of the mission: to coordinate pod deployments with radar observations. Under a warm noon sun filtering down through broken clouds, the odd-looking armada was a sight to see: three radars mounted to heavy-duty, 12-ton International trucks; three Scout Dodge 4X4s, each itself a mobile weather station; the dependable van-nado; a total of 14 pods; and a motley crew of college kids, grizzled chasers, and research meteorologists.

The members of TWIRL mounted up and set out east, leaving the mountains behind. As the miles ticked away, they watched the foothills bleed into the level plane of the prairie. They took their meals where they could find them in small plains hamlets along the way, or scavenged convenience stores when there wasn’t time. They decamped for the nights in cheap motels and gathered the next morning over breakfast to hash out the day’s target. Marshall and his team rehearsed more on May 6, with the sky an untroubled blue, and the clouds little more than a thin scrim. Over the long hours confined to the truck, they got to know one another’s voices, idiosyncrasies, even smells. DeFlitch and Molyneaux told Marshall what they wanted to do with their lives. Marshall advised them and gave his own story, about Grand Island, Fujita, and all of the events and people who had made him.

Related: The Power of Sharing What You Know

From southeast Colorado, they made their way down to Oklahoma, and back up again to southern Kansas, quickly logging a few thousand miles within days. They stood beneath gorgeously sculpted storms, as smooth as hand-shaped clay, and watched one relatively weak, dust-sheathed tornado spin over open country. But Marshall had seen dozens of dusty twisters and beautiful, mothership storms in his lifetime. The unicorn he was after required a bit of the improbable: a well-behaved tornado crossing a navigable north-south road.

In Oklahoma on May 8, it was as though the churning clouds taunted him with energetic displays of cyclonic rotation. As dusk came on, nothing fell from the storm but opaque columns of rain, a little hail and the strobe of lightning. The sky soon fell quiet. The fleet bedded down for the night at a hotel in Blackwell, Oklahoma, a small town near Kansas, on the banks of the Chikaskia River.

Wurman, the bantam-framed project leader, expressed skepticism about the day’s prospects in the breakfast lounge the next morning. The forecast for southeastern Oklahoma was heavy with caveats, and the terrain was a nightmare—the unbroken plains would be replaced by the remote, wooded uplands and deeply gullied tributaries of the Washita River. This was radar hell. They could either trek back to Boulder to rest and regroup, or chase. The discussion was short. “Let’s get south of Oklahoma City,” Marshall suggested. The drive to the target was less than three hours—a hop, skip and jump by a chaser’s standards. Ed Grubb, another team leader, quoted his friend, the late Samaras: “It’s May; we chase.” Wurman shrugged, cued up the plinking banjo tune to Deliverance on his cellphone, and held it out to the crew, grinning.

The Storm Hunt
BRANDON D. MOLYNEAUX

The fleet streamed down Interstate 35, doglegging east in Oklahoma City before pushing farther south again. Marshall enjoyed a hearty Chinese lunch with his comrades at the King Buffet in Shawnee, and by the time he reached Stratford that afternoon, the first cotton-topped storm towers above the Red River were riding updrafts high into the blue. “That’s it,” he announced to Molyneaux and DeFlitch as they peered through the windshield into the southern sky. “It’s time.”

***

 

“Marshall scanned the tumult in the sky, noting the way smaller clouds arced into the storm. The moment was coming; they all felt it.”

 

The three left the fleet behind and took a southwestern route to investigate. The sugary cumulus were glowering now, erupting into the lower atmosphere like volcanic pyroclast. DeFlitch parked the truck at an exit along Interstate 35, the storm’s dusk off to the west. Marshall scanned the tumult in the sky, noting the way smaller clouds arced into the storm. The moment was coming; they all felt it. They piled back into the truck and moved farther west. Just after 4 p.m., the day’s first tornado touched down with little preamble, taking the chasers by surprise. Marshall quickly dialed Wurman.

“Josh,” he said. “Get the radar up and running.”

The Scout was off, splashing over sodden dirt roads, shadowing the tornado as it chewed through homes and trees, the malign funnel bristling with debris. Marshall searched the road atlas on the center console screen. Up ahead was Meridian Road. He pointed to it. “This is the north-south where it will cross.

“This is it.”

DeFlitch swung south onto Meridian and parked. Molyneaux, who had never seen such a thing with his own eyes, was awestruck, but there was little time to drink in the sight. He clambered into the truck bed, squatting in the cramped space beneath the camper shell, busily disconnecting power and data cables from the pod recorders. Outside, the twister swayed listlessly over the crowns of oak like an elephant’s trunk. The young men appeared calm in their duties, each movement unhurried, practiced, deliberate. Molyneaux shoved pod after pod to the tailgate, and they positioned them at intervals in the gravel just off the road. Yet as they lowered the fourth, Marshall’s heart sank. “We’re way off.”

The tornado would pass far to the south; they’d deployed too early.

From ground to cloud base, its full form was revealed to them for only a moment as it filled the road in the distance and passed again behind the trees. Marshall ordered everyone back into the pickup, but the tornado was already dying. They followed it until there was nothing left but a thin and dissipating thread of circular velocity unraveling in midair. Marshall knew the process; this was just the beginning. They had to get east, and fast. He monitored the storm for signs of new life. “This storm is going to cycle,” he said. And within 20 minutes, a nascent tornado began to probe for pathways to the ground. Unlike the solid trunk of the first, the air beneath the storm boiled and lashed both vertically and horizontally. Marshall called the route.

Scout team 2, led by Grubb, as well as a crew with WeatherNationTV, had caught up and were following along behind. By the time they were northeast of a town named Sulphur, the sun shone behind the funnel, a smoke-colored edifice sunk into the horizon. It looked almost motionless but for the furling waves moving up its backlit edges. The little shrubs along the road leaned with the wind feeding the vortex, as though magnetized. Marshall pressed on, but the other Scout team and the WeatherNationTV crew balked at going farther. “This is too much,” said one to his colleagues, as he called off the chase.

The Storm Hunt
©RYAN MCGINNIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

No sooner had Marshall pulled away than the power poles strung along the road’s north side began to snap, blocking the path behind him. What chasers call the “ghost train” had arrived—a howling inflow jet, like wind-driven smoke racing low over the prairie. In crossing the train, one risked getting rolled into the tornado. Grubb knew he couldn’t pass now.

Marshall pushed farther east for about half a mile, then told DeFlitch to stop. Molyneaux struggled to get out with the wind pressing against the door. DeFlitch and Marshall poured from the cab, and the young men were wrestling with the only pod they had left. This was their last chance. They lowered the pod gently onto the edge of the dirt road and looked to Marshall.

He could either flee for safety or stand his ground. This time, Marshall decided, he wouldn’t miss. As the rain curtains wrapping around the vortex began to move over them, the three were soaked to the skin. They felt the wind come in pulses, each stronger than the last. Their ears began to clog as the barometric pressure around them fell. The tornado was either drifting northeast or growing toward them. The electrical lines above began to sing a single note. The power poles to the west were falling, closer and closer. The pulses would soon be strong enough to knock a man down. Scott Peake watched from a nearby hill and wondered when his friend was going to move. Molyneaux felt fear building, and told himself, I trust Tim. He focused on the sound of it, which reminded him of a waterfall, but louder than any he’d ever heard.

The tornado would arrive in a minute or a minute and a half, and Marshall knew he could wait no longer. DeFlitch was already behind the wheel, the diesel engine loping, the entire truck rocking in the wind. It was coming for them, for the probe—Marshall was sure of it now. He and Molyneaux jumped into Scout team 3 and fled.

***

It took 45 minutes to get back to the pod. Trees were down at every turn. Marshall guided them for miles over unobstructed north, west and south routes before they finally circled around. The road near the instrument was laced with electrical wires and the wooden cross-members of power poles. As they walked the rest of the way, ducking under lines, Marshall noticed the pod had moved a few meters, the edge burrowing into the gravel. A wind-speed sensor blade was gone, and the canary-yellow paint had been scoured away on the windward side. But it was still there, and it was still recording. They looked at one another wide-eyed, wet clothes clinging to their skin, and exchanged vigorous high fives, shouting, fists pumping. The clouds had begun to burn away, and the sun was on them again.

“We’re having steaks tonight,” Marshall announced.

A passing chaser snapped a picture of the three of them together, silly grins spread over their faces.

Once they’d collected the other pods, they rendezvoused with Wurman and the rest of the fleet. The DOW had been 500 yards north of their pod, and a little less than a mile from the center of the tornado. The DOW alone could tell them what happened after they departed.

The Storm Hunt
BRANDON D. MOLYNEAUX

Unfortunately,” Wurman said, “only one pod got in near the edge of the tornado .

Marshall had gotten closer than anyone since Samaras, 13 years before. Yet even though he’d held fast, pushing the boundaries of every instinct he’d honed over decades of chasing, his quarry had a final trick. The radar indicated that when Marshall left the pod behind, confident the tornado would swing northeast and swallow the instrument, it was almost as though it knew. The vortex had grazed the pod. Only then did it begin the turn.

The crew made the hour-and-a-half haul north to Norman, Oklahoma, arriving well after dark. Marshall, Molyneaux and DeFlitch were damp, exhausted, exhilarated. They found a steakhouse and ordered glistening prime cuts, a chaser’s celebration, and imagined the things science might learn from what they’d done. In the days and weeks ahead, Wurman would find velocities in the radar data exceeding 200 mph. The pod’s recorder, he would find, had captured fleeting perturbations—vortices within the vortex—that were invisible to the naked eye. Bit by bit, they were chipping away at the assumption that the wind near the surface is slower because of friction with the ground. The pod and the radar had just proved the opposite: The strongest winds were at the lowest elevations, where people live.

For now, the three knew none of this. The young men could only guess and dream. Marshall mourned the perfect deployment. Yet he expected nothing less from one of the world’s great mysteries, which still had the power to surprise even the chaser who had seen it all. They hunted something ephemeral, like a ghost. In very Marshall-specific terms, he called them “an eddy in the stream.”

 

“Tonight, in the adrenal afterglow, the graying chaser would lie in bed, struggling to fall asleep.”

 

In the morning the engineer would survey the imprint of the wind left on the earth, and walk among broken houses. But tonight, in the adrenal afterglow, the graying chaser would lie in bed, struggling to fall asleep. The intercept of his dreams would have to wait for another day, or another year. It made little difference because, at least for tonight, he couldn’t imagine ever leaving the chase. “I’ll make room every year,” he vowed, “for as long as I physically can.”

He had to. The perfect deployment and the perfect tornado were still out there.

Related: How to Carve Out Your Life’s Passion

 

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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