Chase day 1 - May 13
Delays and arrivals
Wichita, Kansas 7:56 a.m. CDT

What a horrible nightmare.

It had nothing to do with tornadoes. Or with being trapped in a minivan for a week with five people who take vacations to go hunting for the best bad weather they can find. And it wasn't that recurring dream I have about six tornado funnel clouds coming twisting toward my boyhood neighborhood of Birdland.

This dream was much scarier, because it seemed so real. It was -- let me try to remember this right - something about being trapped in this really huge, airy, modern building, with windows for walls and thousands of unhappy bedraggled people scurrying around.

It was really weird. Long lines everywhere you looked. Hundreds of guys in suits yelling into cell phones. College kids having picnics with McDonald's food on the floor. Outside, all these big airliners were buzzing around - on the ground. And get this, they all had something really stupid written on their fuselages - "United Airlines," I think it was. Can you believe it?

Anyway, there was other strange stuff. It was dark and raining real hard and lightning. A man with colorful maps on a big TV screen was talking about Chicago being inside a tornado warning box. My dream even had irony in it.

The worst part of the dream were all the smiling people in uniforms who crouched behind colorful counters banging on keyboards and giving out erroneous information. You know those dreams where you can't catch a ball or you are running and running but never get to where you're going? It was kind of like that, only for eight hours.

"You missed your 3:20 connecting flight to Wichita by five minutes, sir. Flight 561 to Wichita will leave at 5:30, sir. Flight 561 will leave at 7:30, sir. Flight 561 will leave at 10:40, sir. Honest, sir. Bad weather, sir. Thank you for trying to fly United, sir."

The nightmare went on and on. I'll bore you no more with details. Many of you have had the same bad dream. It involves a search for a hotel room. Miles of walking. More long lines. A piece of luggage. Language from a professional journalist not suitable for the day before Mother's Day. A ride in the dark in a nearly empty airplane.

It finally, but unmercifully, ends with me standing around in a chilly, lonely little city in the Great Plains at 1:30 a.m., waiting for a taxi driven by a woman with a Wichita accent who says she has been driving a cab since 1951.

That's almost as long as it took me to get from Pittsburgh to the Comfort Suites in Wichita. When I arrived my old friends the tornado chasers were already tucked in bed, happy and excited as children to be back in their beloved Tornado Alley.

I think I hear them in the motel lobby now. I'm going to go down and reunite with them after two years. I hope they didn't have any nightmares about beautiful weather.

Chase Day 1 - May 13
Heading out
Wichita, Kansas  10:30 a.m. CDT

Whoops! I’m almost too late. Nancy Bose, Geoff Mackley, Brian McNoldy, Allan Detrich and the new guy, Chris Howell, are already in the parking lot, loading up their vehicles. I’m going to run and catch them. They were almost ready to head out the airport to pick me up. Turns out the French TV journalist won’t be joining us on this chase.

The chase team's packing up to head out toward Medicine Lodge, about 80 miles west of here. They want to get in position for some big weather heading our way. A cold front has moved in, the same one that brought the bad weather in Chicago last night,. In Wichita the weather now is beautiful, crisp, sunny and cloudless – terrible weather for tornado chasing. Nancy said she’d rather be back home in New York where it’s supposed to be nasty today. But the warm, juicy weather is coming Monday and they want to be in Medicine Lodge as a base. It’s a rural, flat, one-McDonald’s town where they’ve set up base camps for the last two years -- a good place to chase tornadoes and a central location where they can go south into west Texas or north into Nebraska.

Off we go.

Chase Day 1 - May 13
On the road
Midway, Kansas  5:20 p.m. CDT

We’re headed straight west on U.S. Route 54 through fields of foot-high green wheat as far as the eye can see. Nancy, Brian and Chris lead the way in their heavily loaded Chevy Venture minivan that Nancy rented in Kansas City for $1,177.00 for two weeks.

Allan, Geoff and I are in Allan’s Isuzu Trooper. On the Trooper’s hood is OZ, Observation Zero, the Lexan dome into which Allan will put a Sony digital video plastic dome, weighs 25 pounds and can be staked into the ground with steel rods. The plan is to get several miles out in front of a tornado, stake OZ into the ground, start the camera and hope that the tornado passes over or near it. Allan hopes to get footage never seen before.Tornadoes aren’t coming our way just now, however. It is still a beautiful blue-sky day. We’re headed for Medicine Lodge because of its central location and western Kansas is more likely to be the place where bad weather will form on Monday.

Chris Howell, 31, who has been studying bad weather in the Great Plains for 15 years, says it’s too cold and too dry for tornadoes. The temperature is 58 and the dew point is 28 degrees – dewpoints in the high 60s are ideal for the creation of storms.  Chris, who is listening a NOAA weather report on a portable radio scanner says this good weather is a case of bad chaser luck. The weather is more Arizona than Kansas in May. But that’s the way tornado chases go. May maybe the peak time for twisters in Tornado Alley. But Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate – at least not today.

But moister, warmer weather now rolling over New Mexico and west Texas above the Rio Grande River valley is moving eastward and heading toward Medicine Lodge … bringing unstable weather our way.

Chase Day 1 - May 13
The Day's End
Medicine Lodge, Kansas 10:40 p.m.

It's so quiet here in the middle of Middle America you can hear a pickup truck door slam a quarter mile away. The Indian Oven, the town greasy spoon, closed 10 minutes ago.

The chase team is ensconced in two $44 rooms at the Copa Motel, where they spent almost a week last year. It's like a beloved vacation home to them.

To save money, we're three to a room. It's like a slumber party for people who work at Radio Shack. Everywhere you look there are cameras, computers, cell phones, printers and luggage.

Geoff Mackley, the world-roaming danger seeker and adventure camera man, is sound asleep on the floor of Room 53. Sleeping on floors is an improvement over his usual beds. In the last six months he's slept in the festering jungles of Indonesia, on the rocky rims of erupting volcanoes in Japan and on ledges at 18,000 feet on Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina.

In Room 54, Chris, Nancy and Brian have been monitoring various weather sites. Things are said to be looking especially promising for mid-week. Now they're starting to watch "Something About Mary" on Allan’s DVD-playing laptop. I'm going to join them.

I hope there aren't any tornadoes in the movie. I'm too tired for any nightmares.

Day 2 - May 14
The calm before
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  10:30 a.m. CDT

Merry Mother's Day.

The excitement of tornado chasing has been doused by good weather over Tornado Alley.

Weatherwise, not to mention otherwise, nothing is going to happen today. Based on Brian and Chris' knowing prognostications and crunching of the kind of weather data that meteorologists like Joe DeNardo understand but is too esoteric to torture TV viewers with, the team has decided to stay right here.

The TV weatherman in Wichita is talking about some disturbed air coming across the Rockies and has dropped hints of possible thunderstorms as early as tonight in southwest Kansas.

Today we'll be stuck in the 70s but tomorrow will be warmer and bad weather will be within striking distance.

By tomorrow this county seat of 2,500 rurally sprawled folks will be the happening place to be. Today it's a quieter story, a day to rest and wait.

We'll try to find something to do. But the Kansas High School Rodeo was last month and it won't be till September that the town celebrates Indian Summer Days.

Day 2  - May 14
The Great Plains
U. S. Route 160, Kansas  11:00 a.m. CDT

We’re off to Dodge City, "the queen of the cowboy towns," which is 100 miles west and north of Medicine Lodge. It’s easy to see why Kansas is so perfect for tornado chasing – and why so many of its tornadoes don’t hit anyone. With 2.8 million souls spread over a land mass almost twice the size of Pennsylvania, there’s hardly anyone to hit.

The landscape along U. S. 160 is gently rolling, impressionistically splattered with dark green pine trees, carved up by ravines and gullies, rippled and wrinkled with low, scrubby hills. Dots of cattle are scattered out on the range lands in bunches of six or 10 and herds of 50, heads down. They’re every where, keeping the grasses mowed unnaturally low on their side of the barbed wire running along the side of the two-lane highway.

The chase team assembles around Observation Zero, starting with, left, Allan Detrich, Brian McNoldy. Nancy Bose, Chris Howell and Geoff Mackley. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

After 15 minutes, we pass a farmhouse with the standard set of outbuildings protected by mature oak trees. There are steel storage tanks and windmills. And a few, dinosaur-like wells bobbing up and down, taking steady, little sips of oil or natural gas from under the vast emptiness of the Great Plains as they gently rise in elevation toward the Rockies. It’s another 15 minutes before a second farm house whizzes past.

Thirty tornadoes could slice through here in the next 10 minutes and never hit a living thing.

Day 2 - May 14
Back from Dodge
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  6:30 p.m. CDT

When they're just killing time and praying for bad weather, tornado chasers can be excused their eccentricities. Earlier today they piled into both cars and caravanned across 100 empty miles of cattle ranges and farm country to get to Dodge City, then never saw a cowboy hat or re-enacted gunfight. We never even set foot on Boot Hill.

We did find the tourist trap/restaurant that Nancy had spotted while cruising the Internet. Its Web site boasts of "Butt-Busting Beans" and buffalo steaks. We saw some long-horned steer up close and personal as we drove into the place. But the owner said sorry, he wasn't opening till summer, no matter what his dang Web site said.

We settled for the all-American Hitch n' Post truck stop, a homey place the chasers had been before. We joined a Mother's Day mob of families who were consuming a great home-made buffet of turkey, beef and mashed potatoes. Then we headed back to Medicine Lodge under a disappointingly beautiful high blue sky that was smeared with thin cirrus clouds. Not a sprinkle was possible under those conditions Brian and Chris agreed, much less a tornado.

Tornado-chasers Geoff Mackley, left, and Brian McNoldy check a field of sculpture. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

On the way we stopped at just outside Mullinville to gawk in disbelief and wonder at a rich display of roadside political folk art. Stretching along Route 56 for at least a quarter of a mile, it is a standing army of hundreds of colorfully painted sheet-metal sculptures that take equal advantage of the location's constant high winds and the protections of the First Amendment.

Four rows deep and sometimes 10 feet tall, the politically loaded works of folk art are protected by a barbed wire fence. Many are outrageously funny and provocative. And nearly every sculpture has been outfitted with paddles, blades, propellers and fans of some shape that whir, spin or turn in the wind.

Artistically and politically sophisticated, plastered with hand-printed signs and slogans, the collection amounts to an unpassable poli-sci test for all but the most addicted junkie of politics. They comment on every scandal or controversy of the 1990s, from Waco to Monica's stained blue dress. They are definitely not recommended as a family tourist attraction.

And poor Geoff. He was as suitably astonished as the rest of us by the prolific and bold expressions of free speech rights. As a New Zealander he had no way to make sense of the messages this whistling wind farm of the right-wing was broadcasting. But neither would 90 percent of all Americans.

The roadside attraction is apparently the mad creation of a very talented but mighty annoyed right-wing metal sculptor named J.T. Liggett. No one was around to ask, and no one was charging admission. And Liggett didn't answer a phone call placed to the number he proudly advertises.

No matter who is responsible for this sharp slice of Americana, he loves Ron Reagan, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. And he hates Bill and Hillary Clinton, all their subordinates and their political allies, not to mention everyone to the left of Charlton Heston and Alan Keyes.

As for tornadoes and those who chase them, he offered no opinions one way or the other.

Day 2 - May 14
Nightfall & Stormy Visions
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  9:30 p.m. CDT

Tornado-wise, things are finally starting to look up.

Chris Howell has been sitting at his laptop printing out all kinds of weather data he grabbed off the Internet from the College of DuPage in Illinois.

Brian McNoldy is studying a handful of the brightly colored printouts. CAPE – Convection Available Potential Energy -- is good in western Texas and right where we are. That means there's going to be lots of energy in the air tomorrow to  provide lift for updrafts. Surface winds and upper-level winds are conducive to creating a necessary shear. Dew points are in the mid 60s.

Brian McNoldy (standing) and Chris Howell look over weather data at the Copa in Medicine Lodge. They’re finding promising patterns heading in the team’s direction. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

Many good/bad things have to come together to even produce the conditions favorable to produce one of the country's 1,000 annual tornadoes. Tornadoes are never guaranteed, but Brian says "it's a vast improvement over today."

It's still too soon to know where to go tomorrow. They will look at weather data for several more hours. "This is going to be a hard one," Brian says.

On one hand, Brian and Chris are cautious and humble about their predictive abilities. But on the other they know from last year's chasing that they know what they are doing. Last year they were on the scene to watch a tornado be born near Coldwater, Kansas, not far from here.

"We nailed that one," says Brian. "That was our storm. We were there first and we had pinpointed the location to within five miles. We beat everybody, including the universities."

As for tomorrow, Chris says things are going to happen right here or to the east -- in eastern Kansas or western Missouri. They won't drive that far east, however, because the terrain there is not good for chasing. It's too hilly and there are too many trees. They learned that the hard way in 1998.

"If it happens, and if it happens here," Chris says, "it'll be in late afternoon -- 5 or 6 p.m. is when they usually start to happen." In any case, there's no rush. They'll have all day tomorrow to study the data, watch the clouds and feel the atmosphere.

Tornadoes eventually show up somewhere in Kansas in May.

The trick is knowing where and when in time to get there.

Day 3 - May 15
Morning readings
Medicine Lodge, Kansas  9:08 a.m. CDT

The morning starts up with a down note. There will be thunderstorms, but nothing that will produce anything close to a tornado in Kansas. The team got out of bed this morning to evaluate the reports from overnight and agreed -- nothing promising today. The weather is about 62 degrees, a nice clear day.

Nancy is so desperate for bad weather, she’s planning to go and look for thunderstorms in hopes of finding lightning to photograph, maybe heading east toward Wichita. Brian McNoldy and Chris Howell, who won’t even look out a window at those anymore, would rather watch Jerry Springer and analyze weather data.

But it’s eight thumbs up for Wednesday, with a lot of factors coming together. "It’s going to be awesome," says Brian.

The big event today will a practice deployment of OZ, the observation camera dome that Allan Detrich hopes to plant in front of an oncoming tornado. Among other things, Allan wants to establish exactly how long it might take to anchor the dome – when a mile-wide twister is coming at you at 50 mph, timing is very important.

But for right now, it’s another breakfast here at the Indian Grill across the parking lot from the motel.

Day 3 - May 15
A history lesson
Medicine Lodge, Kansas,  4 p.m. CDT

Brian McNoldy and Chris Howell are hoping history will repeat itself Wednesday, the day they expect big thunderstorms to spawn tornadoes not far from where they are sitting.

Last year the team had a close encounter with several small tornadoes near Coldwater, Kansas, not 20 miles from here. It was no accident: They crunched data for three days and had its location pinpointed so well they knew what county in Texas its birth cloud was born in.

Under the right conditions, a tornado-spawning storm can almost literally come out of a blue sky. A single, innocent-looking fluffy cumulus cloud that from the ground is the size of five full moons can, in less 30 or 45 minutes, become a massive, towering, severe supercell that can produce a tornado in the next hour.

That's what the team hopes for Wednesday. They plan to spend tonight and tomorrow testing their gear and girding their laptops for battle.

Day 3 - May 15
Time Drills
Outside Medicine Lodge, Kansas, 6:00 p.m. CDT

Here in the low foothills outside of Medicine Lodge, eight hawks are circling a butte in the distance. We’re on a 1,500 acre cattle ranch with 160 stripper wells pumping oil and natural gas.

We came out here an hour ago because the chase team wanted to run drills on deploying OZ, short for Observation Zero, Allan Detrich’s Lexan-domed camera platform. He has placed a $2,000 Sony digital video camera inside with a very-wide angle lens, in order to catch a tornado actually rolling right over OZ.

During the three practice deployments Allan and others took turns. They snipped the plastic fasteners, unhooked the elastic straps and lugged OZ some 30 feet, set it down and used two sledgehammers to stake it into the red-brown ground with five hard steel spikes. Their times were one minute and 20 seconds, 1:05 and 0:45. There were no points for style given but they were very pleased with the time.

Allan Detrich, Chris Howell (in black hat) and Brian McNoldy practice rapid deployment of the OZ video dome intended for placement in the path of an oncoming tornado. (Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette)

Also inside the dome is a Tin Man figurine and a sophisticated homing beacon that will help them find OZ if it does get whisked away by a tornado.

We’re now headed back to Medicine Lodge and everyone is looking forward to Wednesday. They know from experience that what might happen that afternoon could make all the waiting and preparation worth while.

Day 3 - May 15
Ready to roll
Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 9 p.m. CDT

The whole country knows now that Wednesday will be the big day for bad weather in the Great Plains.

Meanwhile, Chris and Brian will continue their studies, pulling down and printing up sheaves of data readouts from such esoteric Internet sites as the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.

Its map of rainfall predictions for Wednesday noon through Thursday evening create a green banana over Kansas and Oklahoma that sits atop Medicine Lodge.

But tomorrow afternoon severe thunderstorms are expected in central Kansas. If they're a reasonable distance away -- three hours or 180 miles -- they'll probably chase them for a mix of practical and pleasurable reasons.

For Brian and Chris is a scientific way to learn about weather by experiencing it. Nancy also appreciates the science. But she loves the adventure and the beauty too.

Rain storms, lightning shows and crazy clouds are truly food for her soul. She loves all of Mother Nature's nastinesses, big and small. Tornadoes like the one she's planning to encounter somewhere in central Kansas Wednesday afternoon are the icing on her cake.

As Nancy writes tonight in her newsletter the MESO mailing list "we're all anxious, and beyond ready; the wait for big weather has been handled well by one and all, but like the atmosphere, we need something HUGE now to re-establish our balance. We are, more than ever, ready to roll."

Day 4 - May 16
Ignored by Mother Nature
Copa Motel, Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 10 a.m. CDT 10

Bummer. Weather changes fast—and Mother Nature pays no attention to the computer models and predictions of the scientists in their research labs. Today is looking like it’s going to be a bust.

Last night at midnight Chris and Brian were upbeat. Based on the weather models and data they were downloading and pinning up on the walls of their room, they thought nasty thunderstorms would fire up at 7 p.m. just 50 miles east of here. Tornadoes were not even out of the question.

But this morning everything’s changed again. Conditions are not so favorable for severe storms around here. One weather lab is saying the big storms will be up in Nebraska, too far away to pursue.

Brian says he wants to see the new computer models when they start showing up around 11 a.m. We may have to move west, Brian says, but tomorrow still looks good - so far.

Day 4 - May 16
Looking elsewhere
Copa Motel, Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 12:30 p.m. CDT

What to do? Where to go today?

We’ll keep our rooms at the Copa, because Medicine Lodge is still going to be the place to be tomorrow. But Chris Howell is sick. He’s been throwing up all morning and is still sleeping.

After checking the latest computer models, Brian McNoldy thinks a trip to Hays -- 100 miles north on I-70 -- would be a good position to be in by 4 p.m.

He says the cap—a layer of warm air that traps the juicier, more unstable air near the ground from soaring higher to create monstrous thunderstorms—is just too strong to break hereabouts.

Chris, rising from his sick bed with his hair spiked like a punk rocker, agrees with that assessment.

But after he looks at the convection inhibition data on the computer screen he suggests a better plan. They ultimately decide to head for northwest Kansas, near Goodland.

It’s more than 200 miles away, and it’s not a sure thing. But it’s better to be there where there might be something than here where there’s likely to be a fourth day of nothing.

Day 4 - May 16
On the road
Hays, Kansas - 6 p.m. CDT

HAYS, Kansas -- At 5:30 p.m., we are in Hays, Kansas, just a few miles west of Bob Dole’s home town of Russell. We are 140 miles north of Medicine Lodge. The sky is a solid, ugly gray. It is muggy and the stiff wind is hot.

The chase team gets a clerk at a Comfort Inn motel to let them use a phone line in one of the empty rooms to check weather sites of the Internet.

The Weather Channel is saying there is a very strong potential for new, severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes in the high plains tonight — specifically the panhandle of Nebraska. That’s what the Internet sites that Chris and Brian are looking also at are saying.

But that is three hours away. By the time they would get there, it would almost be dark. Brian says it is not worth driving north. If tornadoes materialize, they’ll do so at night. You can’t chase tornadoes in the dark.

Tomorrow they have to be back in the Medicine Lodge area, where conditions are looking very, very good for very bad weather. We’re heading back to the Copa Motel.

Day 4 - May 16
Good news, bad weather
Medicine Lodge, Kansas -11:30 p.m. CDT

Tomorrow it looks like we're going to be up and finally chasing storms.

Based on Brian and Chris' late night data-checking tells them that the place to be tomorrow afternoon is central Nebraska. We'll probably abandon the friendly folks of Medicine Lodge right after breakfast and go straight north, retracing today's trip.

Too much cloud cover down here, Brian says, and that will keep the surface temperatures from reaching their optimum levels.

Nebraska will be sunny. In other words, in the crazy game of tornado chasing, we'll have to go where it's sunny tomorrow to have a better shot at finding a tornado.

Day 5 - May 17
The hunt is on
Leaving Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 8:30 a.m. CDT

To steal a sports cliche, it is game day.

This is the day the chasers have waited a year for.

The day of bad weather and thrills Nancy has daydreamed about all winter as she sold Chryslers in Upstate New York.

Nancy Bose is hoping for a bad weather day. (Bill Steigerwald - Post Gazette)

The day Brian and Chris know will put their meteorological knowledge to the ultimate test.

The day vacationing photojournalists Geoff Mackley and Allan Detrich hope will reward them with spectacular images of one of nature’s most fearsome, most potent and most illusive acts of mayhem.

Tornadoes will show up somewhere in Tornado Alley today. Everyone knows it. The TV weather maps have big red warning blobs in the wheaty gut of America. It happens every May.

Tornadoes are the Uncertainty Principle writ large. They come to Tornado Alley by the dozens each spring. It’s a statistical certainty. A sure probability. Where will they strike? North central Kansas? Southeastern Nebraska. The Oklahoma Panhandle? All of them, none of them, and anywhere else.

What day? What county? What little flat town’s tornado siren will die sounding the alarm? Forget it. That’s why the weathermen splatter those blobs across two and half states that make Pennsylvania look like something Ted Turner owns. That’s why chasers have to be very smart and very lucky to get their Great White Tornado.

Today the boredom ends and the excitement begins. The team members are already packing the cars. No long breakfast at the Indian Grill. Warm and cold fronts are colliding over central Nebraska and Kansas. The jet stream is right. Heat and energy to fuel the coming severe thunderstorms have been building up for days.

Late last night Brian and Chris decided that central Nebraska was going to be the place they should be by late this afternoon. All the ingredients for big storms will be here in central Kansas too. But the cloud cover will be too thick. The sun won’t be able to bake the flatlands to sufficient temperatures.

So long Medicine Lodge. We’re driving north and a little east to near the Nebraska-Kansas border, where it’ll be sunny and hot before nature’s hell hits the fan.

"They’ll be some big -time chasing going on today," promises Brian with big smile.

Day 5 - May 17
Heading for Nebraska
U.S. 281 north of Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 10:10 a.m. CDT

With eyes to the gray skies we zoom back up U.S. 281 -- a typically flat, straight two- lane Kansas highway – heading north toward Nebraska, retracing yesterday’s fruitless excursion.

Leaving Medicine Lodge, the clouds were almost as thick and threatening as yesterday. It was gray and muggy and already in the low 70s.

A new chaser, Bill Tabor, has joined us. He drove up overnight from Austin, Texas. Tabor had gone on an uneventful chase one day last May with the team after he and Allan connected on the Internet. Tabors’ Isuzu Rodeo is the last car in our well-synchronized, 78-mph procession.

Allan’s Trooper is setting the fast pace for obvious practical reasons. On his dash are the global positioning gizmo and, more importantly, the ever-vigilant Uniden radar detector.

From the rented Chevy minivan where Chris, Brian and Nancy are, Nancy calls on the two-way radio. She says each vehicle should be given a nickname for communications purposes. Allan’s three suggestions -- Rabbit, Lonneybin and Mad Dog, which Bill Tabor preferred to be called -- are rejected in favor of Oz, Base, and Tail.

A few minutes later, as we approach Great Bend, Tabor gets on the radio to pass on the opinion of his storm-hunting buddies back home in Texas. One of his friends favors the Wichita and northern Oklahoma area.

Another likes southern Nebraska along the Kansas border, which is our destination – and which is where the lightest part of the sky is.

Day 5 - May 17
Still heading for Nebraska
I-70 north of Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 11 a.m. CDT

Hello again Russell, Kansas, boyhood home of Bob Dole.

Goodbye again Russell, Kansas.

We’re now headed east on I-70 toward Salina, Kansas, at a steady 79 mph on cruise control. Before we left the gas station in Great Bend a half-hour ago, Brian used the dusty hood of the Chevy minivan to explain with a map drawn in the dust on the hood just why we are going north.

We need to get on the other side of the warm front that stretches across Kansas from east to west. A cold front angling in from the west like a backward slash on a computer keyboard should spark thunderstorms in southern Nebraska, where conditions are favorable, especially the winds. It should all happen by dinnertime.

Our new flight path is east to Salina on I-70, then straight north on U.S. 81 toward Concordia, Kansas.

We’ve now stopped at the Total truck stop in Bunker Hill, Kansas, where the team hopes to find a phone connection to check the latest weather data on the Internet, using a laptop computer.

Day 5 - May 17
Still heading for Nebraska
I-70 north of Medicine Lodge, Kansas - 12:28 p.m. CDT

We stop at the Total Truck Stop and Café, in Bunker Hill, Kansas, to hook up to a phone line for access to the Internet and weather reports.

Chris Howell checks the weather on his laptop, with Allan Detrich, left,  and Brian McNoldy. (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

When Brian, Chris and Bill Tabor use a laptop to check the latest weather data, they decide on a more westerly course.

Forget Salina. Forget Concordia.

The new data, especially the loop radar showing the cloud cover parting over western Kansas and Nebraska, convinces them to shift west in their quest for the perfect storm breeding ground.

Brian says everything "looks great for extremely violent weather -- hail, high winds and tornadoes."

We are now backtracking a mile or two on I-70 through Russell, Kansas, yet again. There we’ll dash straight north on U.S. 281 into the sunny underbelly of Nebraska.

We will be passing very close – maybe within a mile or two -- to the geographical center of the contiguous United States – talk about Middle America.

Day 5 - May 17
Still heading for Nebraska
U.S. 281 north of Osborne, Kansas - 1:37 p.m. CDT

Osborne and its monogrammed water tower, sidewalks and crazy agri-buildings is 10 miles in our our rear-view mirror.

We’ve gone 192 miles since we didn’t have time for breakfast.

Day 5 - May 17
Tornado warning
U.S. 36 near Smith Center, Kansas - 2:38 p.m. CDT

We’ve stopped by the side of the road east of Smith Center, Kansas.  Bill Tabor has grabbed a strong cellular signal for his laptop on the front seat of he car and he wants to download the latest weather data. Cellular phone signals are tenuous out here in the middle of the countryside.

We are one mile from the geographical center of the contiguous United States.

We’ve been crossing a broad, gently rolling plateau of short green grasses and dirt brown squares. It’s almost as devoid of humans as a photo by Ansel Adams.

Every 20 minutes we fly past an old Kansas lady crouched over the wheel of a Chevy sedan or a farmer lugging a fat water tank in a pickup truck. Oncoming traffic is so light it’s almost nonexistent. The town of Smith Center, "A Town for all Seasons," has a movie theater on its main street but no stoplights.

As we pass through Smith Center the hot wind is turning the leaves of the trees inside out. Distinct clouds are now hovering on the northwest horizon and bulbous mammatus clouds are hovering right over us. They don’t look particularly ominous but they are sure signs that the atmosphere is unstable and turbulent.

The air feels electric. The sun is starting to make brief appearances. And we find   out from Chris, who is also using a laptop, that at 2:30 p.m. a tornado watch was issued for this area by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Day 5 - May 17
Tornado warning
Route 10, Southern Nebraska 3:38 p.m. CDT

We are heading north on Route 10 in southern Nebraska, near Kearney, heading for I-80.

Forty minutes ago we crossed into Nebraska on U.S. 281, whizzing past the farm home of Willa Cather, then crawling through the little town of Red Cloud, with red brick paved streets.

Severe weather warnings are starting to be broadcast on the radio. At 3:36 there was a severe thunderstorm warning six ounties to our west and a tornado warning -- meaning that a tornado has been spotted or is on the ground -- has been issued farther to the west, just across the line in Colorado.

Day 5 - May 17
Tornado warning
Kearney, Nebraska 4:05 p.m. CDT

We’re at a gas station at the I-80 exit in Kearney. It’s 74, windy, and just started to rain lightly. Clouds of many shapes, including towering cumulus thunderstorm clouds, are coming out of the west.

A tornado watch has been issued for Wallace, in Lincoln County, a town 90 miles west of our location. There are severe thunderstorm warnings to our west and north. And the tornado watch for central Nebraska and slice of northern Kansas continues until 8 p.m. Central Time.

And there’s also a tornado warning for central and eastern Kansas, which includes Medicine Lodge – our base until this morning – until 9 p.m.

Brian says that these distant warnings will soon be our own local warnings in Kearney. The team is going to get a phone line in a hotel nearby, check weather and radar data, and plot their next moves.

Day 5 - May 17
Tornado warning
Kearney, Nebraska 4:35 p.m. CDT

It's 4:35 p.m. I-80, west of Kearney, Nebraska.

The sun is almost out and there's no rain. The road is dry, and OZ, BASE and TAIL are speeding along in the fast lane at 85 mph straight into the coming storm system.

The team did not stop at a motel for a phone line after all. Bill Tabor's laptop -- which he keeps facing him on his passenger seat as he drives -- showed what Chris said is a profile of a tornado cell about 15 miles to west/northwest of Kearney.

It is hidden behind a line of rain squalls. We can see that storm system to our right as we drive. We're trying to get on its southeast side, which is the safest position to be in when you're chasing tornadoes.

Day 5 - May 17
The storm cells
Lexington, Nebraska 5:28 p.m. CDT

We’re just at the Lexington exit on I-80 west of Kearney -- we’re are in the middle of two gigantic storm cells and it has started to blow very hard as we’re driving.

Now we’re seeing a gigantic dust storm, it’s lifting a bunch of dirt from a field into the air. And we’re watching very tall cumulus clouds that may contain the start of tornadoes. We’re surrounded by very nasty storms and its blowing 45 - 50 miles an hour as we roll down I-80 west now to circle around the cells in hopes of chasing a tornado. It’s just starting to hit.

Day 5 - May 17
The storm cells
Lexington, Nebraska 5:50 p.m. CDT

We’re 10 miles west of our last position still between the two storm cells. The wind has dropped a little. It’s relatively quiet in this zone … it’s raining a little and there was all kinds of hail here. There’s hail the size of a little baby chocolate Easter eggs scattered in the grass. We can see bad weather north, west and east of us. South, there’s a gap of big white clouds and blue skies. It’s not raining at all right now, but it’s three hours to nightfall and there’s still plenty of ugly weather coming. The team is sorting out the next move, checking the radar reports.

Day 5 - May 17
The storm cells
Outskirts of North Platte, Nebraska 6:33 p.m. CDT

We’re leaving the nice weather hole, watching a wall of low, charcoal gray clouds approach … we’re driving right at them, heading to North Platte, Nebraska. We’re rolling along at 85 miles looking to get off I-80 to head north. We're passing North Platte. There’s some lightning and, under the lid of gray clouds you can see a band of clear air. I’m now driving the team’s OZ car with Allan in the back seat and Geoff in the front passenger seat. When we pass under one of the charcoal gray clouds the wind picks up and the temperature drops … and then we’re through it and things become milder again on the other side. We’re taking the next exit now to head out on Route 83.

Day 5 - May 17
The storm cells
North of North Platte, Nebraska 7:05 p.m. CDT

We’re on I-83 heading north from North Platte and there’s lightning all over the place, this is a very powerful storm system that we’re heading under.

The team’s decided there’s a cell ahead that we can reach ... there’s lightning from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground and now we see there’s an immense storm cell behind us. I’m trying to see it the rearview mirror better.

It’s huge. The team’s slowing down now. It’s all black from ground to sky here and there’s no light under this --- strangely, it’s not dark --- but there’s no hint of sunlight. We’re on a hill here and we’re coming to a stop now and the storm cell behind us is simply immense, it’s like a giant wave out there. I’m getting out of the car for a better look ...

Day 5 - May 17
The storm cells
North of North Platte, Nebraska 7:20 p.m. CDT

The huge wave of dark clouds was what is called a gust front coming through, the temperature fell to 40 degrees outside as it rolled over us – a bitter cold. We crouched in the cars with the heaters on full blast trying to warm up. We’re on a hilltop with wheat-colored grass all around and the team’s looking at their radar screens now. They say there’s another cell farther to the north that we can catch. We heading out now …

Day 5 - May 17
As the storm turns
North of North Platte, Nebraska 8:04 p.m. CDT

We are watching an incredible bunch of lighting flashes about 30 miles away. We are still literally under a large black cloud that, according to the radar data pulled down from the Internet using cell phones, is a mesocyclonic cell, which means basically that it’s rotating.

And if it’s rotating, it’s potentially able to create a tornado. There is a chance, but it’s not a real powerful cell. It’s bitter cold still. It’s amazingly cold. It can’t be more than 40 degrees now.

From right to left as far as I can see is a gigantic, charcoal black cloud that fills 160 degrees around me. And actually, the cloud is growing as we look at it. It’s oozing and climbing higher. It’s pretty cool.

Day 5 - May 17
No twister tonight
Gothenburg, Nebraska 9:29 p.m. CDT

The big black cloud just sort of fizzled out. It took off like a giant flying wing to the east, and the decision was made not to pursue it because it was not going to spawn any tornadoes.

After 11 hours of storm chasing, we stopped at the Homestead Cafe in Gothenburg, Neb. We're refueling ourselves 318 miles north of where we started the day in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. It looks like steak for the fourth night in a row here in the heart of Beef Country – an 8 oz. sirloin, salad bar, choice of potato and coffee or tea for $9.50.

After dinner, we’ll drive as far east as we can along I-80, perhaps all the way into Missouri, to get ready for tomorrow’s hunt

Day 5 - May 17
Tornado survivors
Gothenburg, Nebraska 11:33 p.m. CDT

We've abandoned plans to head for Missouri and instead will stay at the Gothenburg Super 8 motel. Also staying here: The Stickelman family of Brady, Neb. Their home and those of three other families in and around Brady were destroyed by a quarter-mile wide twister around 4 p.m. CDT. No one was injured. We saw the storm on radar but couldn't get to it safely. We'll head east tomorrow.

And the steak was terrible.

Day 6 - May 18
The day after
Homestead Cafe, Gothenburg, Nebraska - 11:30 a.m. CDT

It’s about 45 degrees -- windy and rotten The chase is officially over, at least for this week. The same storm system that destroyed Brad Stickelman’s home near Brady, Neb., yesterday afternoon and generated 27 severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings across Nebraska yesterday is going to hit Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois later today.

We could have driven east to these states in time to continue the chase if we had left about three hours ago.

The team pauses while chasing the storm system in  Nebraska. (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

Brian says that it is too far even if they didn’t have to go back to Wichita tomorrow to meet six other members of the MESO team.

They’ll be joining Chris, Brian, Geoff and Nancy for another full week of chasing in Tornado Alley.

After breakfast, we’re going out to what’s left of Stickelman's  home near Brady, about 20 minutes away, after a tornado destroyed it yesterday. It's not for rubbernecking reasons, but because the team can learn about yesterday’s storms. By seeing the damage to a stout brick house, they can estimate the strength of the twister that hit it.

The Fujita Scale, the standard way of measuring the power of a tornado, is a damage scale. The only way you can measure a tornado is to see what man-made things it destroys.

Day 6 - May 18
Surveying the damage
Brady, Nebraska - 2 p.m. CDT

At what's left of Brad and Janine Stickelman's brick house, the path of the yesterday's malevolent tornado is easy to track. It came from the southeast over some low hills, ripping down power lines before slicing across a farmer's field as flat as a desktop.

Lifting enough topsoil to make a quarter-mile brown swath in the green seedlings, it flipped a 300-foot-long sprinkler like a toy, snapping it into several pieces.

Sue Taylor and her daughter heather being interviewed by Geoff Mackley atop the rubble of their house in Maxwell, Nebraska. (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

It bore down on the Stickelman place like a giant weed whacker, shredding the oasis of cottonwoods and locusts around the house. As the Stickelmans hid in the basement, it yanked off their roof, blew out their windows and reduced their sheds and outer buildings to misshapen balls of heavy-gauge tin foil.

It tore out some more power lines for good measure, then twirled off at 40 mph toward its rendezvous with the the woodframed home of Sue Taylor five miles west.

Chris and Brian, investigated the scene with Allan, Geoff, Nancy and Bill Tabor, the Texan who was still with us. As workmen in a pickup truck dragged the bushy top of a severed cottonwood down the road, they estimated that it was an F-1 on the Fujita Scale. Small but impressive enough for the Stickelmans.

When the tornado made its surprise visit to Sue Taylor's home near the town of Maxwell, she was standing in her front door with her daughter Heather, 22. The only thing Heather had time to do was close her eyes. In the roaring maelstrom of dirt and smashed furniture and household goods, she felt herself being thrown all over the place. When everything stopped she and her mother found themselves with a collapsed house on top of them.

Heather had scratches on her face and bruises and cuts on her legs. Her mother had a small gash near her eye. Her mother's menagerie of farm animals and pets survived, except for Snowball. The goose was found lying dead in a pile of rubble that included five or six smashed automobiles.

When we arrived, a dozen volunteers from the Salvation Army and elsewhere were towing cars away, using a chainsaw to make sense of the downed tree limbs and trying to free Klondike the goose from under a six-foot-tall layer cake of house parts.

Sue and Heather Taylor were retelling their 60 seconds of horror to the local media -- and anyone else who came by -- in great and eloquent detail.

Sue Taylor had no medical or household insurance. The Salvation Army seemed to have everything in hand. But the team, which is naturally sensitive to the victims of tornadoes, decided to give her a check for $200 from the MESO account. Bill Tabor and Geoff each kicked in $40 in cash.

Geoff spent nearly an hour interviewing the Taylors and videoing the extrication of Klondike. He hopes to sell the footage to one of three TV documentary companies he knows of that are looking for "survivor's stories."

The Taylors' stories had all the right elements, he said, speaking with the confidence that comes from having great experience in human disasters of all kinds:

dot.gif (78 bytes)An amazing escape.

dot.gif (78 bytes)Their ability and willingness to explain it to people.

dot.gif (78 bytes)Plus her animals survived and people are into that, said Geoff.

The only missing ingredient, he said, was footage of an actual tornado.

But getting good tornado footage is why he is vacationing in Tornado Alley in the first place. He and the MESO team -- with six days and 2,450 miles of chasing under their hoods -- still have another whole week to capture their twister.

Chasing storms in Nebraska puts the team under a dark cloud - but no tornado. (Bill Steigerwald - Post-Gazette)

- Bill Steigerwald

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette's on -line version of this story

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette's 1998 tornado chase story

 Allan Detrich's 2000 tornado chase story and photographs

Back to Geoff's weather links

Back to site directory

Back to stock footage library