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  Field Notes From
Chasing Tornadoes

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From Author

Priit J. Vesilind

Chasing Tornadoes On Assignment

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From Photographer

Carsten Peter

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jodi Cobb (top) and Carsten Peter


Chasing Tornadoes

Field Notes From Author
Priit J. Vesilind

Best Worst Quirkiest
    When you're chasing tornadoes, you sometimes drive for ten to twelve hours a day, for days on end, trying to find that one storm that's going to drop a tornado. So you have a lot of time to learn about the people riding with you, not only how they handle fear and boredom, but what they like in music and food.
    Photographer Carsten Peter is German, and he delighted in tweaking everybody about the shortcomings of American cars, culture, politics, and food. But when it came to food, he was like a mad anthropologist; he couldn't resist experimenting with American junk food.
    At every gas station and truck stop we pulled into—and there were many—Carsten would explore the aisles, grabbing the most exotic elements of the American road trip diet: multicolored jelly worms, hot pepper dynamite corn chips, the vilest beef jerky, and the most corrosive caffeine-jolt colas. He'd return to the car cackling about his latest discovery ("You vould not believe vat I found! It's incredible!"), and the entire crew would munch this ungodly stuff deep into the night as we drove. It was all guilt-free, in the name of research.

    On the road to Colorado for our third year of storm chasing, Scott Elder, my chase partner, and I pulled into Jackson, Tennessee, where a powerful tornado had swept through a week earlier. Churches, shops, and houses were ripped apart. Piles of glass, metal, and wood debris were everywhere. Eleven people were killed.
    A few blocks down from the courthouse was a used car lot in which every car was ruined—the windshields shattered, tree limbs sticking out. A sign outside the office said, "Looters will be shot," but the door was open and we saw the owner sitting behind his desk. Stepping in was like entering a funeral parlor to comfort the bereaved. The car dealer's face was gray with loss and shock, and he spoke in the quiet monotone of someone in mourning. What was he doing there? He had a computer that he was afraid might be stolen, and…what else was there to do? This was his life.
    We sometimes thought chasing storms was fun, an adventure, but on days like that we saw in sharp focus why it was so important to learn how tornadoes can be better predicted.

    On the way back from the second tornado season, Scott Elder, an NGS colleague, and I stopped in Liberal, Kansas, to visit the Wizard of Oz museum. It was a tornado, after all, that had sent young Dorothy and her dog Toto swirling from Kansas to the Land of Oz.
    Inside a building the size of an airplane hangar, the museum had built a yellow-brick-road maze that led past facsimiles of the sets from the 1939 MGM film, starting with the landing site of Dorothy's house, where she first met the Munchkins. We had our own Dorothy-uniformed guide for the tour, a rather shy but sweet 14-year-old in homemade ruby slippers. She had memorized her routine well, but was not amused by my impromptu impersonation of the Wicked Witch of the West. "I'll get you, my pretty! He-he-he-he-he! And your little dog too!" Maybe she had heard that one before.
    Anyway, there was another stretch of yellow brick road outside the hangar, and each of us posed there with Dorothy, and then…. Well, we just couldn't resist. We linked arms and skipped down the yellow brick road as Dorothy photographed the escapade. Stuff to show our grandchildren.


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