My first twister

In an excerpt from his new book, "Big Weather," Mark Svenvold describes the tornado encounter that turned him into a storm chaser.

Published May 15, 2005 4:33PM (EDT)

My interest in big weather arose by chance. One afternoon, in the untroubled spring of 2000, I was driving east under the voluble, shifting sky in Oklahoma when behind me, closing hard, came a darkening of the world. By the time I'd finished eating a burrito at a local roadhouse, towering columns of convection were billowing upward like geysers toward the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere, five to six times higher than the Grand Canyon is deep; that high, jet stream scythed each column flat and pushed the crystallized air miles in front of the storm. It was from just this sort of "overshooting anvil" that often made me marvel, as a child in Montana, when hail seemed to fall out of a clear blue sky.

Outside of the restaurant, I noticed that the gust front -- displaced, super cooled air plummeting downward off the steadily rising mass of condensing cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderheads -- was creating little cyclones in the parking lot and soon began bouncing my rental van all over the road. Thousands of feet above, an epic collision was taking place as warm, moist air from the Caribbean Basin and Gulf of Mexico mixed it up with cool, dry air from the Arctic, each stream of air flowing opposite the other, and fueling the storm taking shape around me. In my rearview mirror, a moving wall of rain loomed, gobbling up whole sections and townships. I craned my head for a better look. All around me, wheat fields brilliantly lit by the sun were throwing off light in battered waves: coppery swirls and half-acre pockets of wind-clobbered, un-ripened Key lime green. With a black sky coming on, it all seemed less like a landscape than a swirling, enveloping predicament, so I charged ahead toward the town of El Reno, to take cover in a cheap motel.

When I pulled into the parking lot, two cowboys standing next to a pickup truck were talking quietly, sipping Buds, and watching the sky to the west flash with lightning. The wind had picked up noticeably. I unloaded my rental van and turned on the television. The weatherman was waving his hands, pointing in sweeping arcs at a regional map that displayed, at different levels of detail, radar images of the approaching storm, whose vortices fairly glowed with intensity. Just then, the television emitted a series of attention-getting beeps directly into my room, and a news bulletin from the National Weather Service began scrolling at the bottom of the screen. The warning reserved its strongest, most dire predictions for Caddo, Washita, and Canadian counties, where, within the last half hour, storm spotters had seen three tornadoes touch down, accompanied by golf-ball-sized hail that was shredding the countryside with straight-line winds clocked at 75 mph. SEVERE PROPERTY DAMAGE LIKELY, the warning said, and the unlucky residents of Caddo, Washita, and Canadian counties, now just coming home from work or sitting down to dinner, were being urged, rather unambiguously, to TAKE COVER IMMEDIATELY.

Charged as he was to rouse potentially imperiled viewers from the television-assisted unreality of the drama unfolding before them, a weatherman could hardly be blamed for a little arm-swinging hyperbole. Two years earlier, in 1998, Oklahoma had been hit 146 times by tornadoes, a record in the fifty years that the National Weather Service had been counting. On May 3 of the following year, a uniquely violent storm system sent seventy-six tornadoes spiraling down from the sky in six and a half hours, plowing through central Oklahoma and Kansas, blowing people out of their homes and from under freeway overpasses and killing forty-eight of them. The outbreak destroyed livestock, wrecked 10,000 cars, trucks, and vans, caused $1.2 billion worth of damage. It included the single most damaging tornado in recorded history. It was the seventh most closely followed news event of 1999, and I was among its audience, watching from the protection of my New York City apartment as CNN and the Weather Channel broadcast live footage of tornadoes plowing through farmland and headed straight toward a city of a half million people; the Weather Channel anchor, receiving the live feed from Gary England at Oklahoma City's CBS affiliate, KWTV, was palpably alarmed; England, the hero of the moment, was in fugue state, ordering viewers in the path of the tornado to take cover. "If you're not under ground," he said at one point, "you're not going to make it." Over the next few hours, his reporting would save hundreds of lives.

Meteorologists that night tracked eight separate tornadic monster storms, or "supercells," each of which dropped dozens of tornadoes. Two of them presented the extremely rare and dangerous convergence of multiple, violent tornadoes threatening a densely populated area of 608 square miles. The first supercell, later identified as Storm A, moved across the southeastern portion of Oklahoma City. Storm B ran parallel and to the northeast about 20 miles away. Together, the two supercells produced thirty-four of the fifty-eight tornadoes that struck Central Oklahoma before moving on to Kansas and Missouri, where another eighteen violent tornadoes were reported late the same evening. A tornado from Storm B flattened the town of Mulhall, population 200. Soon after it struck, emergency crews were forced to evacuate the area when a second and much larger tornado passed through. The recurrence interval -- the time that can be expected to elapse between tornado strikes at any given spot -- is usually estimated in that part of the world at sixteen hundred years, but that evening in Mulhal, a veritable cataract of time, inconceivable on the human scale, had shrunk to minutes. Across the region, supercells exploded and were given labels that moved, alarmingly, toward the middle of the alphabet -- Storm C, Storm D, Storm E, Storm G, Storm H, Storm I. But it was to the south, with Storm A, that a tornado of the highest magnitude had begun to form: a wedge-shaped, longtracking F5, estimated to be a staggering half mile in diameter, with winds in excess of 300 miles per hour, that stripped sod from the ground, peeled asphalt from the road, and obliterated houses, then, as an afterthought, erased their very foundations. In the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, whole swaths of subdivisions vanished. Eight thousand homes, nearly three times more than any other single tornado in U.S. history, were damaged or destroyed, leaving one eye-witness mumbling in disbelief to a CNN reporter: "No one. No one has ever heard of this. No grandfathers have seen anything like it."

A year after the May 3 outbreak, I was sitting in an Oklahoma motel watching my own storm on television, caught between alarmist naiveti and an unwillingness to embarrass myself in front of the locals. In the glow of late twentieth-century television production values, an ironic distance had firmly established itself between the tornadoes whirling around outside and the soft, rustling calm of my air-conditioned room. Shouldn't I, in fact, "take cover, immediately"? Were people killed by their own ironic exceptionalism? First they were shuffling around in their pajamas, eating a bowl of cereal, say, probably watching the storm on television as one might sit through a fall fund-raising drive -- with the perverse pleasure one gets from ignoring the barrage of entreaty and imprecation, the winning appeals to reason and good judgment, the reminders to do right by oneself and by others -- while warning wailed in the distance, the windows rattling, curiously, as if a freight train were approaching. Then, blammo. Would the last thing I saw be this motel room with its fake paneling, its freakish, oversized table lamps the shape of cooling towers, its smell of Lysol, its plate glass window staring into the grille of my van? And still I wondered whether I should, (a) order a pizza, or (b) try, in some manner, to save myself.

I checked my two cowboys, still leaning imperturbably against their truck, T-shirts aflutter, tipping back their beers; then I visited the motel office and asked the woman behind the desk if she had a basement. She looked at me blankly and said, "No, we don't have a basement." This was as close to a vision of state character as I had come, nonchalance lassoed to an ethos straight from the oil fields, an indifference to the concept of harm, an impatience with anything that smacked of self-preservation, a tendency to view issues of safety or health as the preoccupations of wussyboy easterners. While the television meteorologists warned of dire things to come, the manager of my cheap motel sailed under a different flag, the unspoken, unofficial flag of Oklahoma, which in my mind has come to include among its votive images a thunderbolt illuminating a glistening plate of baby back ribs. The unofficial breakfast: a cigarette stubbed out in a doughnut. The unofficial motto: "No, we don't have a basement."

Back in my room, the weather man was talking with the hyperactive zeal of a track announcer at Saratoga. There was hail at Corn, almost three inches in diameter; hail was hitting Colony, to the east, followed by a tornado that had made a track two and a half miles long. Tornadoes were sighted outside of Eakly and west of Binger, all of them coming down the backstretch straight for El Reno. My own private apocalypse was bearing down on me, yet I was hooked to the television screen just like the viewers whom broadcasters kept glued to their television sets to watch the end of days in Anthony Burgess's "The End of the World News." I wanted to see how it all played out, but then I looked outside again: my two cowboys and their pickup had vanished.

That settled it. I knew it was unwise to venture out into a storm, but what if, as a polite visitor to Tornado Alley, I simply got out of its way? The map on the TV showed the storm moving roughly northeast. I loaded up the van and headed north toward a single patch of blue sky, stopping twice after darkness to see where I had been: the entire southern sky was forking and strobing with lightning like a city being carpet-bombed. Three hours and a hundred miles later, I had outflanked the storm system and was coming up to inspect what was left of El Reno. The place was drenched but intact, as if put through a car wash. The following morning, I pulled the curtains open to a gentle spring breeze, the grille of the van ticking in the rising heat of a new day. I squinted upward. Blue on blue, streaked with wisps of cirrus and the contrails of jets plowing the upper atmosphere.

I blinked into that sky and the sky blinked back like a wan and cheerful amnesiac, chirping away, recalling nothing of the drama that had held me in its grip so completely the previous night. The room, now flooded with light, argued against my memory of the storm, which seemed to grow fugitive and suspect by the minute. I blinked again. The sky's amnesia seemed contagious. There was no mention of the tornado in the Daily Oklahoman. The waitress at breakfast looked blankly at me when I asked her about it. My memory of the night before -- What was it, anyway? -- seemed outvoted by unanimous consent of sun and sky, a sky that betrayed an absolute allegiance, along with the rest of the bustling world, to the business of getting on with whatever was next. "You ready to order?" My waitress asked, tapping pen to pad. It was as if my wild night in El Reno had never happened.

I won't say that I began looking into the matter of the storm of May 26, 2000, which I took to calling "my storm," in order to prove that the whole evening had not been an extended hallucination. A storm had occurred. I had the odometer mileage in my van to prove it. But certain other questions needed answering. Had I behaved foolishly or wisely in fleeing my storm? I knew that a car was one of the worst places to take refuge from a tornado, but in a phone conversation with a man named Keith Brewster, a senior research scientist at the Center for the Analysis and Prediction of Storms in Norman, Oklahoma, I learned that because I had, technically, evacuated the area, I had not necessarily made a bad choice. He was careful to add, however, that although I successfully fled the danger in El Reno, I could have easily driven directly into the path of a newly forming storm to the north.

My behavior followed a typical pattern of what risk management officials, geographers, epidemiologists, and other experts in the human ecology of severe weather call "risk reception and response." The swirling dust in the parking lot of the burrito joint, the darkening of the sky behind me as I drove to Oklahoma City, the thunder as I checked into the motel in El Reno -- these were "environmental cues," which prompted what experts called "queueing behavior," the gathering and storing of additional information about the storm from different sources. As soon as I turned on the television, which began emitting the audio and scrolling video tornado warnings, I became a "warning user," or "stakeholder," engaged in a variety of forms of "confirmation behavior," a blanket term used to describe the many ways we dither before we die. From a risk management perspective, the issue in tornado mortality and morbidity is one of "warning compliance." Yet for me to have complied in El Reno would have involved climbing into the bathtub and hauling a queen-sized mattress over my head, which seemed a little preposterous at the time. This was what experts called the "normalcy bias" kicking in -- the sneer of the motel clerk, a local, shaming me, an unschooled visitor, into denial; the white noise of the air conditioner washing out any uncomfortable rumbling outside; the television, despite the announcer's warnings, whispering that this was all someone else's problem; and my two cowboys, or "stakeholder peers," implacably sipping their beer. All of this added up to about a half an hour's worth of waffling before, in a state of "hyper vigilance," I reached my "decision threshold" and fled. The people killed on May 3, 1999, by the F5 tornado at Bridge Creek had thirteen minutes between when the first warnings were issued and when they died.

Then there was the gee-whiz factor of Oklahoma weather itself, a jaw-dropping response to its colossal scale. I had encountered a sky that seemed so large -- so terrifyingly real -- it completely involved me in the way that fire involves a house. It had made me feel danger. It had reacquainted me with unfamiliar verbs. It had made me dash. It had made me flee. And yet my sense of imperilment was completely out of proportion to the episode's place on the continuum of springtime storms on the prairie and to the weather in general. According to the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma, my storm had generated three tornadoes and caused nearly a million dollars' worth of property damage across three counties -- but this was, by Oklahoma standards, of negligible size, almost beneath comment.

I didn't realize at the time that the prairie sky and the land that lay beneath it had realigned something in me, had drawn me as in so many others, in a more general sense, into the sky's many spheres -- from "topo" to "tropo" -- and into the many puzzlements that surround our relationship with this common, communal element of wind and weather. The weather reminds us, in ways that can be felt upon the skin, that we are alive, together. Even Dostoevsky's Underground Man, from the darkest part of modern consciousness, reluctantly shares the weather, suffers through it, refuses to rejoice under its limitless supply. The weather is the social equivalent of the sympathetic nervous system: talk of the weather preempts conscious thought, starts any conversation. It's the thing that goes without saying. It's the "it" in "It's snowing." We do not accord it agency, but when it takes the form of a tornado and lands on our head, we call it an act of God. Its recurrent patterns have given definition and identity to cities, states, and regions. We call that climate. Like those tiny, anonymous figures, meant to suggest scale, in the paintings of Bierstadt, Cole, and Church, we stand alongside it in our mind's eye, divining the spark of an American sublime.

Then there was the effect that talk about big weather had on other people at, say, cocktail parties. As my interest in big weather grew, I made plans to return to Oklahoma. I had the great luxury of answering the question "What are you up to?" with a simple declaration: "I'm going tornado chasing in Oklahoma." Never mind that it was December. I blurted out my little fact, and steered the conversation weatherward, and, in time, made my wife and closest friends leery of ever speaking to me again. In truth, I liked the way people responded. It made me feel suddenly, unexpectedly, interesting. A little crazy. A little daring, like a correspondent dispatched into a war zone. Soon enough, late one spring afternoon at the beginning of the third millennium, in a rented Dodge Grand Caravan, heading north up the Oklahoma Interstate 35, I sat alongside Matt Biddle, who would be my chase guide for the month of May, 2004.

From the book "Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America," by Mark Svenvold. Copyright (c) 2005 by Mark Svenvold. Published by arrangement with Henry Holt.

By Mark Svenvold

Mark Svenvold is the author of "Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America" and poet-in-residence at Fordham University.

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