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50 yards from nature's fury

By Aaron Brodie, CNN
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Across the street from a tornado
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Aaron Brodie chases tornado with Reed Timmer of "Storm Chasers"
  • They study radar and drive from Oklahoma to Kansas
  • They race to stay ahead of what they think is a gustnado moving at 50 mph
  • Monster cloud of dust becomes roaring tornado as it sends debris floating through the air
RELATED TOPICS
  • Tornadoes
  • Meteorology
  • Weather

Editor's note: Aaron Brodie is the producer/news manager for multimedia storytelling at CNN.com. Reed Timmer of Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" recently invited Aaron to join him for a storm chase in Tornado Alley.

Norman, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Six o'clock on a Sunday morning and I'm dragging myself out of bed to drive to Norman, Oklahoma, of all places.

I grab my camera gear and overnight bag packed with extra underwear, then sneak out of my Dallas-area home for a day that promises to push my adrenaline to new levels.

Two-and-a-half hours later, I pull into an ordinary-looking Oklahoma neighborhood. Weird, there's a roundabout in the middle of this residential street? Wait, that's it! The house with five cars in front, many of which have tornado logos emblazoned on the side.

The doorbell button is busted, so I knock. Almost immediately, Reed Timmer, one of the stars of the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" series, welcomes me into his home. Without going into too much gory detail, let's just say there's no doubt this place is a dude's hangout. Make that multiple dudes.

Reed's cool. We talk about where we'll head today to try to catch a tornado up close. He introduces me to Gizmo, their Yorkie. John Hallen and Jeff Shardell, two chasers I've never met but will know much better by the end of our adventure, arrive with McDonald's breakfast. A few more chasers join us, and the conversation turns to whether we should pack for an overnight chase.

Gizmo races through the doggie door to the backyard where the six of us gather to toss a Nerf football and watch low-level clouds stream by in the Oklahoma gusts. Those clouds are a sign that moisture is streaming in, which is good for tornado formation.

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Minutes later, we reach a collective decision to pack for an overnighter. Suddenly, as if we're a team of firefighters, everyone grabs their gear and piles into two chase vehicles.

I jump into the back seat of a Mercury land-yacht. Jeff is driving, with Reed riding shotgun. John's in the back seat behind Jeff. And Terra, John's giant Schnauzer, claims the middle seat between us. Terra apparently loves tornadoes, and she clocked 20,000 miles chasing with John last year.

Departure time: about 10:30 a.m. Our target: Topeka, Kansas. Expected tornado: 6:00 p.m. Damn! How do they know when and where a tornado will strike? They toss around various names of computer weather models and "z" times as they each make their case for when and where to go. It's all foreign to me. I just hope they're right.

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About an hour up the road, John introduces me to his homemade energy drink. It's a concoction of vegetables and Habanero sauce that he bottles and freezes for the trip. Reed is pumped when he sees the cranberry colored juice. Reed takes a drink, and John hands the bottle to me. As a new dad with a son in day care, I immediately think about catching a cold from the shared bottle. Then I remember I'm on this trip to catch a tornado. If we screw this up, a cold will be the least of my worries. So, I take a swig. It tastes like vegetables. Hot vegetables! Why didn't I bring a bottle of water?

After butt-numbing hours of driving, we eventually end up at a Burger King in Ottawa, Kansas, about an hour southeast of Topeka. It's nearing 5:00 p.m., but so far, there's nothing showing on radar. Will today be a bust? We'll know in another hour or two. After grabbing dinner, talk turns toward Iowa, where storms have fired up. Should we go there? This is often the dilemma storm chasers face.

While we're waiting for something to happen, a TV crew from nearby Kansas City grabs Reed for a quick interview. Minutes later, a girl who's studying meteorology in high school stops by to talk with Reed about the jet stream and how she wants to chase storms. Soon afterward, a woman drives up and asks if she should be worried that we're in her town.

Finally, the latest radar data come in, and the team spots a storm about an hour north that looks promising. Like a scene from the movie "Twister," we quickly dispense with the chit chat, load the dog into the backseat and race towards the developing storm near Perry, Kansas.

The adrenaline begins to build as Reed, Jeff and John excitedly examine the radar loop and point to the sky towards the left edge of the storm clouds. They don't look ominous at first. But, as we drive further into the storm, the clouds take on a decidedly serious color. Winds sweep up dust devils as we pass farms along the two-lane highway.

We stop at three different locations under the rotating heart of the storm, hoping that a funnel will descend. Cameras are rolling as winds gust and hail begins to fall. But, there's no funnel. We jump back into the car and head east, trying to stay in front of this beast that's moving at 50 mph. Through the rear window, John spots what looks like a "gustnado." Wind gusts from a storm sometimes spin and create what looks like a small tornado, but a gustnado isn't directly connected to any rotation above.

We pull over to the side of the road as the dust cloud behind us builds. "Uh, it's coming right for us" I utter calmly, as it grows larger and closer. Like a NASCAR pro, Jeff loops the car around to the opposite side of the highway. We grab our cameras and spring into action to film this amazing event. It soon becomes clear this isn't a gustnado, but an actual tornado.

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About 50 yards from where we're standing, this monster cloud of dust begins to tighten as it spins. You can see a tube of dust reaching into the sky. It moves almost gracefully through a field as we look on in awe. We can't feel any wind at first. Then, suddenly in a deafening roar, strong winds begin to push us from behind like a crowd at a ball game. It's as if the tornado is taking a huge breath while it sucks in the air it needs to survive.

After the tornado passes, we pile into the car and race to get ahead. As we continue our pursuit, we see leaves, grass and other small debris floating through the air. We drive a few miles only realize the tornado has vanished. That is it. After hours of driving hundreds of miles, this incredible display of nature's violent side is over in a matter of seconds.

Still, the trip is a huge success. That single storm was the only storm in the U.S. that produced a tornado that day, and we were in exactly the right spot to see it. The tornado touched down only a few miles from our target location of Topeka within an hour of our target time. While meteorologists can't predict with any certainty when or where a tornado is going to form, this chase showed that they are definitely making progress.

After our euphoria and adrenaline subside, we head towards nearby Kansas City, Missouri, to watch the storm sweep through. Just as the lightning intensifies and the winds begin to gust, 2-inch hail stones began to fall. Terra may love tornadoes, but she's no fan of hail. She begins barking fiercely as Reed, Jeff and I try to film the hail in the headlights. Fortunately, there are no injuries or serious damage to our team.

We wrap up our chase with a late night visit to Applebee's for dinner. When the new weather models show a lower probability of tornadoes the next day, we decide to head back to Norman.

During the late night drive, I work in the backseat to edit the incredible video. Eventually, the long day catches up to Jeff, Terra and me. As I drift off to sleep, Jeff crashes in the backseat, while Terra sleeps with her head in my lap. My first chase is already filling my mind with dreams of the power of nature in Tornado Alley.

 
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