As a kid I was always extremely curious about weather. But, I grew up in Southern California where weather was reserved to a light drizzle 2-3 days a year, followed by 2-3 days where you could actually see the mountains for a change. On the rare occasion that we had an actual thunderstorm, I was fascinated. I’d sit on the porch to watch for lightning if it was close by.
In 1996, a movie was released that solidified one fascination and birthed another. Twister was an average movie, and I laugh (a lot) when I watch it nowadays. But, I was entranced as a 19 year old kid by the thought of seeing a tornado, and even chasing a tornado. I bought several VHS tapes of tornado videos. (I’m not really sure how to explain VHS tapes to the younger crowd; I want to say they were oversized cassettes with video instead of music, but I’m pretty sure they don’t know what those are either) I watched those videos over and over again (which was a task in those days since you actually had to rewind the video to watch it again). I could tell you the cities where major tornados had occurred over the past few decades and describe to you what they looked like.
I was entering community college at the time and enrolled in a physical geography class. When we came to a section on meteorlogy, I dug in deep. I remember arguing with the teacher about the existence of anti-cyclonic tornados. He assured me they were only in the southern hemisphere, but I begged to differ.
When I moved to Minnesota in 2005, I was enthralled with everything: the change in seasons, the storms, the smells, and a color of green I had never seen before. I spent more late nights than I can count watching overnight storms roll through, trying to snap lightning pictures. I was even successful on a handful of occasions. Whenever weather was predicted in the area, I would watch the radar like a hawk. I would literally pray for severe storms.
I bought a weather station, built my own radiation shield for the thermometer (to ensure a more accurate reading), and hooked it up to the internet. I uploaded my data to wunderground.com so even my family back in SoCal could see what was going on at my house. I kept a spreadsheet of my own weather observations on a daily basis.
In 2008, I came the closest I had ever been to a tornado. I was living in Forest Lake, MN in May that year when an EF3 tornado hit Hugo, MN, roughly 6 miles from my townhome. We didn’t know it was 6 miles away at the time. The power went out, the wind picked up, the golf-ball sized hail started falling, and the weather radio shouted for Forest Lake and Hugo to prepare for a tornado on the ground. It was a nervous making experience because we did not have a basement. I felt exposed. I felt in danger. The tornado passed to our south, destroying 27 homes and killing a 2 year old.
Eventually, the fear faded, but the fascination with weather did not dissipate. And 8 years later, in a supernatural stroke of pre-ordained “luck”, I met a meteorologist with 15 years of storm chasing experience who was willing to bring me along after I vomited every bit of my fascination on to his desk. In the Spring of 2016, I began what could be called my first “chase season.”
Brian invited me into his company, Midwest Intercept, and has become one of my closest friends. And, how could you not become friends with someone you are willing to drive headlong into danger with. Our first season was a lot of fun, camaraderie, and learning for me. I played navigator, a roll I think I do pretty damn well at. And we got a look at a lot of really great Minnesota storms. My fascination was fed by a weekly dose of driving all over the state and chasing gorgeous storms, waiting to see what they would produce.
2017 marks my second chase season. Determined to be more prepared, I started taking free online classes in meteorological principles. At the suggestion of my chase partner, and now close friend, my wife bought me a great meteorology book for Christmas. And, in February I attended my first storm chaser convention. It was an educational experience. I had just enough working knowledge of terms and theories to have some semblance of understanding of what they were saying. I saw lots of pictures and videos from chasers’ journeys the year before and grew very hungry for our season ahead.
On March 6, 2017 Minnesota experienced 2 tornados, the earliest in the year in Minnesota history. At our respective jobs for the day, each of our team members watched the weather forecasts, and Storm Prediction Center outlooks change drastically. What started out as a marginal risk for thunderstorms in the morning had developed into a slight risk for severe weather, and then a mesoscale discussion for an impending tornado watch for the south central Minnesota area by 2:30pm.
I have to preface the rest of my story with a little perspective. Tornados in March in Minnesota are incredibly rare. We are usually still in the snow season. So while any chance to chase a storm in March was not something we were going to pass up, we also did not expect major supercell storms or large tornados. If I am honest, I was out to chase a good looking storm with some lightning and the outside chance of a funnel cloud or 2. Worst case scenario, we might experience an EF0 or EF1 tornado.
We chased the storm that produced an EF1 tornado just west of Zimmerman for about 30 minutes from Maple Lake to where the tornado touched down. We were some of the first people on scene to the damage in Orrock Township, MN. Trees were down all over the place, some decent sized ones snapped off at the trunk. Power lines were down, and at least one house that we saw had the roof torn off of their garage. We ended our chase at that point.
The night was an intense one for me. There were a wide mix of emotions swirling around inside of me ranging from excitement, to disbelief, to fear, to shock. My first “intercept” was an eye-opening one. And, as I pondered over the next 24 hours there was something that stuck out to me the most.
When you see tornado damage, as a storm chaser or meteorologist, you know that the next step for the National Weather Service is going to be both assessing whether or not the damage was actually from a tornado, and determining the strength of that tornado. My estimate( as a non-meteorlogist, mostly inexperienced second season chaser who had read a few books and gone to a conference) was a low end EF2. The storm ended up being a high end EF1, so I wasn’t too far off, but that classification really set off the recurring thought I’d been having: “Man, that’s a lot of damage for an EF1.”
Here is where I get to my point.
As someone who has been obsessed with weather for a long time, and heard so many of the terms bandied about for years, I had lulled myself into a false sense of the true danger of thunderstorms and tornados. I had watched every episode of Storm Chasers when it was aired on Discovery Channel, and I had watched people drive vehicles into storms, or “punch the core”, or drop a probe in front of a tornado that was 1⁄4 mile away. And somewhere in my mind I made a connection between huge 2 mile wide wedge tornados with EF5 tornados, and small gustnados or brief and narrow tornados as EF0s. By doing so, I’d told myself that EF0 and EF1 tornados were not too dangerous, EF2s were iffy, EF3s were dangerous, and EF4s and EF5s were terrible beasts to avoid at all costs.
While the latter is true (in regards to EF4s and 5s), the former is dead wrong. Most people don’t realize that tornados are not classified by their wind speed or their size. Instead, they are classified by the damage they do, based on different damage indicators for different kinds of structures. It’s an imperfect system that even the NWS is in the process of refining. After storms have passed, the NWS is assessing the levels of damage that have occurred on the ground in order to estimate wind speeds of a tornado, and thereby categorize it on the EF scale. An EF1 tornado has wind speeds ranging from 86 – 110 mph. And, by classification, expected damage is severely damaged roofs, tree trunks snapped, or mobile homes overturned. This damage was consistent with what we saw in Orrock. This damage could occur over a wide or narrow path depending on the size of the tornado. For perspective, this wind speed is roughly equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane, but focused in a much narrower area (picture a 110 mph wind from an industrial fan versus coming from a garden hose).
Here’s the point. Falling trees are deadly. Debris from broken windows is deadly. Falling roofs are deadly. 110 mph winds, and the projectiles they carry, are deadly. An EF0 or EF1 tornado is not a “safe” tornado.
Roughly 70 million people live in what is considered tornado alley. A considerable amount more live in areas that experience tornados on a regular basis. Frequently throughout the storm season we will hear about storms and tornados in some part of the country. We will ask, “How big was it?” Someone will say, “It was an EF5,” and we will be in awe. Other times, someone will say, “Oh it was just an EF1.” And we won’t think much of it. Some of us will be lulled into a false sense of complacency about the risk for storms or tornados. But, as a humble second year chaser, I am reminded that there is no safe storm. There is no tornado that isn’t dangerous. And, I would implore everyone to pay attention when the weather service issues a weather watch, and to take things seriously when the sirens start wailing.