ON THE FRIDAY OF MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, I stood on the outskirts of Pampa, high in the Texas Panhandle, feeling like I was in the middle of a battlefield. I was with Martin Lisius and several other storm chasers, the kind of people whose lives inspired the characters in the movie Twister. But on this late afternoon, seeing the storm they had tracked down was far more frightening than watching monster twisters surrounded by Dolby sound. All hell was breaking loose as an ominous black cloud hovered overhead, throwing off bolts of lightning that sparked grass fires, which sent billows of smoke hundreds of feet high. We had parked on the road’s shoulder, and the chasers were setting up their camera equipment to capture the storm’s onslaught of hail, intense downpours, gusts of violent winds, and window-rattling thunderclaps. Close by, I spotted black swirls rising above one of the fires. “Tornado!” I thought and held my breath. But no, I was told, it was a gustnado, created by a downdraft from within the storm, and it dissipated as quickly as it had appeared.
Amid the fire and rain, the chasers kept their eyes fixed on a wispy dark cloud that emerged from the base of the storm. They were waiting for it to rotate, confirmation that the storm was a mesocyclone, or supercell. As I nervously surveyed the roiling mass, I was again certain a tornado would soon drop. But the storm chasers saw things in the explosive weather that I could not. The edges of the cloud base were not sharply defined, indicating that the storm was weakening. When cold blasts of wind shot out from the storm cloud, Lisius, a storm video producer and the founder of the Texas Severe Storms Association (TESSA), jumped back into his Jeep. There wasn’t the right mix of warm and cold air needed to make a tornado. As the grass fires glowed in the dusk beneath a flashing, angry sky, we futilely chased clouds south and west for another hundred miles before calling it a day.
That night, at the Travelodge East in Amarillo, a group of chasers gathered in the coffee shop, making plans for the next chase. Around midnight, the waitress asked them if they needed anything else. “Yeah,” somebody cracked. “An upper-level disturbance.”
FOR THE PAST MONTH I HAD BEEN LIVING AND BREATHING tornadoes, tuning in the weather radio, watching the Weather Channel for hours, and chasing phantom supercells. One day I’d driven from Arlington to north central Kansas in pursuit of a big storm but had seen only blue skies. Conditions, however, were improving. At noon the day after my Pampa experience, about twenty people were gathered in a conference room of the National Weather Service office in Amarillo, studying meteorological data.
“What do you think? Is this a good day for tornadoes?” asked Alan Moller, a lead forecaster for the weather service’s Fort Worth office. Many of the mostly male group nodded their heads in agreement. “It’s not a sure thing, but it’s never a sure thing,” answered Chuck Doswell, a researcher for the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. With Doswell and Moller were three of Moller’s colleagues, meteorology students from Texas A&M and Michigan Technological University, a climatologist from California, and a few meteorologists from the Weather Channel in Atlanta. The rest were plain old weather nuts. Moller and Doswell obviously had rank. When they talked, everyone listened.
The 46-year-old Moller and 50-year-old Doswell were chasing storms long before Doppler radar, computer modeling, cellular phones, laptops, and the Weather Channel became tools of the trade. They met in 1972, when they were meteorology students at the University of Oklahoma, and have been storm chasing ever since. They schedule their vacations for late May and early June, the best time for tornado outbreaks on the Great Plains, which is the site of more violent weather than anywhere else on the continent.
But this spring, Tornado Alley—roughly extending from Texas to Nebraska—had been quiet. Tornado Alley is the ideal point of convergence—it is where cool winds in the upper atmosphere collide with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to cook up the storms that spin off tornadoes. Yet the big storms, born from supercells whose cloud tops reach 60,000 feet, were hammering the Ohio Valley, not Tornado Alley, where the flat, treeless, lightly populated landscape and gridlike roads provide excellent conditions for storm tracking.
On this day the prognosis was good for the area around Amarillo: The polar jet stream had dipped down to provide the shot of cool upper-level winds crucial to break up the dome of warm air, also known as the capping inversion, which hovered at five thousand feet and prevented thunderstorms from forming. Also, a cool front from the north had stalled near the Texas-Oklahoma border and a low-pressure system was moving up from central New Mexico. The Lubbock office of the National Weather Service called it “the most favorable severe-weather scenario for West Texas so far this spring”—good news, if you happen to be a storm chaser. Moller and Doswell and some of the others determined that they had to start in Clovis, New Mexico, to get a piece of the action.
The hour-and-a-half drive southwest on U.S. 60 was uneventful. As the cloud cover broke into scattered “cues,” as cumulus clouds are called, Moller’s tape deck blasted weather-related blues—“That Mean Ol’ Twister,” by Lightnin’ Hopkins; “Texas Tornado,” by Tracy Lawrence; and “Lightnin’,” by Johnny Winter. Near Hereford, two dark-colored Ford Explorers with satellite dishes, whip antennas, anemometers on the roof (to measure wind speed), and signs identifying the vehicles as Severe Storm Spotters zipped past doing 90 miles per hour. The lead vehicle, according to the banner on the side, belonged to Warren Faidley, an adviser to Twister and the jut-jawed self-proclaimed “World’s Only Full-time Professional Storm Chaser.” “I used to think Faidley was an okay guy until he started taking himself so seriously,” Doswell said matter-of-factly.