Stormchasing 101: Learning to See Red

by Natasha Ball


At the front of Meeting Room A at the Case Community Center in Sand Springs sat a projector on a metal stand, humming as it warmed up, like an old station wagon on a frosty winter morning. Talking like old friends at a foldout table just inside the door were the city emergency management team and a rep with the local National Weather Service office, a man named Ed. The sign-in sheet grew dark with ink as Ed stood there, shooting it with the city reps, looking more like a dentist than a professional storm chaser in his navy chinos and polo shirt. I was one of at least 100 storm-spotter hopefuls who showed up for the free, annual certification course that Tuesday evening. When I arrived they were pulling stacks of extra chairs out of the closet at the back of the room. I’d had to park under a light at the back of the center’s parking lot.

I took a seat in the front row, between what looked like a local high school kid and a woman who, rather than taking notes, sketched in miniature the storm diagrams on the screen. A radar can’t see a tornado, per se, Ed told us. Debris is highly reflective, rendered in bright red on a radar screen in something a meteorologist would call a tornado debris signature. That’s the only clue a desk jockey has that a tornado is on the ground, when the jumble of mud and wet grass and people’s laundry and pets and photo albums distort the signal. Radar upgrades won’t improve tornado warning lead-time, Ed said, the national average for which is 12–13 minutes—“All the measuring is nothing compared to a human set of eyes,” he said. The computers and scientists were lost without us, we in jeans and camo hats. It was exactly what we’d come to hear.

Hear Cullen and Sara Bierger share their firsthand account of the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013.

Last year was one of the most exciting years ever for Oklahoma storm spotters. We set records for cold, heat, drought, and hail, a six-inch lump of which fell from the sky last May in Gotebo. Sprinkled in throughout the presentation were photos of impossible clouds and the curiosities of total destruction, all casualties of what Ed was fond of calling wet, juicy air masses. We leaned slowly back into our seats. To Oklahomans, rapid-fire severe weather factoids delivered with a drawl plays like a lullaby. It seemed more like foreshadowing than forecasting, that we’d see these images on the back end of one of the warmest winters in recent memory, just weeks before the first tornado watch of the year scrolled across the bottom of everyone’s TVs.

Sheila Dry sat on the aisle, just a few rows behind me. She lives south of the river, in the house next door to the one in which she grew up. That’s where she was when she found out her grandmother’s house in Depew had been swept away by a tornado. “I grew up around people with a lot of fear of the weather—my mother was scared to death of tornados,” she said. “I probably don’t have enough fear. I’d rather stand out there and watch it than get in the cellar.”

The class wasn’t her first rodeo with storm spotting. As a longtime volunteer emergency worker, she was just there for a refresher course. Dry said she noticed that we’d lost several of our classmates at the break. The information presented in the time it’d take to watch three DVR’d episodes of Survivor is what lots of people spend a lifetime studying, she admitted. “The majority of your average citizens are interested in knowing when they look out their front door, what they’re seeing, what to look for.” Listening to her, I realized why last year’s videos from Joplin—the storm that took almost the same number of lives as the Oklahoma City Bombing—had been saved for the end, just before we lined up at the table near the door. Waiting there was a stack of storm-spotting certificates, our names to be written in on the top line in our own hand.