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ISU students, instructors chase storms across Tornado Alley

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ISU students, instructors chase storms across Tornado Alley

Jun 21, 2024 | 11:28 am ET
By Brooklyn Draisey
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ISU students, instructors chase storms across Tornado Alley
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Iowa State University students and instructors chased storms across Tornado Alley as part of a course. (Photo courtesy of Iowa State University)

Always make sure you have an escape route. Stay on paved roads when you can. Don’t get too close.

Iowa State University students and instructors chasing storms this spring knew those rules well, remembering their own experiences and having lessons on storm chasing drilled in over the past eight weeks. Looking back at their observation of the EF-3 tornado that tore through Carbon, Iowa, on May 21, some acknowledged that they got too close.

Debris was falling around the three-car caravan from about one mile away from the tornado, recent ISU graduate and storm chaser Hunter Fowkes said, twigs and tree limbs drifting around in a “surreal” scene as the students realized they were in its path. When Fowkes gave the signal to go, ISU “Field Observations of Thunderstorms” co-instructor Bill Gallus said he didn’t really want to leave, it was so mesmerizing.

“I don’t think you’ll realize the power of the systems and of the tornadoes until you’re in that situation and witnessing it,” said co-instructor Dave Flory. “We were too close to the Carbon tornado, and it was incredible.”

A team of three Iowa State University instructors and 13 students traversed the Midwest for eight days in late May, chasing storms and visiting weather centers and landmarks as part of a course on storm observation.

Gallus and Flory had spoken about teaching a class with a storm chasing component for a long time, Flory said, but figuring out logistics, matching schedules and finding a time to take a class storm chasing trip when it wouldn’t interfere with the semester was a difficult task.

However, Gallus said students have been asking about a storm chasing course almost every year of his 29-year career at ISU. The pair knew that many of the students in Fowkes’ class had chased storms before, so they “bit the bullet” and planned the course with co-instructor Lindsay Maudlin.

Fowkes has been chasing storms since he was 12 years old and has been fascinated by severe weather most of his life. He grew up in Arizona, seeing dust devils and desert thunderstorms, then moved to Colorado, where he got to see all four seasons.

He saw his first tornado after his family moved to Cedar Falls. They heard on the news about nearby tornado warnings and his father suggested the family go check it out.

“We all piled in the van, drove out, sat for 45 minutes and got lucky,” Fowkes said. “A storm produced a tornado right in front of us, and from that point, I’ve been hooked.”

While any student could enroll in the class, the instructors had all seniors signed up when the course began in early March. During the semester, students were taught about storm formation, storm safety, instrumentation and more, and heard from a National Weather Service guest lecturer. They also participated in a simulated storm chase, where students would use information given every hour to determine where they should go to observe storms.

Most, if not all, of the students had chasing experience before signing up for the class, Maudlin said, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t see anything new on the trip. The group took three cars filled with supplies and equipment for launching weather balloons and set out, not knowing exactly where storm activity would take them.

There’s a saying in the meteorology field, Gallus said, that when you’re planning a field study to observe a certain kind of weather, Mother Nature laughs and decides to do the opposite.

“I think Mother Nature was rolling as we went through the prep stuff and talking about safety, because we had such an insanely active eight-day period that there were some learning experiences thrown at us that I don’t think we would have ever imagined what would actually happen,” Gallus said.

Chasing storms far away and close to home

Day one started off strong, with the caravan driving to Kansas and catching a line of thunderstorms that produced two tornadoes. Gallus said the day started off without a particularly high chance of tornadoes, but changes in the weather within a few hours of the event created the situation for a “textbook” storm.

“On day one, we’re like, ‘Great, we got some storm structure, we got a tornado,’ you know, the pressure is off of us,” Fowkes said. “Because when you’re going to see tornadoes on a trip, it’s nice to get it out of the way so you’re not stressed about trying to get one the whole trip.”

The group then voted to keep driving out to Colorado despite needing to be back in Iowa the next day, and launched weather balloons ahead of storms that didn’t turn out as they hoped before driving part of the way home. However, after they left Yuma, where they launched the balloons, the town was hit with 70 miles-per-hour wind and baseball-sized hail, damaging most buildings.

ISU students, instructors chase storms across Tornado Alley
(Photo by Lindsay Maudlin/Courtesy of Iowa State University)

Storms raged across Iowa on day three, and the caravan witnessed both the Greenfield and Carbon tornadoes. They were able to launch two weather balloons before the storms hit southwest Iowa, providing the National Weather Service with data they wouldn’t have had otherwise, as the Omaha station wasn’t able to launch its balloons due to the weather.

Gallus said they had a view of the Carbon tornado that very few others had, as they were so close and visibility was so bad that people farther away couldn’t get a visual. The crew traversed wrecked scenery and roads blocked by trees and other debris while trying to find their way through the damage.

“It’s kind of fun to see a wind turbine taken down by a tornado because I’ve never personally seen that before, or seen one on fire,” Fowkes said.

One student had family in Greenfield whose home was damaged and a tornado that traveled by Ames passed close to where Gallus’ son was, so the group decided to take the rest of the day to recoup at home or in Ames.

The next two days didn’t include chasing. The first was spent driving and the second was filled with visits to the national Storm Prediction Center and Twistex Memorial, both in Oklahoma. The memorial is dedicated to storm chasers who died during a tornado in El Reno in 2013.

While they were down south, the group couldn’t resist a stop to the town made famous by the movie “Twister,” Wakita. They visited the movie museum and launched two weather balloons at the behest of the storm prediction center, one of which Gallus said made it almost to the stratosphere.

When chasing storms later in the day proved unsuccessful for tornado spotting, the crew decided to start making for Joplin, where they would end up spending their last day. Though the group had a rule to not chase storms at night, they witnessed plenty on their embattled drive to Missouri. Supercell storms and tornadoes cut the cars off from their planned routes and even each other for a while. They weren’t able to reach their hotel until nearly 4 a.m.

Remembering the aftermath

With a physically and mentally exhausting week behind them, the students and instructors decided to spend their last day visiting a memorial in Joplin built in memory of the more than 150 people lost in an EF-5 tornado that went through the town in 2011. For Gallus, who had visited the town just a few days after the tornado hit, this visit provided closure.

Maudlin said it was also a very emotional experience for the students, one the instructors helped them work through.

Maudlin had taken a decade-long hiatus from chasing after the El Reno tornado and another tornado resulted in destruction and death. She said she was struggling with the dichotomy of how beautiful and fascinating the phenomena is while still being so destructive. She began chasing again a couple of years ago.

“Our best chasing days are someone else’s worst days, and really trying to facilitate and talk through like big emotions around what they saw and what they experienced is something new for me as an educator,” Maudlin said.

When the class is held again, like the instructors hope to do, the memorials will hold a permanent stop on the group’s travel itinerary.

This trip provided both the students and instructors with new experiences, from weather balloon launches to multi-car chasing to even finding beds to sleep in on the fly. While he’d seen many tornadoes before this trip and will continue to chase in the future, Fowkes said every tornado he witnesses makes him realize just how small we are, and how much farther we need to go to understand this phenomenon.

“Everybody I think has a different experience next to a tornado and every tornado I see now it just reinforces the fact (that) we’ve got to spend the time, we’ve got to put forward the effort and figure out what’s going on with these things,” Fowkes said.