Woman spends free time chasing down tornadoes

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Friends don't expect to see slides from Disney World when they go to Patti Volpert's house to hear about her vacation.

Her images are straight out of the Hollywood blockbuster "Twister" -- without the flying cows.

Volpert, 57, travels from her home in Illinois to spend at least two weeks each summer in Tornado Alley with Cloud 9 Tours, the oldest tour company catering to amateur storm chasers like Volpert.

She has a special subscription service to watch Doppler radar on her laptop while experienced guides from Cloud 9 steer their vehicles ever closer to twisters tearing up the earth. They get close, extremely close sometimes. Volpert told how the "rope" from a tornado passed right over their van once and crashed down in the field just 50 feet away.

No clips of that one -- her camera ran out of film just as it happened. But you'll see plenty of close-ups of the more than two dozen tornadoes Volpert has photographed and filmed since she took up storm chasing five years ago.

"It's the storm itself that's so fascinating," she said.

Volpert said storm chasing has a humanitarian side. Storm chasers constantly relay information to the National Weather Service so people in the path of a tornado can be warned in time.

"Hopefully, they can save lives," she said.

Getting hooked early

Volpert, who works in the records division of the Lincolnshire Police Department just north of Chicago, got hooked on violent storms as a child growing up in Lake County. She remembers when she was 8 and watched a violent storm system pass over her house after it spawned a tornado in nearby McHenry.

After her son grew up, Volpert looked for something adventurous to do. She saw several shows on the Weather Channel depicting storm chasers. Online research led her to Charles Edwards, 43, a meteorologist and community relations specialist with FEMA who started Cloud 9 Tours in 1996.

His interest in storms dates to his childhood in Galveston, Texas. The town was destroyed by a hurricane in 1900. Ironically, he never saw a tornado after he joined a club of storm chasers at Texas A&M University until a twister nearly crashed an end-of-the-semester party he hosted at his apartment. The funnel touched down on the outskirts of town.

"It was a fairly big one. It lasted 20 minutes or so," he said.

One was enough. Edwards was "hooked." His word choice was no accident.

"I couldn't shake it. It's an addiction," he admitted.

Launching a business

Edwards' only aim when he launched the Oklahoma-based Cloud 9 Tours was to take one or two people along to help pay for gasoline and lodging. Today, he and three other guides lead three two-week tours each year that attract 15 to 20 people every time. Amateur storm chasers arrive from as far away as Australia and England just for the chance to see a tornado up close and personal.

Others come right from Tornado Alley and tornado-prone states like Illinois. Though they live in the windy corridor that stretches from the southwest to northeast across the United States, most have only seen a tornado on the news or the front page of the local newspaper.

The chase has another exciting aspect for Edwards. His job is to go online each night to study forecasts and maps to predict where the next tornado outbreak might be. The group wakes each morning, grabs a quick breakfast and starts driving. Sometimes they travel hundreds of miles to get to a spot on a map before a tornado does. Cloud 9 Tours average 6,000 miles every two weeks.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: