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What It's Like to See a Tornado

May 29 2019

Image shot by me, ©Adrianne Hawthorne, 2019

What is it like to see a tornado? The answer is complex. It’s thrilling, mesmerizing and terrifying all at once.

I grew up watching storms in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Spring meant severe weather and I looked forward to it. I watched storm chaser video footage on VHS tapes over and over, addicted to the large beasts on screen, tearing through open fields. I knew I wanted to see them but had no idea how.

Luckily, there are tour groups that can fulfill this type of fascination and I chase with the best one – Tempest Tours. This is my fourth year out on the Plains and yesterday was my second tornado day. Last year, I saw my first ever tornadoes, a set of twins in a lonely field outside Cope, Colorado. They were short lived and in my excitement, I took more photos than I should have and forgot to savor the moment. I vowed this year would be different.

Twin tornadoes outside Cope, CO – May 28, 2018

Yesterday, we intercepted a monster tornado outside of Tipton, Kansas. I have so many fresh feelings about it. Therefore, I’m writing this post in the back of our tour van as we drive south to Oklahoma. Yesterday started out like all the other days – we drove for awhile, stopped to check the weather, and drove again. Over and over. But something in the air felt different. Unstable. Sticky.

We stopped for awhile in a tiny Kansas town called Hunter. Bill, our tour director, interpreted the radar maps while we explored. Downtown was all but empty, except for a functioning community center with a one room library. The other businesses on Main Street had been abandoned for decades. Vera’s Corner, a bar, was recognized as such only by an old Coors sign. Several locals stopped to chat with us. One man said that bar was happening “in its day” and you knew that this tiny town of 57 had fallen by the wayside as time went on. I poked around with my camera, capturing eerie images of a life that once was. The air was hot and sticky and – still. It was so quiet there, aside from the chirping of tiny birds. The sky was bright blue and dotted with pretty white clouds that would soon turn sour.

As we left the town, I felt unsettled, like something was coming. The calm before the storm.

The wall cloud, right before the action

We drove outside of town for a bit, positioning ourselves atop a dirt road in a somewhat hilly Kansas field to watch the beast form. It was a dark wall cloud by then, all we had to do was wait. I felt anticipation and excitement – it felt like a tornado was imminent but when you chase, you just never know. Storms can dissipate as quickly as they form so I always have a tiny bit of skepticism to shield against disappointment. My friends and I watched directly overhead as low clouds swirled above us and began to rotate. Could this be it? It’s right above us! A wave of fear came over me but quickly passed when I realized the tornadoes were forming in the distance. We watched in awe as a stovepipe shaped tornado emerged from the cloud base. And then – another! This one, a skinny rope tornado at the head of the cloud. Both were on the ground at the same time, moving quickly. The stovepipe dissipated and returned several times and I truly realized why tornadoes are so deadly, They form so quickly! Things change in the blink of an eye and even yesterday moved so fast that I’m having a hard time remembering.

I remember that we jumped into the van and drove away to reposition for a better view. I looked behind me to see how the cloud was doing and saw a monster! I told everyone in the van and we quickly pulled over to watch this thing. It seemed incomprehensible that something so large could form that fast. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – a tornado that was big and mean and beautiful. It was a dark wedge, the strange lighting illuminating the grass to an otherworldly lime green. I can’t believe that I was viewing the EXACT thing I’d wanted to see my entire life. I put the phone down and tried to be in the moment but it was hard. Adrenaline was high – I could see multiple vortexes as the tornado rotated and I knew that meant it was powerful. My excitement, awe and fear increased.

©Adrianne Hawthorne, 2019

©Adrianne Hawthorne, 2019

We repositioned a final time and watched the tornado move across the landscape. The wind was blowing pretty hard so I wasn’t able to hear the signature “freight train” noise that everyone usually hears – from another angle it may have been different. The sky was so dark. And this thing was so big! Eventually it passed in front of us and became rain wrapped (aka impossible to see). We raced down the street as hail pounded our van.

Then, a scary thing. A funnel was forming right outside the window, hardly a quarter mile away. I thought to myself, HOLY SHIT, this is the part where the chasers become the chased. It was so close. So close. Fear turned to relief as the funnel went away but wow, had that formed fully, it would have been damn closer than I’d like. After that little scare, we stopped to let the storm pass. As soon as it did, the sun came out, including a rainbow. It was eerily calm.

We passed a bit of damage as we continued down the road. Bent power lines and pieces of twisted metal lay in the field. It's hard to comprehend, even when it's right in front of you.

Right after the storm passed

Another thing that I'm learning but never fully realized – tornadoes are short. Well, not all of them but the ones I've seen have only been on the ground between 5-15 minutes. When you're repositioning and driving to stay with a tornado, you aren't outside watching. The time I spent outside, staring in awe, was only about 5 minutes. Which is nothing. I could look at that for hours but it's part of the game – catching one of these is hard enough, observing from a clear vantage point is even harder.

Even once you have a tornado, things can happen that ruin your chances of a good observation. Hills or trees that block the view, roads that get too close or too far, or the risk of rain wrapping the tornado in a hazy mess that shields it from sight. That perfect view, the one you see in older chase videos....that's hard to come by! Yesterday was a damn good view on good terrain but I still wish I could have watched it longer.

Get outta here, IG influencers, you got nothin' on this

It’s hard for me to describe the fascination I have with these powerful storms. I think it has something to do with control. Storms cannot be controlled, all you can do is watch. That’s part of the allure for me. As a perfectionist, I'm a master at controlling every detail of my life, but I can't control this, not a damn chance. Perfection is eliminated – I’m able to be a spectator for once in my life.

Will I chase again next year? Yes. I’ve already put down a deposit.

Friends who chase together, stay together

[The tour group I chase with is Tempest Tours out of Arlington, Texas. My favorite tour directors are Bill Reid and Chris Gullikson]

All images and video footage in this post are mine and cannot be used without permission.