It's almost the stuff of the Old Testament - so improbable that it might be filed with the Flying Dutchman and the hoop snake if not for all the times we've seen our neighbors on television, soaked to the bone, sifting through the debris that had been their lives. The thought of tornadoes has kept many in this state awake on a stormy night, ear cocked to the window.
For most, the words "tornado warning" will send them running for cover. But there are the rare few in our state for whom the whoop of the tornado siren is a love song, folks who run to the twisters, not away from them.
Scott Blair and Jason Politte are two of them. They started chasing together in 1999, ranging across the Great Plains in search of tornadoes, sometimes as far north as Wyoming and South Dakota. Although they now make most of their forays solo, they're still friends. Between them, they've witnessed and documented close to a hundred twisters. They'll tell you: It's not just a hobby; it's a way of life.
Politte, 28, who works for Conway Courier Service, discovered his fascination with tornadoes on March 1, 1997, the day 15 twisters cut a swath through Central Arkansas, killing 26 people. That day, Politte was helping a friend haul his motorcycle to Southwest Little Rock when an F4 - just one point from the top on the Fujita damage scale - dropped out of the sky near the intersection of Baseline Road and Arch Street Pike. With winds topping 210 miles per hour, the tornado destroyed much of the surrounding neighborhood, even sucking the grass out of the ground in some places. Just outside the zone of total destruction, Politte and his friend were pelted with debris. "Just massive damage," Politte said. "Two-by-fours falling out of the sky and insulation flying by. It was awe-inspiring, but it was also frightening."
It was an experience Politte couldn't stop thinking about. Soon after his brush with death, he hooked up with established Arkansas chaser Scott Blair and went on his first official storm chase in eastern Oklahoma. ("It was a bust," Politte said, laughing).
For Blair, now a student in meteorology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, the wild weather bug bit even earlier. Born and reared in Little Rock, his parents have video of their son at age 4, drawing weather maps like he had seen on TV. Before he could drive, he had his friends and relatives chauffeuring him into the heart of the tempest to photograph lightning. When he got his license, his chasing really took off. "From that point on, I continued to chase," Blair said, "and the range continues to grow. In 1997, my range was Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, west Tennesee. Now, it's northeast Wyoming and Chicago, Illinois the other day. It's pretty much unlimited now."
As far as he knows, Blair said, he and Politte are the only two active storm chasers from Arkansas. With winding roads and a view limited by terrain in the most tornado-prone counties, it's understandable that Arkansas doesn't sire many converts to the faith. Blair said that tornado hunting in the state can be nearly impossible, not to mention dangerous.
"You put the storms moving at 40 or 50 miles an hour with difficult twisty roads, and of course less likely areas to have good visibility - trees and mountains - you're looking at a very difficult time observing something," Blair said. "There's a tremendous amount of variables working against you."
These days, both Politte and Blair prefer to chase in the Great Plains. There, a flat landscape and a checkerboard network of roads make for easy tornado spotting and mobility around "supercells," the huge, swirling thunderheads that act like factories for tornadoes.
To help in locating these supercells and pinpointing tornadoes - and adding to the cost of storm chasing, which Blair said can top $5,000 a year in equipment, gas, and room rentals for a dedicated chaser - both have specially outfitted chase cars. Politte has a late-model Dodge minivan, this season's replacement for his long-time chaser, a T-bird that had been so pounded by hail over the years that it was almost unrecognizable. Yet to see its first hail dent, the roof of Politte's van sprouts with antennas to feed the cell phone modem, ham radio and global positioning system. High-strength Lexan plastic covers the rear windows to keep them from being blown out or smashed by hail. (Blair, who says his "big thing" is documenting large hail, has a steel grill over the back window of his chase car, to fend off the sometimes baseball-sized chunks of ice.) Inside, a laptop mounted to the dash squad-car style keeps Politte fed with up to the minute real-time weather information.
A few years back, after the release of the movie "Twister" - which centered around a group of rip-roaring and uber-successful tornado chasers in Oklahoma - Politte said the storm chasing ranks swelled for awhile. But the cash outlay and often disappointing results (Politte figures he's seen about one tornado for every eight days of serious chasing) blew away all but the serious few. Today, Blair estimates the total national number of dedicated and well-equipped chasers at around 200.
"It's a lot more than a hobby," Politte said. "You prepare for it all year long. If you're not passionate about it and passionate for the Great Plains and how beautiful the storms can be … you probably won't be in it for long. It's a lot of money, a lot of miles, and a lot of downtime."
For all the disappointment, both say that when they finally see a tornado, it makes it all worth it. While neither can remember the exact number of chases they've been on, Politte and Blair can both recall in seemingly photographic detail every tornado they've seen, reeling them off with date, place, and details. A foray that both took separately to South Dakota in June of last year was particularly fruitful. From two different locations, they were able to document a series of supercells that produced more than a dozen tornadoes, including a huge F4 that leveled the town of Manchester. Later during that chase, Politte became the dog that finally caught the car.
Heading in for the night to Sioux Falls, Politte found himself waylaid when a supercell thunderstorm to his north suddenly changed direction. Alerted by fellow chasers that a possible tornado had formed nearby, he turned around and tried to drive out of the storm. Speeding along in the dark, his headlights picked up the small tornado funnel just before he plowed into it. It was small, but mighty. "I actually felt the car begin to lift," Politte said. "I was saying a few obscenities at the time. Fortunately, I was able to drive through it. I probably wouldn't be here if it was a larger tornado."
The damage and deaths caused by tornadoes, Politte said, are a "touchy subject" with storm chasers. After documenting a Missouri tornado last year that swept away six lives, he said he had to really think about why he does it.
"It's an unfortunate aspect of tornado chasing that sometimes what you want to see can really affect peoples' lives, or cause that much damage, that much destruction, and that much death," he said. "The way I look at it is, nothing I do can change whether these events are going to happen or not. Plus, I can call and report and try to let people know that something significant is occurring."
For those interested in getting into chasing, especially in Arkansas, Blair has one suggestion: Pick up the phone before you pick up the keys. The life you save may be your own. "My advice to them is to definitely feel free to contact us and learn as much as possible," Blair said. "This is a dangerous state to start chasing in. It's not one of your optimal states where everything is flat and open. There are hazards involved."