Courier Staff Writer
On Friday, for the first time in too long, the clouds were different.
What drifted over Iowa weren’t the flat, gray, snow-filled winter clouds that have haunted the state since the start of December. These were lighter. Brighter. And it made for the perfect way for the Iowa Storm Chasing Network to show off its newest team member.
“Dorothy” is far and away the biggest addition to the team. She weighs in at 9,000 lbs., has a steel reinforced frame, Lexan windows and enough protective armor to stop anything up to a nine-millimeter bullet. She’s built to get up close and personal with tornadoes. ISCN members say they’re only the fourth group to have such a vehicle operational.
Dorothy started life as a Ford E350 pickup.
“Basically, we stripped it down to the chassis and built from the ground up,” said Brennan Jontz. “Our goal with Dorothy is to get up close to tornadoes.”
Close in this case means within a mile or less. But the team members don’t foresee taking Dorothy into a tornado. There’s just not much to see inside other than debris going by your window.
So Dorothy is focused on getting close enough to get good video footage, including slow-motion video. Those views can show some of the structure of the tornado and might help unravel the question of what makes some tornadoes so much more destructive than others.
The ISCN announced Dorothy’s addition on Sunday. Friday’s interview was a sneak peek for southeast Iowa. Zach Sharpe, a meteorologist in training who handles most of the forecasts, has said the Ottumwa area accounts for a fair amount of the ISCN web traffic. The preview was worked out weeks in advance.
Meet the ISCN
The ISCN team has an eclectic set of skills. Nick Weig founded the Eastern Iowa Storm Chasers in 2008. It was long before Sharpe joined, but he knows the history.
“It was just you and Nick, right,” he asked McMillan.
“Correct,” McMillan said. “It was just Nick and me.”
McMillan easily has the most experience in the field. It’s not really close. He started chasing in 1999. He has seen some of the most intense tornadoes ever. Last year he chased the El Reno tornado, a monster EF-5 whose 2.6-mile width is the largest ever recorded.
The tornado also killed three experienced storm chasers and an amateur chaser. McMillan said the number of people chasing storms has changed since he started. While he doesn’t blame the deaths on the additional people out with storms, he said those numbers do raise the risk in some situations.
“Before you usually didn’t see anyone else. It was just you and maybe some cops,” he said. “If you’re not prepared for this … and you don’t have time to prepare for what you encounter you’re not just putting yourself at risk. You’re putting other people at risk.”
Sharpe is on the younger end of the spectrum. He became fascinated with severe weather after a near miss.
“I live in Norwalk. There was a tornado that went by Norwalk, probably within 500 yards of my house. It was close enough I could feel the pressure change,” he said.
Dan Auel’s interest in storms has been part of him as long as he can remember. He says he’s interested in “every little piece” of the weather, but there wasn’t a specific trigger.
“There’s no tornado that hit my house or anything,” he said, with a nod toward Sharpe.
“I have the coolest story,” Sharpe said as the rest of the team laughed.
Brennan Jontz read weather books as a child and would always watch as storms rolled in. Andrew Cooper is the outlier. He’s not as focused on weather as the others. For him, storm chasing is a way to help people. He’s about six weeks away from becoming a licensed EMT, and storm chasers are often the first people who can give aid after a tornado hits.
“That’s when we stop chasing,” said Auel. People come first.
The ISCN largely operates online. They’ll work with media — McMillan has spoken live by telephone with TV weather forecasters during tornadoes to help warn people — but the internet is the key.
Sharpe tries to focus on removing the hype from forecasts. There was an incident this winter where a model was announced by one outlet as a potentially huge storm, but the timing was so far out it was in what Sharpe calls “model fantasyland.” It was simply too far in the future to be accurate.
Episodes like that leave an opening for the ISCN to step in with a different outlook. They believe they can build a following if they stick to accuracy rather than hype.
“Credibility is an important thing. People aren’t worried about where they get their information from, as long as it is accurate,” he said.
It seems to be working so far. The ISCN Facebook page has more than 60,000 likes, far more than any single media page in Iowa.
Forecasting is only part of the picture, though. McMillan streams live video during his chases, giving people a chance to see what’s happening in the field. And the contact with other media outlets during chases, particularly television, is an important part of the work.
People have become used to warnings from radar-indicated tornadoes. It’s a critical tool. Radar can tell you where circulations are and it pushes back warning times so people have more time to get to shelter.
But radar isn’t the same as a report from someone who says they have their eyes on a tornado. People react differently when a spotter confirms the storm. The National Weather Service even points to that fact during their storm spotter training.
That, in the end, is why McMillan chases.
Dorothy’s inaugural season
And that brings things back to Dorothy. Dorothy’s modifications include many of the features that have become familiar to television viewers. Panels slide to the ground to prevent wind from getting under the vehicle. Thick windows help protect those inside. A pair of gull-wing hatches can pop up from the sides, where a video camera can be mounted to record the storm.
There are some unique features that fit the network’s online presence. A pair of GoPro cameras on the front corners should give Dorothy the ability to stream live video. Computers and other equipment are still being added — a mobile forecasting center is part of the vehicle — but it’s clear she’s a utilitarian vehicle rather than something built for comfort.
A second vehicle joins Dorothy during chases. It’s a smaller SUV, a more traditional chase vehicle. Like Dorothy it’s wired for the internet. But it’s nowhere near as armored.
Dorothy will make a handful of public appearances in the coming weeks. There’s still a little bit of time before the severe weather season really gets going, and the ISCN wants to show her off.
Friday was like Christmas in a way for the team. They got to show off their new equipment and the enthusiasm was hard to contain. At one point Sharpe clambered inside and popped his head out of the right hatch with a huge grin. Jontz, Cooper and Auel repositioned both vehicles a couple times, moving them for the best picture angles.
And those bright, fluffy clouds floated by as harbingers of spring. While nobody knows precisely when the chase season will hit full swing, everyone knows it’s coming.
And the ISCN can’t wait to get Dorothy into the field.