Safety concern No. 1 for the Hokie Storm Chasers? It’s not tornadoes. It’s not high winds, or hail, or even lightning or flooding rains. It’s the same thing it would be for a cross-country band trip or a family vacation: Highway travel. Safely traveling TO and returning FROM the Plains, allowing each chaser to have a two-way ticket, is the top priority on these trips, ahead of successfully observing and obtaining data from storms.
But we’ve been in some roadway messes of various types over the years, sometimes during chases, sometimes in transit during calm weather. A few examples of those from recent years, below:
* Kansas muddy roads, 2008 — Toyota Siennas weren’t made for off-roading — but I have to admit, it was kinda fun to fish-tail up a couple of hills. The storms on May 23 lined up on the same paths as those on our epic 8-tornado May 22 chase the day before, often on the same rural roads when they were still dry. Scores of chasers converged on Kansas dirt roads turned into gooey red mud by the previous day’s rains. We got behind the best storm of the day and simply couldn’t make up enough ground … er, sludge. Finally, we pulled out and got far enough east away from the crowds on paved highways for a neat viewpoint on a wedge tornado in the distance late that afternoon.
* St. Louis, 2006 — We thought it would be fun to take the student chasers past the Gateway Arch on this leisurely travel day from central Illinois to southeast Missouri. But construction and rush hour traffic choked up the highways for miles leading into and through St. Louis. We missed our exit onto I-55 south in heavy traffic right outside a St. Louis Cardinals game in progress and had to travel several miles west into St. Louis suburbs to reach a loop highway to get us back. We should have just taken the eastern loop and skipped downtown St. Louis altogether.
* Eastern Colorado, 2010— Pilot cars. Ugh. Twice on our way to Sterling, Colo., we were stuck in a line of cars awaiting a pilot car to guide us for several miles through the partially deconstructed U.S. Highway 385 of eastern Colorado. The hour-plus construction delay probably cost us a tornado intercept in southeast Wyoming — we were too far south to make a run on it by the time we finally got through, and potential storms in Colorado failed to break the cap.
* Oklahoma, 2010 — This chase day was like being part of 100-mile parade. VORTEX2, the TIV/Discovery channel gang, and seemingly every storm chaser on the planet were on Highway 33 through Watonga and Kingfisher, Okla., as a tornadic supercell paralleled just to the north. We managed to get a few decent looks at the storm, but finally, purely for safety, simply decided to bail south and west out of the chaos.
* St. Louis, 2009 — Two words: Flying metal. A tractor-trailer’s tire blew up in front of us, ejecting a piece of metal more than 100 feet into the air. That metal crashed into the lane to my left. We were in constant traffic tie-ups throughout the St. Louis metro area on this travel day. In another near-miss, a car to my left swerved into the median to avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front of it. After this and the 2006 traffic mess, St. Louis is a place we try hard to avoid.
— Kevin Myatt