Chasing Tornadoes

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Around dinner hour on June 24, 2003, the entire hamlet of Manchester, South Dakota—walls and rooftops, sheds and fences, TVs, refrigerators, and leftover casseroles—lifts from the earth and disappears into a dark, thick, half-mile-wide (0.8-kilometer-wide) tornado. The pieces whirl high in the twister’s 200-mile-an-hour (321-kilometer-an-hour) winds, like so much random debris swept clean from the landscape.

A mile or so north of town 36-year-old Rex Geyer pulls the curtains back from the window of an upstairs bedroom and watches Manchester disappear. Rex stands frozen. The tornado seems to be standing still too, not moving one way or the other. It takes him a fearsome minute to realize what that means—that the deadly storm is coming straight for him. Just earlier, Rex had sat down to fried chicken with his wife, Lynette, who is eight months pregnant. “We had heard about some wicked tornadoes down in Woonsocket, where Lynette’s from,” he would say later. “We were keeping our eyes on the TV, and I was looking outside, and I said, ‘Well, geez, it don’t really look that bad.'” But now rain is pounding down, obscuring the monster storm bearing down on his two-story farmhouse. Rex’s brother Dan, who lives up the road, charges into the house. “He almost rips the screen door off the hinges, and he’s hollering, ‘We gotta get into the basement!’ But I just saw the Manchester debris and don’t think we’ll survive in the basement, so we pile into Dan’s car.”

“Should I turn the lights and the TV off?” Lynette asks. She hasn’t seen the storm.

“No, no! We have to go now!” They leave everything but a mobile phone.

As they flee, two cars hurtle down a nearby dirt road in the opposite direction—straight at the tornado. Tim Samaras, a 45-year-old electronics engineer from Denver, and his storm-chasing partner, Pat Porter, are in a van that carries six probes, often called “turtles”—squat, 45-pound (20-kilogram) metal disks that look like flying saucers. Through embedded sensors, the probes can measure a tornado’s wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. Samaras’s mission, and his passion, is to plant them in the path of the funnel. His hope is that both he and the instruments survive.

Photographer Carsten Peter hangs halfway out the window of the other speeding car, which is driven by veteran storm chaser Gene Rhoden. With them is another kind of probe, a pyramid-shaped aluminum casing loaded with a video and three 35-mm still cameras. Tinman, the team calls it, based on the character from The Wizard of Oz. No one has ever filmed the inside of a tornado—where wind can chew asphalt off a road and drive wooden splinters into tree trunks. Carsten wants to be the first.

The chasers can hear the tornado’s jet engine roar and see it snapping power poles as they veer east onto a paved road, past the Geyers’ farm and directly into the path of the funnel. Tim skids to a halt to make a drop. “We don’t have time! We don’t have time!” Pat yells. The monster is plowing up ground only a hundred yards (91 meters) away, and the inflow wind is revving up as Tim leaps out just long enough to deposit a probe before scrambling back in. As the chasers speed away, they can see debris roaring in above them: Nails, wire, two-by-fours whip by in winds that will soon reach 200 miles an hour (322 kilometers an hour).

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