BY WILLIAM HAUPTMAN
THE ATMOSPHERE IS UNSTABLE, FROM THE NORTH, A cold front is advancing, and thunderstorms are developing all around us. It’s Friday, May 13, 1983, and Oklahoma is under a severe-weather watch. Tornadoes are expected before the day is out.
The research meteorologists I’m riding with couldn’t be happier. They’re from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, in Norman, Oklahoma, and today they hope to find one of these tornadoes and photograph it at as close a range as possible. Our Chevrolet van is packed with a motion-picture camera loaded with high-resolution film, several still cameras, and a tape recorder on which the meteorologists keep a running log of observations. Later, back at the laboratory, they will go over the data carefully. Once we sight a tornado, there won’t be time for reflection.
I’m a little worried about how close we might get to a tornado (some teams have come within a mile), but not my companions. Robert Davies-Jones, the director of the tornado-intercept project, seems to be interested only in where we’re going to eat tonight. Donald Burgess, who’s driving, runs through the choices: Arby’s, Roy Rogers, the Bonanza Sirloin Pit. Davies-Jones, an Englishman, says dryly, “I would prefer Long John Silver’s fish and chips.”
It was noon when we left the laboratory. For almost three hours we’ve been heading west across an Oklahoma landscape broken only by grain elevators and telephone poles. A controller back in Norman relays information to us by radio: “Vernon reports a thunderstorm. . . . Radar shows a cell building near Altus.” The young meteorologist sitting beside me in the back seat, Eric Rasmussen, is writing all of this down. He’s looking for the storm most likely to produce a tornado.
Tornadoes are intense vortices of rising warm air, which appear as funnel clouds on the bases of thunderstorms. All thunderstorms are capable of producing tornadoes, but isolated thunderstorms are more likely to do so. Rasmussen thinks the best place to find such a storm today is on a dryline that has formed in the Texas Panhandle.
A dryline occurs when dry air comes to rest alongside of, and partially overlapping, moist air. It is the boundary between the two air masses. Drylines are common in the Panhandle, especially in April and May. This morning, when Rasmussen looked at the meteorological charts, he found sharply different moisture readings along an axis running north-south from Amarillo to Big Spring—that is, a dryline. To the east of the line, the air was humid: only a few miles away to the west, the air was bone dry. Some aspects of drylines are mysterious to meteorologists, but one thing is certain: along them, great thunderstorms often develop.
Right now, sunlight is heating the atmosphere and setting it in motion. Hot moist air is being pulled up through the cold dry air, and a storm at some point is almost inevitable. As the hot air reaches higher and cooler altitudes, its moisture will condense into drops of rain and particles of ice. The heat lost in condensation will provide energy for the storm to grow. Soon, the storm will display a definite structure: a column of rising moist air (the “core”), led by a curtain of rain (the “precipitation shaft”).
Here in Oklahoma, in advance of the cold front, thunderstorms are developing in groups, and competing with one another for the heat and moisture that are their fuel. But a thunderstorm developing on the drvline, 150 miles away, will probably develop in isolation. As it travels to the northeast (the direction of today’s prevailing winds), it will have all of the heat and moisture in the air to itself. It could become a towering cumulonimbus (referred to by meteorologists as a “Cb”), capable of engendering hail, flash floods, and lightning discharges of up to 100 million volts. This is the kind of storm that Rasmussen is hoping for, but where, along the nearly 200 miles of dryline, will it begin?
Rasmussen looks up from his notebook and says, “I think we’re going to have a really big storm firing up east of Lubbock today.” When he calls the laboratory, he learns that Lubbock radar shows no activity in the area, but he is not discouraged. He studied meteorology at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, and knows just how storms in that part of the state evolve. Rasmussen is only twenty-six, but older meteorologists have told me to follow him if I want to see tornadoes. So far, he has found forty that he thinks are “worth counting.” Older meteorologists call him the “Dryline Kid.”
“I’ve got towering cumulus to the south,” Burgess says. Through a break in the overcast, we can see a big storm, its anvil-shaped top streaming off over the countryside for a good fifty miles.
Rasmussen puts on the radio headphones and talks to Norman. “That’s the Altus storm,” he tells us. “Radar shows a mesocyclone in that cell.” A mesocyclone is the rotating circulation of air within a storm that often precedes a tornado. “There’s another storm that should be crossing our path in a few minutes,” he says.
Before long, we are under the second storm, and the overcast turns into the smooth, leaden bottom of a cumulonimbus. Shafts of rain fall from it. The meteorologists confer.
“Looks like you’ve got the beginning of a wall cloud there,” Burgess says. He’s talking about a cylinder of cloud protruding from the bottom of the storm—what a mesocyclone looks like to an observer on the ground. From it, in anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, a tornado funnel may descend.
Rasmussen takes moisture readings with his psychrometer and looks at the barometer on the seat beside him. “This doesn’t look like much to me,” he says. “There’s no real structure; conditions are not that good. This just doesn’t look to me like a very solid Cb.”
“What about the Altus storm?” Burgess asks, looking south.
“I think we should keep going,” Rasmussen replies. “My money’s still on a big cell firing up near Lubbock later today, say between Silverton and Matador.”
A hilltop near Elk City, Oklahoma, is the last point from which we can radio the laboratory for information. From here on, we will have to stop and use pay phones. Control in Norman is advised. “Go ahead if you think you’ve got to, but I won’t be able to help you out there,” Control says. “Also, I think you should know that the highway patrol’s got a report of a tornado near Altus.”
“We copy,” Rasmussen says. “Anything else we should know?”
“Just got this: Silverton reports a heavy thunderstorm.”
“That’s it,”Rasmussen says. “That’s our storm. Let’s go for it!”
At this point, I wonder if the meteorologists aren’t being led by their hopes—by the thrill of playing a long shot. But Davies-Jones, thinking that the highway patrol’s report may be false, decides to go along with the instincts of the Dryline Kid. “Time: sixteen hundred CST,” he says into the tape recorder. “Just passed a Cb which is not too impressive visually, and are headed out to look for further activity in the Texas Panhandle.”
DAVIES-JONES LOOKS LIKE A SOCCER PLAYER, WITH his tennis shoes, athletic build, and long blond hair. His Ph.D., from the University of Colorado, is in astrogeophysics—the study of the atmospheres of the sun, the planets, and the solar system—but his current interest is a portion of the earth’s atmosphere: specifically, the rotational storms of “Tornado Alley.”
In this belt, which runs diagonally across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and southern Iowa, there are more tornadoes than anywhere else on earth. Every spring, the region is filled with cold, dry air flowing down from the Rockies, and hot, moist air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. The collision of these air masses produces fierce thunderstorms. The jet stream—that river of air flowing across the country from west to east—also has a part to play. As the storms build to high altitudes, the jet helps to send them into rotation, increasing their ferocity. With the progression of spring, the jet shifts to the north, and the northern end of Tornado Alley gets busier as a result.
The National Severe Storms Laboratory sits in the middle of the Alley. It is a modern glass-and-concrete building on the grounds of the Norman airport. A hundred yards away is the white dome of a Doppler radar, which is on loan from the Air Force. Formerly the device stood somewhere above the Arctic Circle, where it looked for Soviet missiles coming over the North Pole. Now it looks for tornado vortex signature (the radar echo of tornadoes) in thunderstorms over Oklahoma. Because it can measure the velocity of objects moving toward or away from it, the Doppler can “see” all sorts of storm phenomena—such as updrafts, downdrafts, and mesocyclone rotation—invisible to ordinary radar. So sensitive is the Doppler that it sometimes detects flying insects at a distance of sixty miles.
Inside the laboratory, the walls of the corridors are covered with photographs of tornadoes in many shapes and colors. They look like cones, tubes, and ropes; they are gray, blue, and pastel pink. This last color results either from dirt that has been sucked up into the funnel or from the reflection of light on the funnel from the ground. One supple mauve funnel, which was photographed near Cordell, Oklahoma, looks exactly like the tornado in the movie The Wizard of Oz. I mentioned the resemblance to DaviesJones, as we walked the corridors of the laboratory the day before the intercept. He said, “The storm in that movie was a pretty good simulation of a tornado, although they don’t move from side to side like that until they’re in the last stages.” He pointed to the photograph. “I was right down that road, trying to plant recording devices on those fence posts, and Eric was somewhere over there, trying to get a sound recording.” The positions he indicated looked uncomfortably close.
Davies-Jones showed me a steel cylinder loaded with devices for recording pressure and wind velocity, which one of the intercept vehicles tries to drop in the path of the tornado. Appropriately enough, it is called “Toto.” Deploying Toto is a risky job, but so far there has been no shortage of takers. Meteorologists are enthralled by tornadoes, and few would pass up an opportunity to chase one.
The idea of intercepting tornadoes is not new. Scientists once proposed driving through a funnel in a surplus army tank, but they soon abandoned the idea. Tornadoes can travel as fast as 60 miles per hour, and even if a tank could catch up to one, it seemed likely to do a lot of property damage in the attempt. There was another problem: the power of tornadoes. When a tornado crossed the Norman airport a few years ago, it was observed that the nine-ton armored personnel carriers that the National Guard had parked there were thrown around like footballs.
More than ten years ago, meteorology students at the University of Oklahoma began trying to intercept tornadoes in fast four-wheel-drive vehicles. Davies-Jones wrote, in Thunderstorms, a book published by the government, that “Tornado ‘chasing’ quickly became the favorite pastime of a few meteorology students, fascinated by the sublime appearance and coherent structure of rotational storms.” The students’ methods proved so successful that they have been used ever since. The tornado-intercept project began officially in 1972. Today, the laboratory owns several vehicles, which range great distances over Texas and Oklahoma. The terrain—largely empty and covered by a grid of section-line roads—is ideal for pursuing tornadoes.
But really, I asked Rasmussen the first time I met him, aren’t these intercepts dangerous? “Not if you know what you’re doing,” he said, although he added that he discourages people who don’t from trying. “As long as you stay out of the inflow, you’re all right. You’re in more danger of getting struck by lightning.”
“Last year, five of us who were observing a storm were struck by lightning.”
He described the sensation as a loud pop directly overhead and then something knocking his feet out from under him. When he got up, he couldn’t see the others, and thought they were dead. “That was a bad moment,”he told me. All five survived becoming human lightning rods, but they had headaches for hours afterward.
Nobody has yet been killed on a tornado intercept. Nevertheless, I had to sign a release form before I was allowed to go along. In the laboratory’s library, I discovered an old intercept tape that made me think that Rasmussen had played down the risks. At one point on the tape, the commentator said:
We’re getting closed in now. . . several lowerings in motion. . . MyGod. . .this is it. . . (Mike noise.]. . .John, this thing’s becoming a tornado! [More mike noise.] It seems to be moving away from us! I think we’re safe here! What’s our position? [Shouting: ] This thing is a monster, absolutely a monster! God, I haven’t even noticed the time. Right now, it’s . . . [ Hysterical laughter. ] Watch out, we’re getting another lowering! [ Tornadic sound.] Stop!
I’m trying not to go to pieces here. . . . Oooh, this is getting . . . That one was right on top of us!
M ANY AMERICANS THINK OF TORNADOES AS A VERY minor sort of catastrophe, which at worst could destroy a barn or two in Kansas. Yet tornadoes occur in every state, and they are not always so minor. For example, the tornado that struck Wichita Falls, Texas—my home town—on April 10, 1979, at times reached a mile in diameter; it destroyed or damaged almost one fourth of the town’s buildings. On April 3, 1974, more than 140 tornadoes struck thirteen states east of the Mississippi. They killed 315 people and did more than half a billion dollars’ worth of property damage.
Forecasting tornadoes is a great deal more difficult than one might think. The country’s weather reports are based on models generated twice a day by a computer operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Maryland. This computer, a Cyber 205, has a 2million-word memory and processes, on the average, 80 million instructions a second. It cannot, however, resolve data on the scale that would be necessary to predict the evolution of the individual thunderstorms in which tornadoes are born.
The information on which the models are based is incomplete, in any case. Satellite instruments provide information about atmospheric temperature and wind, but they are less useful when it comes to pressure and humidity— two other important variables of large weather systems. These measurements are obtained, as they have been for decades, chiefly by aircraft, weather balloons, and ground observers. Doppler radar, which is subtle enough to detect the moisture content and movements of air, could provide this information, as a federal program called NEXRAD, for “next-generation weather radar,” has proved. But the use of Doppler radar on a large scale is still some years in the future.
Because of these technical obstacles, the likelihood of tornadoes cannot be predicted more than a few hours in advance. However, a few hours can be a significant advantage. Through close visual observation, the meteorologists of the tornado-intercept project have learned a great deal about the structure of tornadic thunderstorms and the conditions likely to produce them. On a bad day in Tornado Alley, radar operators and civilian spotters can identify potentially dangerous storms more easily than ever before and alert the population.
Since the National Weather Service began issuing warnings, in the early 1950s, the death toll from tornadoes has been steadily dropping. Although the tornadoes that struck Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa on March 18, 1925, were confined for the most part to sparsely populated areas, 746 people died. In comparison, it is estimated that of the 20,000 people in the path of the Wichita Falls tornado, fifty died. The more that meteorologists at Norman and other NOAA research facilities learn, the earlier these warnings can be issued.
The best place to wait out a tornado is in an underground shelter. A bathroom is second best. (The pipes in the walls seem to help keep the bathroom intact even if the rest of the house disintegrates.) Some people try to flee in cars, which is not a good idea, because the velocity of tornadic winds turns cars into flying missiles. Most of the people killed in the Wichita Falls tornado were in cars. They were locked helpless in traffic jams and overtaken. As one pickup rolled across the ground, a man tried to hold on to his wife. The suction pulled her out the window as a passenger might be pulled through the porthole of an airliner. Her body was found on a roof some distance away.
A few very fortunate people have gone aloft in tornadoes and survived. During an earlier tornado in Wichita Falls, a man was blown out of his exploding house. Like Dorothy, he glimpsed others in the funnel. A house trailer rotated near him, and in the window he could see the terrified face of one of his neighbors. (She did not survive.) Flying ahead of him was a mattress. If I could reach that, he thought, I’d just go to sleep. He then lost consciousness and woke on the ground, wrapped in barbed wire. Flying splinters had made a pincushion of his body.
I was eight when I saw my first tornado. My mother and I were driving across Texas, and my father was following in another car. A funnel crossed the road between us, almost blowing my father into the ditch. For years since, in times of stress, I have had the same nightmare. It begins with me at home, in my parents’ house in Wichita Falls, when the sky goes black. Looking out the window, I see, in a flash of lightning, the gray pencil of a tornado headed in my direction.
On the night before the intercept, I must have been more apprehensive than I realized. The moment I fell asleep, this nightmare came back to me.
AT 5 P.M., WE’VE REACHED THE AREA WHERE RASMUSsen thinks our storm should be, just north of where the Panhandle joins the rest of Texas: more featureless ranch country, crisscrossed by blacktop roads. Since we are no longer in communication with Norman, Burgess tries the local stations, but all he can get is Paul Harvey, George Jones singing about lost love, and the price of beef. Worse, the antenna is coming loose, so what we do hear is punctuated by static. Somewhere out here are two other parties— the team that deploys Toto, and another team from the University of Oklahoma—but we haven’t heard from either.
When Burgess stops for gas in the town of Wellington, the attendant glances suspiciously at our government plates. “Looks like we might have a tornado today,” he says. Burgess, who was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, knows how to make filling-station conversation. “Yep,” he says. “You sure might.”
While Rasmussen tries to get Norman on the pay phone, Davies-Jones stands in the road, clocking the speed of wind gusts with his hand-held anemometer. Burgess buys a Dr. Pepper and takes out his credit card.
Just then, a high-pitched tone cuts through the static on the radio. “This is a NOAA weather alert,” an announcer says. “A tornado has been reported on the ground near Childress. All residents of Childress, Harmon, and Greer counties should take shelter immediately.”
Instantly, everyone is back in the vehicle; Childress is only thirty miles away. “Where y’all headed in that rig?” the attendant says.
“Going to catch that sucker,” Burgess tells him, as we pull out.
We head south on a blacktop, driving fast but not too fast; intercept vehicles have been stopped by the highway patrol for speeding. “Boy, does this bring back memories,” Rasmussen says. He has intercepted other tornadoes on this very road.
Now the overcast is clearing, and I can see the storm ahead. So solid does the cumulonimbus look, like a great white-hot mountain, that I have difficulty believing that it is really an intricate structure of circulating air.
In an ordinary thunderstorm, falling rain chokes off the core of rising hot air, and the storm dies of suffocation. But this storm is what meteorologists call a “supercell.” It towers so high that it has punched right through the jet stream to the edge of the stratosphere. As the storm is pushed forward on the jet, rain falls ahead of the rising hot air. Instead of being suffocated, this type of storm can sustain itself for hours, building up the energy necessary to’ produce a tornado. The tornado almost always appears on the southeast corner of such a storm, behind the precipitation shaft. Approaching as we are, through the precipitation shaft, is slightly dangerous. Blinded by rain, we could come out right in the funnel’s path. Most of the close calls on intercepts have happened this way.
“Precip,” Burgess says, as the first drops strike the windshield. The rain gets heavier, until nothing can be seen but the headlights of an approaching car. Now we can hear hail rattling on the roof—possibly a sign of a tornado nearby. “Time is now about seventeen-o-six,” Davies-Jones says for the log. “We’re in about marble-sized hail, coming down very fast, in a very heavy core south of Wellington. Rain seems to be lightening up ahead . . . We’re breaking out!”
UNDER THE STORM, IT’s VERY DARK. A DENSE BLACK ceiling stretches away for miles. Only to the southeast does a little sunlight seep in. Hanging directly over the road ahead—so low that it almost touches the ground—is a wall cloud. Burgess creeps slowly to a stop, and the meteorologists leap out. Very reluctantly, I follow them. Although I don’t see a funnel, it appears that one is going to form at any second. The air is absolutely still. “Looks like the real action’s about ten miles to the west,”Rasmussen is saying.
Since we’re not leaving, I force myself to look at my surroundings. The fields on either side of the road are covered with hail. Fog hangs over them in a motionless layer. I try to take pictures, but I’m so frightened that my fingers are numb. The wall cloud is glowing with a grayish-pink light; it goes up and down in great gobs, like a lava lamp.
To my great relief, everyone decides that it’s time to go. We get back in the vehicle and head southeast, moving parallel to the storm and trying to find a point from which we can photograph.
Tornadoes usually don’t last very long—when they form, they begin pulling in rain and cold air from the nearby precipitation shaft, and are soon extinguished—but they may form several times along the path of a storm. The mouth of a funnel is often composed of smaller, multiple vortices. And the path of the spinning funnel follows the rim of an even larger vortex—the mesocyclone.
No one knows for certain what sets off a tornado. DaviesJones believes that cold air spilling off the rear of a storm—a phenomenon known as rear-flank downdraft—in some way intensifies its circulation. This cold air erodes the back of the storm, opening a slot of clear sky between the cloud base and the ground which tends to appear just before a tornado does.
Off to our left, the wall cloud is consolidating. “Looking better all the time,” Davies-Jones says. It’s rotating, and a bell-shaped lowering is developing on the leading edge. “It’s going to go,” Rasmussen shouts. “Left, left!”
Burgess turns north, trying to get closer to the path of the tornado before it touches down. It’s still in the air, but I can see fingers of dust rising from the fields below. “Stop!” Rasmussen yells. He leaps out and starts unloading the camera, and I hear Davies-Jones cry, “Tornado on the ground, seventeen-thirty!”
The tornado is coming toward us on a diagonal, and it looks as if it’s going to cross the road less than a mile ahead. Sure enough, a slot of clear sky has opened behind it. Silhouetted against this, the tornado looks almost as if it were onstage. I line up a telephone pole with the left side of the funnel. If the tornado moves to the left of that pole, it’s headed in our direction. Somebody has got to keep an eye on things: the meteorologists are totally absorbed in their filming.
The mouth of the funnel looks less like air than like some dense black fluid, which, at this speed (probably 150 miles per hour), for all practical purposes it is. Rasmussen is shouting observations as he operates the movie camera. “Tornado on the ground . . .big tornado. . . I can see multiple vortices.” Jets of dust leap up at the mouth of the funnel and scissor around it, so that it looks like an enormous DNA helix. Larger than any moving thing should be, still it glides along in an impossible silence.
At this point, I feel a profound admiration for the meteorologists—especially Rasmussen, who led us hundreds of miles to this tornado, on a trip that started before the parent storm was even born. I also appreciate why they do this; the tornado is simply the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen. This is a moment of clarity—a clarity so great that it is euphoric—in which I glimpse forces operating on a scale beyond any I can ordinarily imagine. On this scale I am nothing; and when the funnel comes so close that it fills the lens of my camera, I let the camera drop and just stare, feeling helpless as a child.
In the instant before the funnel crosses the road, it lifts. I notice the University of Oklahoma vehicle on the road ahead of us. That team has gotten here, too, and is even closer than we are. “Rain curtain,” Rasmussen shouts, and a moving drapery of rain wraps around the funnel and obliterates it.
“Dad gum,” Burgess says, disappointed. We get back into the Chevy, he throws it into gear, and we take off.
FOR THE NEXT THIRTY MINUTES, BURGESS FOLLOWS the storm to the northeast along dirt roads, trying to catch it before the tornado can form again. Let’s not get too close, I’m thinking; let’s not get carried away! At one point, the tumbleweeds on either side of the road go flying straight up in the air. It’s only what Davies-Jones calls a “gustnado” (a minor vortex), but for a moment it produces the convincing illusion that a funnel is forming directly over our heads.
At another point, the clouds are torn apart and a great shaft of sunlight pours down. It’s another clear slot opening up. Ahead, where the rear-flank downdraft is hitting the ground, gales of red dust are blowing across the fields. This cold air, fresh from the edge of the stratosphere, is so dense that it falls at a hundred feet a second or more. An aircraft flying through a downdraft like this would lose lift and plunge to the ground.
Another funnel does touch down, but it dissipates before we can take any pictures. Seeing the highway patrol ahead, Burgess slows and tells the officers that they’d better radio the town of Mangum, which is right in the path of the storm. Moments later, we meet a motorcycle gang on big Harley choppers, but by this time I’ve lost my capacity for surprise.
Finally, we reach a highway and get out from under the storm. On a hilltop just north of the Red River we pull off for a look, followed by the University of Oklahoma team and by Howard Bluestein, a meteorologist who’s driving the Dodge pickup that deploys Toto. All three teams— though they have been traveling separately and without radio contact—not only have picked the same storm but have managed to join up on the same stretch of highway. Any doubt I might have had about the ability of these tornado chasers disappears. They are more expert than I would have believed possible.
Davies-Jones stares up at the storm, which eclipses the sun. “Avery impressive animal,” he says.
He is right. By looking straight up, I can see the very top of the cumulonimbus, (Later, I learn that the core is almost 60,000 feet high—more than twice as high as the highest mountain on earth—and that together with the anvil it covers an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island.) Although it’s moving too slowly for me to see this, the whole cumulonimbus is in slow cyclonic (counterclockwise) rotation, pushed along by the jet and by today’s strong northeasterly winds. Also helping is the coriolis force, a response to the rotation of the earth. This is the same force that makes almost every vortex in the Northern Hemisphere— from hurricanes to the water in bathtub drains—rotate to the left. And this storm is on the edge of an area of low atmospheric pressure covering the entire state of Oklahoma—a low that is also in cyclonic rotation.
The cumulonimbus is sublimely beautiful, from the golden scallops of its main storm tower to the deep-blue knife edge of its base. Long gray scrolls, which DaviesJones tells me are “laminar inflow bands,” curve into the region of the mesocyclone. The wall cloud rotates, silhouetted against dull reddish-gold sunlight shining through under the storm. To the north, the precipitation shaft looks like a great spill of India ink. We can see nothing but blackness in that direction, and it reminds me of my old nightmare. In the foreground, as if a painter had composed the whole picture, a frightened horse runs in circles around a yellow field. To the northeast, on another hill, is the town of Mangum, and as I look in that direction, I hear the sirens blow.
WHEN A TORNADO STRIKES A TOWN, PEOPLE ARE subjected to strange and violent experiences that nothing in their lives could have prepared them for. They are rarely the same afterward.
Dennis Spruill, who was then the city editor of the Wichita Falls Times, was at home taking a nap when the tornado of 1979 approached. The sirens woke him at 6:00, and he heard a television announcer say, “A tornado is on the ground near Ponderosa Estates.” Then the power went off. Spruill lived near Ponderosa Estates. He was strongly tempted to go to his wife, who was working at a bank five blocks away, but he decided to follow the safety rules recently published in the paper and went into the bathroom, taking their dog with him.
For a long time, as he crouched there in the darkness, between the toilet and the bathtub, nothing happened. Then he heard a sound he describes as “the sound of pure energy—a lot of power.” It reminded him of a turbine that he had once heard on a visit to the city power station. The house began to rock. The air got cold. Looking up, he saw that the roof had become detached and was hovering a few feet above the house. Then it disintegrated, and the air was filled with flying boards. The water in the toilet boiled— he couldn’t believe his eyes—and shot skyward like soda from a siphon. Spruill clung to the toilet for dear life. The tornado was trying to pull him out of the house.
Another Wichita Falls man, Robert Campbell, did just what he shouldn’t have done that day: tried to escape the tornado in his car. Campbell, who is in the oil business, drove his Lincoln Continental to a nearby golf course, thinking that there he would have room to outrun it. Two of his neighbors had the same idea. Parked alongside each other, they watched the tornado approach for several minutes. Campbell says, “That tornado had all the room in the world, but somehow it kept coming right in our direction.” Suddenly Campbell decided that it was getting too close, and drove off across the fairway. His neighbors thought it might still miss them and stayed. One was killed.
Campbell drove off the golf course and stopped. He remembered something about opening windows in a tornado, and began pressing buttons. The windshield cracked and then soundlessly disintegrated, the fragments flying outward. Campbell crawled under the dashboard. (He is six feet four, and I asked him how he managed to fit into so small a space. “Hell,” he told me, “I could have crawled in the glove compartment.”) Then the rocking of the car changed to a smoother motion—“like a boat on a river” — and Campbell felt the car leave the ground.
In his bathroom, Spruill was “thinking clear as day: this is how I’m going to get it—killed by a flying board.” The air was full of them; he could feel them hitting him. Opening his eyes, he saw one—“a horrible-looking piece of wood,” Spruill says—come flying in and ricochet around the room. Its splintered tip pierced the door like an arrow, knocking it off its hinges. He closed his eyes again and held his dog, who was biting him so hard that he finally had to let her go. She simply disappeared. There was a moment of stillness, in the eye of the tornado. Then the other side of the funnel hit, and again the air was full of flying boards. Later, Spruill’s body turned black and blue, but somehow, of all these boards, not one hit him point-first.
On his hands and knees, he crawled out of the house. The bathroom was the only part left standing. “Everything you knew was a landmark from your neighborhood was indistinguishable. I thought the whole town was destroyed.”He found his dog on what was left of the closet shelf. Her eyes were packed with dirt, shingle dust, and blood, but she was alive. Then he thought of his wife. Carrying the dog under his arm, he started for the bank. He met others on the way, just emerging from the debris. Spruill says, “They had a look in their eyes that wasn’t coherent. That look of total shock is what stuck in my mind afterward.” He remembers one man’s face wrapped in a bloody pillowcase. The neighborhood looked like a garbage dump. Pipes were sticking up out of heaps of boards. Trees were still standing, but they were stripped of leaves and bark, giving the ruins a strange, wintry look. As he got to the bank, which he had trouble finding, the sun came out. His wife and the other employees were just emerging from the vault.
Campbell, aloft in his car, had trouble breathing. The air was full of dirt. He told me later, “What you can’t realize about a tornado is that they’re filthy, absolutely filthy.” Finally, the car came back to earth, hundreds of yards from where he had stopped. The whole interior, except for the space under the dashboard, was full of lumber that had been driven in through the windows. The Continental was totaled. With some difficulty, he climbed out. He got a flashlight out of the car and, with other survivors, began trying to help people. He remembers seeing two women lying on the ground, one of them dead. They had tried to hide in a culvert, but the wind had blasted them out. Their bodies were covered with lacerations. On the road alongside the golf course, cars began to pass slowly, “full of the kind of people who hang around accidents. They were having a good look. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.”
Finally, Campbell gave his flashlight to a policeman and started for his office downtown, four miles away. By this time, it was dark and there was no power anywhere in the city. Helicopters circled, their halogen searchlights stabbing down. When he tried to hitchhike, nobody would give him a ride. The janitor let him into his office, where he had a couch to sleep on and a bottle of drinking water. “Man, this is okay,” he thought.
The next morning there was a dust storm, and the sky was red-orange and dirty. He collected what clothes were left in the ruins of his apartment and took them to the cleaners; then he got a room at the Trade Winds Motel. There he met a lot of old friends—people he hadn’t seen since high school—but they didn’t have much to say to each other. “After three or four days of this,” he says, “I realized I didn’t have a car.”
To keep from hanging around the motel, he went to his office, but nobody was working. Time stood still. One good thing: Campbell had been going through a difficult divorce, with his wife’s lawyers trying to serve him with subpoenas every day; he no longer had to worry about those. When he got sick of eating at cafeterias, he bought a hot plate and steamed vegetables in his room. “I was getting real healthy,” he says.
He noticed lots of strangers in town—“the sort of trashy people who follow disasters . . . people who couldn’t hold a job anyplace else.” Several survivors of the Wichita Falls tornado told me afterward that the town seemed to have been taken over by strangers. A great number of outsiders did arrive in Wichita Falls—among them “contractors” who accepted money to rebuild homes and then disappeared.
After a week, Campbell realized that although he didn’t have a car, he had an airplane and could go anywhere he pleased. He’d been thinking about a hotel in Port Isabel, on the Gulf, where he and his wife and kids had gone in better days.
Fortunately, Spruill’s children were out of town. Spruill and his wife spent their first night in the home of people they didn’t even know: the parents of a woman who worked at the bank. Spruill went down to his office to file a story, but the paper couldn’t be printed without power. For three days, he forgot to eat. Then the children returned and the whole family moved in with relatives in a nearby town. This was the beginning of “a nomad existence.” The Spruills, too, ended up at the Trade Winds, the four of them living for a month in a single room. Vice-President Mondale came to Wichita Falls, and the federal government declared the city a disaster area. Hundreds of trailers were moved in for the homeless. The Spruills could have gotten one, but Dennis was afraid; he had seen what the tornado had done to their brick house. There were several more tornado alerts that month, and each time, Spruill found that he couldn’t leave the television. The dog was still recovering, and he spent a fortune on veterinary bills. It seemed really important to keep that dog alive. After a while, Spruill began to have nightmares—not about the tornado, but about a great Civil War battle involving all of his friends, at which he was a powerless spectator. These nightmares went on for a year.
Campbell found the hotel at Port Isabel a little the worse for wear, but very much to his liking. He walked the beach a lot and spoke to no one—just stopped thinking altogether.
The Wichita Falls tornado destroyed more than 2,500 homes. People who were alone seemed to suffer the most, psychologically. In the following year, the number of suicides rose and the number of applications for divorce fell. One elderly woman told a reporter that she and her husband had survived the tornado by getting into their bathtub. She said, “That’s the first time I’ve been able to get him in a bathtub with me in forty years.”
WE FOLLOW THE STORM ACROSS THE QUARTZ Mountains, a very old and eroded range of granite hills, which are glowing as if with their own gray light against the black precipitation shaft. By now the time is 7:15, and it’s getting very dark. My heart is thudding and my mouth is dry. A simple fear of the dark is coming back to me. When, at the town of Lone Wolf, we turn north, heading back under the storm, I feel as if I were going down into my grandmother’s cellar to confront some childhood terror.
As we creep along the slippery dirt road (rain has fallen here) the meteorologists stare upward at funnels trying to form. Davies-Jones says, “They look like funnels for a brief time, but they keep dissipating again after a few seconds. ” “Still got a nice clear slot.”
“Problem is, rain is wrapped around the circulation, just as it’s been with all the other ones we’ve seen today.”
Ahead is a darkened farmhouse, ghostly in the nightmarish light. Every living thing except us seems to have disappeared, probably into shelter. The vehicle slithers from side to side. As we turn to the right in front of the farmhouse, the wheels break loose and we’re half in the ditch.
Suddenly a gust slams into the side of the vehicle. Looking to the left, I see a big gray funnel dropping down behind the farmhouse. The sound is higher-pitched than I expected, like the hollow roar of an enormous seashell. Davies-jones is holding the recorder out the window, trying to get it on tape (analysis of the frequency of the sound can give tornadic wind velocity). “Oh, boy, this one has got to go big,” Rasmussen is saying. Scraps of cloud are shooting toward the mouth of the funnel and the vehicle is rocking. . . .
“Yeah, it’s gone.”
I’m still hyperventilating, all too aware that escape, if it had come to that, would have been impossible. Burgess calls Toto, somewhere ahead of us. “Still got rapid rotation here, but the big funnel we had a moment ago is gone.”
“Nothing on the ground right now?” Bluestein asks.
“That’s a roger, I don’t think it hit the ground.”
Burgess eases the vehicle back onto the road. I’m wondering why the meteorologists can’t give it up. By now there is less light, if that is possible. As we turn north on a blacktop, looking for Toto, Rasmussen says, “Looks like we’ve got another funnel trying to form behind us. Let’s not forget about that.”
The sky is split by discharges of cloud-to-ground lightning. Rain descends like smoke, blotting out the last of the light. The mission is over. Burgess pulls off the road and we sit there in the dark, listening to hailstones click on the roof.
Yet after a few minutes, it becomes clear that the storm is not dying down. “Golly,” Burgess says, “I can’t ever remember hail going on this long.” I’m leaning away from the window, afraid that it will shatter. The hailstones are bigger than golf balls. Rasmussen opens the door and picks one up. Breaking it open, he holds it under his flashlight, and I see that it is composed of concentric layers of ice, cloudy alternating with clear.
Suddenly, the wind gusts around from the southwest to the northeast, and the meteorologists look at each other alertly. This could mean that another tornado has formed behind us and that we are in its path. There are two other indications of danger to watch out for: larger hailstones and a sudden drop in pressure. Almost at once, the hail does get larger. Bluestein comes through on the radio and reports that he’s getting “near-baseball.” A moment later, so are we. “Oh, damn,” Davies-jones says, laughing nervously. Holding his anemometer out the window, he clocks a gust of 60 knots.
“What have you got on your barometer, Eric?”
Rasmussen is shining his flashlight on the dial. “Just dropped two millibars in the last minute.”
When I look at Rasmussen, his eyes are as black as buttons, and I see that for once the meteorologists are just as frightened as I am.
Burgess has Toto on the radio, and they’re talking about everyone’s getting out and going for the ditch. I know that staying in the vehicle is the worst thing to do in a situation like this, but I don’t know if I can leave. “All right,” Davies-jones says, for the log. “Visibility’s down to zero zero. There’s another storm behind us, so we’d better watch it. We’re getting strong wind out of the northeast, maybe 60 knots; and the van is starting to rock. “ I can’t help but think that this sounds like the in-flight recording of an airline pilot just before he crashes.
L ATER, DAVIES-JONES TELLS ME THAT YOU CAN GET sudden pressure drops in the core of a collapsing thunderstorm. Or perhaps there was another tornado nearby. In any case, the hail stops and the wind gradually dies. Burgess is able to inch forward until we see Bluestein and his team loading Toto back on the pickup.
The next town, Sentinel, is dark. There is no power anywhere until we reach Highway 35, where we go into a big truck stop full of excited people. The storm tonight has destroyed the wheat crop for hundreds of square miles around. The meteorologists sit at a formica table, under a painting that I’ve seen in truck stops before of Jesus hovering protectively over a trucker as he pushes his rig down a sinister road.
The other customers listen to the conversation of the meteorologists for a moment, decide to ignore it, and turn away. They remind me of some people in Wichita Falls who, when I told them about the tornado-intercept project, thought the idea was ridiculous. Several said that tornadoes are “acts of God” and can therefore never be understood.
The meteorologists would find this attitude as incomprehensible as their conversation seems to be to the truckers. They talk endlessly, attempting to clarify in scientific terms what we’ve seen. Davies-jones is particularly excited by the appearance of a clear slot every time a funnel formed: more evidence of the importance of rear-flank downdraft. The next step is to compile the data—film footage, transcripts of the tape-recorded visual observations, and Doppler-radar pictures—into a profile of the storm. This profile will be compared with others, in a process that might eventually impose order on the day’s apparent chaos.