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Storm Chasers Seek Thrills, But Also Chance To Warn Others

May 21, 2013
Originally published on May 21, 2013 6:33 pm

When disaster strikes, our natural instinct is to take cover and seek shelter. But in severe weather, especially the type that breeds tornadoes like we saw in Oklahoma and parts of the Midwest this week, there are those who ride toward the storm.

Oklahoma native Chris McBee is one of those so-called storm chasers, and he was on the ground near Moore, the area hit hardest by Monday's massive tornado that experts now say was an EF-5, the most powerful.

McBee told All Things Considered host Melissa Block that he was about a half a mile south of the tornado as it crossed into Moore when he captured his dramatic video.

"There was debris raining out of the air on top of us," McBee says. "It just gave us a sick feeling because we knew it was hitting a lot of structures and really affecting a lot of lives."

McBee says that while chasing storms and documenting tornadoes is a thrill, he also does it to help the National Weather Service know what is happening on the ground so it can warn those in the path of the storm.

"That's really a priority among storm chasers," he says. "It certainly is a thrill to be out there ... [but] we're trying to warn people in the path as well."

A native of nearby Norman, Okla., McBee says severe weather is a regular part of life. Monday's damage, however, is the worst he's ever seen as a storm chaser.

"There's no way to get used to the destruction we saw yesterday."

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When the deadly tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City area yesterday, among those watching was Chris McBee.


CHRIS MCBEE: Elephant Trunk Tornado on the ground, looking west-northwest from 60th and Franklin.

BLOCK: Chris McBee is a storm chaser from nearby Norman, Okla. He recorded this video as the charcoal-gray funnel cloud churned its way across the horizon.


MCBEE: Oh, you can hear it. The debris is in the air. Oh, my gosh...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You've got to watch for the debris...

MCBEE: ...terrible situation for the metro...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You've got to watch for the debris...

MCBEE: ...yeah. Watch for debris falling out of the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wow, it's hitting all sorts of...

MCBEE: Oh, I know. It's awful. Oh, so much structural damage. I hope people heard the warnings. Oh, my gosh.

BLOCK: And Chris McBee joins us now. Chris, welcome to the program.

MCBEE: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Why don't you tell us where you were yesterday, when this tornado started forming, and what you did when you heard about it.

MCBEE: Well, we were just southwest of the city of Moore. We watched the tornado form several miles to the west. It was fairly small to begin with, but it intensified very quickly and became over a mile wide as it was heading into town. And we were about a half-mile south of it. As it crossed into the city of Moore, there was debris raining out of the air on top of us - nothing very large, but you know, pieces of paper and cardboard, and parts of trees and things like that, just falling out of the sky. And it just gave us a sick feeling 'cause we knew that it was hitting a lot of structures and really affecting a lot of lives.

BLOCK: What's really striking, when you watch the video, is to realize that you - as a storm chaser - are following the tornado. You're driving toward it - or at least tracking it, rather than driving away from it. I mean, how do you know that you are anywhere near a safe place?

MCBEE: Well, we've been doing this for a long time. We know how storms behave. You ccould really judge where a tornado's going to go, both on radar and visually. And we got ourselves into a spot where we knew that we were not in danger ourselves, but where we could watch it very, you know, from a very close range. When you're experienced, as we are, on storm chasing, you - you understand how the storm's going to behave, and you know how to get yourself in a safe place.

BLOCK: And we heard you there talking about an elephant trunk tornado.

MCBEE: Yes. There are several different types of tornados that storm chasers will frequently refer to, just based on the tornado visually. There's elephant trunk and stovepipe, and cone and wedge, and just things like that; that just give the National Weather Service a better idea of exactly what we're looking at, and can be done very quickly that way.

BLOCK: So you were actually on the phone - somebody in your car was on the phone with the National Weather Service, phoning in what you were seeing?

MCBEE: Yes, as soon as we saw the tornado touch down. That's really a priority among storm chasers because when you get that ground truth report to the National Weather Service, they can warn people that are in the path.

BLOCK: So you see that as part of what your role is. It's not just thrill-seeking, the thrill of chasing a tornado.

MCBEE: Well, it certainly is a thrill to be out there. You know, we're shooting footage, you know, we're trying to warn people that are in the path as well. And having a direct line to the National Weather Service is definitely important.

BLOCK: You live in Norman, Okla.; grew up in Norman, Okla. Do you ever get used to the things like you saw yesterday?

MCBEE: You really don't. Severe weather's a way of life, here in Oklahoma. But yesterday's destruction was the worst that I've ever seen as a storm chaser. We're used to seeing, you know, a small tornado tear up a cornfield, you know, and not hurt anybody. Most tornados we see are in very rural areas. And yesterday just happened to be one of those that was in a populated area. It's happened a lot. But no, there's no way to get used to the destruction we saw yesterday.

BLOCK: Chris McBee is a storm chaser in Norman, Okla. Mr. McBee, thanks for being with us.

MCBEE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.