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.