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Courtesy of Hokie Storm Chasers
Virginia Tech storm chasers observe the structure of a violent thunderstorm near Hays, Kansas, on May 18. The May 18-21 period provided four days of severe storms for the first group of chasers. A second group left Monday with the potential for several days of severe weather this week.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Our hearts have been seared by the painful and heartbreaking images of destruction.
Our eyes have watered and throats have lumped hearing of parents who lost or barely saved children when the roaring winds descended on Oklahoma last week.
The fact that something similar happens somewhere almost every year in our nation, the world’s most prolific breeding ground for tornadoes, doesn’t make it any less harrowing to ponder.
As you read this, I am in the central U.S. helping guide a team of meteorology students from Virginia Tech pursuing severe storms, the second such team to do so in this suddenly violent storm season. This is my 10th trip in the past nine years with the “Hokie Storm Chasers.”
While the first team was observing supercell thunderstorms, some containing tornadoes, at close range for five days in a week’s time, more than 30 people died from tornadoes in storms not far from them in Texas and Oklahoma.
It was a trip that even by our standards was unusually intense for a multiple-day period. There are strong indications this week could be similar for the second group.
Over my nine years, I’ve been along for many jaw-dropping close encounters with the violence of nature.
But violent storms are not all that comes to my mind when I think of the Plains states or our storm chase trips.
I also think of meadowlarks singing as a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and the scent of rain and soil drifts over the freshly plowed and planted fields.
I think of amazing geographical features that defy the common wisdom about the Plains being flat and featureless, such as the Monument Rocks in Kansas, Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, and the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
I think of downtowns with brick streets, sunsets and rainbows, quirky roadside attractions, wind turbines, cattle feed lots, and modern cities, both rising out of and sprawling across the level or gently rolling terrain.
I think of some personal moments too. The Virginia Tech Storm Chase has become such a regular event for me that it’s often a marker for life events.
There’s a cornfield in Nebraska behind an Econo Lodge that I will have to show my son someday. It’s where I first found out from my wife that she was expecting our first child.
There’s a park with ponds and wooden bridges in Texas that I will always connect in my mind to my dad, even though he never visited there. It’s where I called my parents to let them know of their coming grandchild, and for the last time ever, three months before his passing, he was the first to pick up the phone.
And I think of the scores of young people who have participated in this extreme field trip, many of whom I keep up with, even from my first trip.
Besides safe travel, observing severe storms at close range is the prime objective of these annual journeys into the heartland. For some of the students, it will be their only chance to tag along with a Plains supercell or see a tornado.
Some years we see frequent and astounding storms of amazing power. Other years, we scratch and claw and see only a couple of average storms, still impressive in such full view over open terrain.
But we don’t just see the Plains states as a large patch of farmland where tornadoes occur often. This region is home to millions of hardworking people who, with extremely few exceptions, have treated us with hospitality and generosity over the years.
It’s the openness of their hearts and the openness of the sky that keeps me going back.
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