The Best Excuse To Drive a Hummer H2 Really, Really Fast When you're seeking out some of the most extreme weather on earth, you need a Hummer H2. By Phil Berg, Contributor Date posted: 10-02-2007 It seems like a dream. We're in a big, black Hummer H2 with a flashing light bar on the roof and the sheriff is urging us to drive even faster down the smooth two-lane pavement that stretches across the prairie to the horizon. It's May 24, and Phil Henry is being urged by two sheriffs to lead a group of storm-chasing tourists away from the path of a tornado in Oklahoma. Phil is navigating while Kathy Henry, his wife, drives this Hummer H2, a dedicated tornado chaser painstakingly outfitted with sophisticated electronics so it can receive updates from satellite-based weather radar every six minutes. When she's chasing big storms, Kathy Henry's right foot often has the accelerator planted to the floor of the Hummer and she keeps it there in controlled bursts of gasoline-sucking speed that even the Sierra Club would reluctantly admit is necessary. An array of amber flashing lights and white strobes warn less-informed motorists on the road to make way for the Henrys' Hummer H2, similarly outfitted cars of other chasers, and two Crown Victoria sedans carrying the men with badges. Surfing the Wedge As spectacular as the views might be, you're frequently reminded that a tornado is never joking. "A lot of times cops follow us because they know we're not going to get caught in a wedge," says Jay McCoy, a veteran storm chaser from Amarillo, Texas, who supplies weathermen at local television stations with video and information during storms. Chasers call twisters "wedges." Law enforcement and emergency service personnel rely on chasers such as the Henrys and McCoy to lead a safe path away from tornado-caused chaos. A tornado is loud, dark, thundering and screaming all at the same time, a natural force so powerful that a tornado set the world record for wind speed in 2001 near Oklahoma City at greater than 300 mph. On May 5 this year, residents of Greenville, Kansas, (population 1,500) got a 30-minute warning of an approaching tornado and found shelter before their town was completely leveled by a 1.7-mile-wide twister that cut a 22-mile-long path. The early warning was the result of reports that come from the storm watchers, who confirm radar images from the National Weather Service (NWS). Ten people were killed by the storm, including a police officer who had driven from a neighboring town to offer help. Long ago in 1925 in the days before such warnings from the NWS, some 234 people were killed at Murphysboro, Illinois, by a similarly powerful tornado. The Henrys have been chasing severe storms and tornadoes, an activity that has become a spectator sport for thousands of people, since 1993. But the Henrys have a more serious purpose. For years they have provided a support crew for Warren Faidley, a photojournalist and severe storm expert, and now they hunt down big storms and inform the National Weather Service when a giant super-cell storm has spawned a dangerous twister so that towns like Greenville, Kansas, can be warned when a tornado is approaching. Yet the 10 minutes that the average tornado lasts is only the final 10 minutes of perhaps as much as 14 hours of driving that the Henrys' chase team does during a day when storms are likely. The Chase The Henrys might drive as much as 500 miles in a day to reach a potential storm site. Of the average 780 tornadoes that are dropped each year by large storms in the U.S. (more than appear anywhere else in the world), some 460 occur in Tornado Alley, which roughly spans the states between the cities of Denver; Omaha, Nebraska; and then down to Dallas. Of these prolific twisters, about 70 tornadoes cause significant damage each year. When tornadoes touch down in May and early June and then again in September, Tornado Alley can be the most dangerous place to drive in the United States. Henry and his crew won't chase storms after dark or even in regions with tall trees. "You'll never see a tornado coming if you're under trees," Phil notes. Most twisters, the chasers say, travel from southwest to northeast and move at anywhere between 10 and 50 mph. But the storms are completely unpredictable and can occasionally become "right turners" and head southeast. On a likely day, the storm chasers pick a state in Tornado Alley where a severe storm has been forecast, then drive as many as 500 miles to get to the storm site. There trouble usually develops at the end of the day when heat rising from the prairie can cause severe updrafts. "When people see us coming," adds McCoy, "they're usually ready to pull over, get out of their cars and find shelter." A Spectator Sport A storm won't wait, so fast driving on narrow prairie roads is a necessity. During May and June, the weathermen at television stations in Amarillo, Texas; Dodge City and Wichita, Kansas; and Oklahoma City frequently are on the air more than the news anchors, and each station has its own crew in vans and SUVs to chase the weather. Meteorology students who are headed to jobs at either the NWS or a TV station often come to Tornado Alley, and maybe with some luck their experience will take them to the Emerald City of weather in Atlanta known as The Weather Channel. Often employees of this television network can be seen spending their vacations in the plains of the U.S. during May to chase monster super-cells. Oddly enough, storm chasing has also become a kind of sport in the last dozen years, as people on holiday cruise the roads in Tornado Alley looking for trouble. There are at least eight professional tour companies that chase storms, offering seats in vans driven by established chasers. Since a tornado sighting is never guaranteed, the chasers might visit The Wizard of Oz museum in Liberal, Kansas, on quiet days. In Wakita, Oklahoma, you'll find a museum for Twister, which was filmed there in 1996. Norman, Oklahoma, is home to the University of Oklahoma and its extensive weather research department; the National Severe Storm Laboratory, part of the National Weather Service, is also based there. Hummer H2 Storm Chaser Every day is like an outtake of Twister. Kathy and Phil Henry lead a team that supports this mixture of amateur and professional storm chasers in a black Hummer H2 outfitted with an array of electronic gear to track storms. On the perimeters of the super-cell storms, hail smashes windshields and heavy rain causes flash floods and drops visibility to zero. It's important to have a vehicle that's built to take it. The Henrys report that their Hummer H2 will not hydroplane on flooded roads caused by the flash floods that accompany some of the storms. The deep grooves in the truck's huge BFGoodrich tires keep the H2 from skating like Brian Boitano across puddles that trip up the standard all-season rubber carried by the Dodge Durangos, Ford Explorers and Jeeps that trail in the Hummer's wake. The Hummer H2's small window openings make the Henrys feel they're less vulnerable to the hail that often falls to earth at 70 mph, some of it large enough to knock out a pedestrian. The open air can become an inhospitable atmosphere when hail develops, as hot air on the ground lifts dust particles so quickly and so high that they freeze, then descend as hailstones. Rarely does a chase vehicle make it through a season without needing a windshield replacement. The Henrys' black Hummer shows the scars of four years of tornado season damage — its roof is deeply pockmarked with hundreds of hail dents, the front grille has hundreds of chips from debris and this year one of its GPS antennae was destroyed by a direct hit from hail. Inside, the passenger's airbag is disabled so that the large LCD of a laptop can display weather-radar images overlaid by a navigation system. Mobile broadband and a satellite telephone with a modem keep the Hummer connected to weather radar services, and to a network of storm spotters also using the same services. The odometer shows 120,000 miles, most of it from chasing storms in Tornado Alley. And the cops love it.