Storm chaser: Being inside tornado ‘most exciting point...but also the scariest’

Brandon Ivey had been hoping for this moment for five years.

A large tornado was churning through open land in the heart of Tornado Alley, and Ivey and chase partner Sean Casey were directly in its path, anchored in their TIV, or Tornado Intercept Vehicle.

The “tank,” as Ivey calls it, was hunkered down on a gravel road in Smith County in northern Kansas on Memorial Day as the wedge tornado – up to a mile wide, the National Weather Service would later say – moved southeast right at them.

“We figure we can take winds up to 200 mph with the TIV, as long as we’re in open country,” Ivey told the crowd at a meeting of the American Meteorological Society in downtown Wichita on Tuesday. “But the wind is not our biggest fear.”

Flying debris is more worrisome, he said, because a tornado can transform a telephone pole into a deadly spear or a farm implement into a lethal bludgeon. Even items as fragile as straw can be driven into utility poles.

Casey and Ivey are probably best known for their involvement in The Discovery Channel series “Storm Chasers.” They’ve been working together for five years now, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to be hit by a large tornado.

That time had come.

The southern quadrant – the strongest part of the tornado, Ivey said – hit the TIV.

Ivey later determined the TIV was inside the slow-moving tornado for 90 seconds. Unbeknown to Ivey and Casey, the tornado had hit a farmstead before reaching the TIV.

Debris from that farm slammed into the TIV, including a piece of sheet metal that caused sparks as it scraped along the windshield.

“That made me flinch,” Ivey said.

He didn’t really feel scared, he said, until the TIV’s top hatch and small back door both flew open. That left them helpless against any debris that happened to fly into the TIV, but they were spared.

“Probably the most exciting point in my storm-chasing career, but also the scariest,” Ivey said.

After the tornado passed, the duo checked the TIV for damage. Instruments on the exterior of the TIV were destroyed – among them the anemometer, which measures wind speed.

But the four spikes driven into the ground to help anchor the vehicle had done their job: The TIV didn’t budge. The metal flaps that were lowered to protect the undercarriage and wheels of the TIV worked well, too.

In fact, Ivey said, the TIV didn’t even rock while it was in the tornado. The tornado was eventually rated an EF-3 by the weather service, with maximum estimated wind speeds of 140 mph. But Ivey said measurements made by the anemometer before it was destroyed indicated winds inside the tornado reached 170 mph, which would make it an EF-4.

The weather service based its rating on damage done to the only four structures the tornado hit in the rural part of Smith County.

Hay sucked into the tornado “gave the tornado a lot of color,” Ivey said, and made it more visible in footage shot by the TIV’s camera. That video went viral on cyberspace and attracted national attention.

“It’s the strongest tornado this vehicle has ever been in,” Ivey said.

He’s still reviewing the video shot on May 27, looking for telling details about the tornado’s behavior. Casey shot video for use in a new IMAX movie about tornadoes, while Ivey was focused more on the scientific data collected during the storm.

“Hopefully, we can find some information that will lead to a better understanding of the internal structure of tornadoes,” he said.

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