KARVAL, Colo. — The storm comes in fast, a cold downdraft blasting the crowd of people standing on a remote dirt road. Raindrops plunk onto parked cars and then begin turning to hail, and the wind begins whipping dust into faces turned into the storm.
"One minute," Bill Reid calls to the dozen people snapping photos and shooting video. "They've had baseball-size hail out of this one, so we better head out."
Reid is a professional storm chaser, and the two white vans parked alongside this dirt road are filled with paying customers from all over the world who have come to Colorado to see the weather that gave this area its name: Tornado Alley.
Storm chasing has become a full-time business for people like Reid, who works for Texas-based Tempest Tours. Customers fly into Denver and climb aboard vans fitted with laptops, two-way radios and GPS trackers, all to see the extreme weather that builds along a corridor spanning eastern Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.
Whether on their own or with a guided tour, storm chasers travel hundreds of miles in a single day, leapfrogging storms as they blow east. On back roads and isolated pull-offs, dozens of vehicles will suddenly converge, their occupants piling out to photograph and shoot video of towering storm fronts, intense hail and, if they get lucky, an actual tornado.
Stephen Locke of California caught the chasing bug in 2009 and has been trying to stay one step ahead of the storms ever since. On Thursday, Locke flew in to Denver, attached a remote-control camera on his rental car's roof, and headed east to Limon, Colo.
A health care consultant, Locke for fun builds 3-D computer models of storms he has watched, including a massive May 31, 2013, El Reno tornado that killed three experienced storm chasers in central Oklahoma. Theirs were the first recorded deaths of experienced storm chasers, and the memory remains fresh for those who practice the same blend of art and science.
Experienced chasers privately complain about the large numbers of amateurs who clog narrow dirt roads and race past isolated farmhouses at 75 mph. But they acknowledge they, too, were once newcomers to the game that requires little more than a car, a full tank of gas and the willingness to risk getting clobbered by hail, struck by lightning or tossed aside by a tornado.
A storm chaser on a guided tour photographs an approaching storm near Karval, Colo., as cattle graze nearby.(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
On Thursday in southeastern Colorado, about 20 vehicles leapfrogged a storm that threw off baseball-size hail and destroyed at least one chasers' windshield. Some chasers armor their vehicles so they can "core punch" — drive right through the middle of the worst weather. Most skirt the edges, jockeying for shots of a dust devil or the lightning slamming into the grassy fields.
"It definitely is dangerous, and there's a lot of people without a lot of experience trying to get close," said Blake Knapp, a guide with Oklahoma-based Weather Adventures.
Knapp's tours cost about $3,500 for a week. On a recent stop in Chadron, Neb., his clients from England and Australia shared photos they'd taken a few days before a storm that spawned multiple vortexes near Denver International Airport, hundreds of miles to the southwest. Like many guides, Knapp sells prints of his own storm photos.
Most tour groups and many private chasers install laptops in their vehicles so they can watch live radar, or use apps on their smartphones. Members of this informal fraternity sit with their guides for lessons on reading radar and the skies.
On a chase last week in Colorado, off-duty meteorologist Becca Mazur scanned National Weather Service air pressure data to help decide whether to send her friends farther east or south. Mazur, of Wyoming, was riding with Jeff Shardell of Taos, N.M., who co-founded Viper Tours, which offers special trips for Make-A-Wish participants.
Shardell and his partner once guided commercial tours but grew weary of the work involved. Now, they say, they chase just for fun in a specially armored Ford pickup painted with the kind of rubberized and impact-resistant coating used to protect truck beds. Two rails run from the front bumper up and over the roof, allowing the truck to shoulder its way beneath power lines.
"You're welcome to follow us," Shardell's partner, retired soldier Erik Fox, yells out the window as he pulls back onto the road. "But you may not make it."
About 30 country miles southeast, Fox, who lives in Oklahoma, pulls the truck to the roadside and the three pile out to watch the storm drift toward them, dust clouds stinging their eyes. An alarm sounds from inside the cab, telling them a nearby weather spotter has seen tornado activity from this storm.
As raindrops begin to fall, Shardell calls for Mazur to come check the radar display on the cab-mounted laptop. A blast of cold air signals the storm is getting close, and clouds swirl overhead, turning the blue sky black.
"I look at radar all day," Mazur yells back, her hair blowing in the strengthening wind. "I just want to watch out here. It's so awesome."