Driving through west Texas on vacation when he was 7 years old, Lanny Dean’s family ran into a heavy thunderstorm, with large hail pounding on the roof of the car.
“We went through a curtain of rain and there it was,” Dean remembers. “The first tornado I had ever seen.
“The fear of it was overwhelming.”
A relatively small twister, it crossed the highway about a mile ahead of them, doing no harm. But the adrenaline was addictive.
“That did it for me,” he said. “I’ve been obsessed with the weather ever since.”
With help from Dean and other entrepreneurs, Oklahoma’s storm season has become a booming tourist attraction, drawing people from around the world.
“I just booked somebody from Japan,” Dean said, his voice raspy last week from spending so much time on the phone with clients. “The one before that was from the UK.”
Based in Tulsa, his Extreme Chase Tours are almost fully booked from early May through mid-August, taking thrill seekers on a high-speed hunt for potentially deadly storms.
For locals, spring weather is a yearly ordeal to survive. But for tourists, especially foreign tourists, it’s an exotic adventure.
“They’ve never seen anything like it,” Dean said, noting that roughly one-third of his clients come from overseas.
“Everybody wants to see a tornado, but they just want to see this part of the country, too. They want to see small-town America, and we show it to them in a very unique way.”
At least three Oklahoma tour companies offer storm-chasing packages, according to state tourism officials, with about a dozen similar groups in surrounding states.
A typical trip can cover 5,000 miles in less than two weeks, roaming from the Mexican border to North Dakota, all guided by the latest in storm-prediction technology.
Some take a few people at a time in SUVs. Others use a caravan of 15-passenger vans.
But it’s still such a niche industry that it remains unregulated. A storm chaser needs only to be bonded and insured like any other small business.
Clients pay $200 to $500 a day, depending on the tour company and the length of the trip.
“Safety is our first priority,” said Charles Edwards, owner of Norman-based Cloud 9 Tours. “There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing this.”
Last April in Dickinson County, Kan., officials blamed storm chasers for clogging roads and slowing down emergency vehicles.
“It was outrageously stupid,” a county administrator said at the time, according to media reports. “People were driving crazy. It was dangerous.”
That’s why people need professional tours, instead of “do-it-yourself” storm chasing, Edwards said.
“The last thing we want to do is get caught in a traffic jam,” he said, “or get in anybody’s way.”
The National Weather Service typically cooperates with professional chasers, helping them track storms in exchange for them giving on-the-ground reports back to forecasters.
“But it’s not as glamorous as it sounds,” Edwards said. “It’s a lot of gas station food and cheap motels, if you can find them. It’s a lot of driving and not a lot of sleeping.”
Like most professional storm chasers, Edwards started doing it as a hobby. But eventually, he began taking people along in his car to help offset the costs.
By the late ’90s, it had grown into a full-blown seasonal business, now promoting itself as the oldest storm chasing tour group still in operation.
More importantly, it can boast a 70 percent “success rate” at finding tornados.
“It’s part technology, part instinct and part luck,” Edwards said.
“But the real goal isn’t to see a tornado — we can’t guarantee that — but to see severe weather. And during a certain part of the year, there’s always some of that to see.”
Michael Overall 918-581-8383
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Photo Credit: Storm Chasers in Western Kentucky. Daniel Guy / Flickr.com