Although Lanny Dean has seen more than 300 tornadoes in his 23 years as a professional storm chaser, he said nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed on the afternoon of May 20.
While leading a group of clients on a storm-chasing tour near Oklahoma City, Dean, the owner of Extreme Chase Tours, watched as a two-mile-wide, EF5 tornado ripped through central Oklahoma, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.
(EF, for Enhanced Fujita, is a scale that describes wind speeds produced by a weather event. An EF5 category tornado produces winds in excess of 200 mph.)
“It really struck a nerve,” Dean said. “That’s the ugly side of [storm] chasing, what you don’t want your guests to see.”
The next day, the Extreme Chase Tours website logged 3,000 hits, resulting in what Dean believes to be an increased interest in his business.
The same was true for Chris McBee, who co-owns Rapid Rotation Storm Tours, a storm-chasing tour company that, like Extreme Chase Tours, is based in the Oklahoma City area.
Shortly after the Moore, Okla., tornado hit, McBee said his company received “a lot more inquiries for next year’s tours.”
Although some might find it surprising, Jessica Renshaw of Renshaw Travel said the phenomenon of interest in storms in the aftermath of a disaster is predictable.
“In response to the tornado in Moore, Okla., I think people are interested in this type of expedition more than ever,” Renshaw wrote in an email. “They are aware of the power of Mother Nature and the grand effect it can have on our communities.”
Renshaw has been booking storm-chasing tours for her “free-spirited, adventure-seeking” clients for about a year, setting them up with veteran storm chaser Greg Johnson, author of “Blown Away: A Year Through the Lens of the Tornado Hunter.”
“For many of [my clients], this type of experience is on their bucket list,” Renshaw said. “Many of them are greatly into photography; they are willing to drive long distances and spend hours on the road to get that perfect photograph that catches the essence of the storm.”
Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel, has a different perspective. While storm chasing no doubt appeals to many in his target client base, adventure travelers, last year he declined a request to book a storm-chasing tour that a client had requested.
“I didn’t feel comfortable offering such a tour,” Johnson wrote in an email.
“It seems a tad morbid to want to follow around a storm that is causing destruction and, quite possibly, death. I actually love to help thrill seekers with their travel, so long as the thrill doesn’t have the potential of hurting someone else.”
Johnson’s opinion is one that Dean is familiar with, yet he insists that his career does not revolve solely on the thrill of the chase but rather around educating his clients about the science behind hazardous weather.
He recounted how people sometimes say, “I can’t believe you’re living off the demise of others.”
“But I’m not,” he said. “I don’t create the weather; I can’t stop it. I’m making a living off knowing what I know and doing what I love.”
On his tours, he teaches his guests about reading radar images, following the jet stream and locating updrafts. The hope, he said, is that they will take the information back home and know how to remain safe when confronted with severe weather.
“That’s the key,” Dean said. “They’re learning. The next time they hear a tornado warning, they’ll know what it is. They have more respect for it.”
Both Extreme Chase Tours and Rapid Rotation Storm Tours take online bookings, but do not currently work with travel agents.
Extreme Chase Tours offer six- to 10-day group storm-chasing adventures from May through August, ranging from about $2,700 to $3,500, depending on where the group will be chasing.
Rapid Rotation promotes weeklong and day tours. Prices range from $300 per day to $2,800 for a seven-day tour.
This article has been updated to reflect correct pricing for daily rates and seven-day tours.