While most Americans spend April praying for mild weather, storm chasers do just the opposite. In Tornado Alley, a sock-shaped section of the Central Plains stretching from Texas to Nebraska, supercell twisters bring chaos, ruin, and tidy profits for the outfitters that truck in weather-heads eager to see a genuine funnel.
"It's beyond busy," said Brian Barnes, who runs StormTours.com. "The business didn't look like this 15 years ago."
Barnes says new weather-tracking apps and TV shows like Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" have pushed tornado chasing into the mainstream. But he isn't worried about competition. Storm chasing is harder than it looks: Most new tour companies underestimate the amount of planning and resources involved and shut down after a season or two. Barnes employs 12 drivers and forecasters that lead week-long excursions out of Dallas and Denver. "We book most of our tours a year out," he says.
While it's true that the beginning of this year's tornado season has been milder than usual – largely due to an exceptionally cold winter – forecasters don't know if the rest of the season will proceed accordingly. Greg S. Forbes, the Weather Channel's severe weather expert, said temperatures can rise quickly. "And once they do," he adds, "it won't matter how cold the winter was."
Usually, those warmer temperatures hit in early May. That's when veteran tour guides like Martin Lisius, who operates the Texas-based Tempest Tours, hit the road. "If guests are paying a lot of money, you have to take them during the heart of the season," Licius says. "We've compacted our tours down to May and June because other months are too unpredictable." He estimates that nine out of every ten of his tours intercepts a tornado.
But even the most successful tornado tour companies operate with a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mentality. Once customers arrive on the plains, they're usually driven out into the fields and have a set number of days to track down storms with the guides before heading back to the airport. On slow days, many companies bring guests to convenient landmarks like Mt. Rushmore or Wakita, Oklahoma's Twister Museum, which is actually a shrine to the 1996 blockbuster. Clients enjoy the sites while the guides monitor radar and plan for the next interception.
More information: Tempest Tours leave from Dallas, Denver, and Oklahoma City and cost between $300 for a single-day trip and $3,400 for an 11-day tour. StormTours.com operates week-long tours out of Dallas and Denver for $2,600 per person.