The Man Who Caught the Storm
MAY 27, 1997
THE FIRE DEPARTMENT’S siren sounded over Jarrell, Texas, just after 3:30 p.m.—
a shrill, oscillating note, like an air-raid alarm, swelling and fading and swelling again. It filled every street and pressed in through the windows of every house in the little Czech farming town some forty-five minutes north of Austin.
The siren was only ever used to call volunteers to the station, but anyone who had been paying attention that afternoon knew this time was different. They had ten minutes, maybe twelve at the outside.
The TV meteorologists were already tracking the tornado near Prairie Dell, four miles to the north of Jarrell. It writhed like a coach-whip snake at first, its thin form roping liquidly over prime farmland, where the Hill Country gives way to Blackland Prairie.
For a time it seemed to track neither north nor south, but to trace a languid orbit in place.
Then came the shift.
The graceful ribbon was suddenly gone, replaced by this other thing—an inchoate, gray miasma, not so much a tornado as a wall of smoke, leaching up out of the earth. The twister was on the move now, bearing southwest on a collision course with Jarrell.
When it finally appeared on the northern horizon at about 3:40
p.m., it was a sight townspeople would resummon in their dreams for years to come. Bristling with debris and blackened with rich soil scoured from the fields, it looked ancient and immutable, its sooty wings spread wide. What it looked like was the end of the world.
The tornado was as wide as thirteen football fields laid end to end. Little Jarrell could have disappeared inside it, swallowed and gone. But the town that day was largely spared. The darkness passed to the west, away from the most densely populated parts of town. The trouble was, there were still people in its path, and more than usual on a Tuesday afternoon.
School had let out for summer on the Friday before.
Double Creek Estates, a collection of modest single-story, wood-frame-and-brick starter homes, was huddled in the lowlands just northwest of downtown. Like most everywhere else in Texas, the houses didn’t have basements; the water table was too high, and the limestone bedrock too shallow.
With no choice but to shelter aboveground, the residents did as they had always been instructed: they sought out hallways, bathtubs, closets. They gathered their children into these spaces and listened to the wind, then the breaking glass, the groaning wood, and finally the raw sound of it, a deafening, toneless static, until the roofs and the walls surrounding them fell away.
To say that the neighborhood was flattened would be to imply that there were ruins left to pick through in search of survivors. For National Weather Service surveyors cataloging the indexes of destruction, the tornado was notable for how few injuries it produced: one serious and ten minor along the periphery of the path.
All else was fatality. Aboveground, inside the core, the odds of survival were nearly zero.
The Hernandez family was the outlier—they lived only because Gabriel and his wife had insisted on carving a belowground shelter out of the limestone by hand.
Their home and some thirty others had not simply been razed;
the foundations had been scraped clean, in some cases even of plumbing. The lawns surrounding them weren’t littered with debris. The remainder of the structures—the frame, brick, drywall—had been
“granulated,” to quote one surveyor, and strewn over long distances downwind.
Eventually the clouds burned away, and the sun shone again.
The carcasses of hundreds of cattle, some of them with the hide stripped clean of every follicle, lay mud-plastered in barren fields that were recently green. They were strewn through the woods, where even some of the oldest oaks had been pulled up, root and trunk. Many of the trees that still stood were swaddled in stiff sheet metal blown from nearby buildings and had been denuded and nubbed off at the top, like totem poles. The countryside reeked with decay, as if a suppurating wound had been opened on the land itself. And in a sense, one had.
The Jarrell twister produced what is to this day regarded as the most extreme damage researchers have ever encountered.
More than five hundred feet of asphalt had been peeled away from the county roads where the tornado crossed, exposing the crushed-stone bedding beneath. Eighteen inches of topsoil had been suctioned from the lush fields of wheat and cotton, transforming them into vast muddy scars pooled with stagnant water. The people that saw these phenomena understandably wondered how the wind could do such things.
A couple of weeks later, once the debris had been cleared away, and the remains had been recovered as thoroughly as could be expected, my family and I drove slowly among the naked foundations. We lived not far from Jarrell, and during a recent summer, when I was fourteen or so, I had stocked shelves in the town’s general store. As the blocks of concrete and tracts of bare soil slipped past, I could have believed that no one had ever lived in Double Creek. For all I knew, this could have been a brand-new development, with fresh slabs still waiting for the frames and anchor bolts.
But the truth was, they had contained lives, and their erasure was the brutal consequence of prolonged exposure to nightmarish winds.
I learned later that the tornado had crawled through Double Creek at around ten miles per hour, and sometimes much less. Given its size, that meant some residents were subjected to sustained winds of more
than two hundred miles per hour for minutes on end. The tornado became a grinder awash in shards of wood and metal and God knows what else. If the wind didn’t kill you, the things it carried would.
In that kind of hell, what can stand? Driving through, where I noted a stray tennis shoe still dangling from a barbwire fence, I couldn’t help but wonder, Why Double Creek? In the hundreds of square miles of quiet country between Waco and Austin, in all that open farm- and ranchland where the storm could have spent its fury in harmless isolation, it found this tiny neighborhood—probably less than a mile square in size—and swept it from the world. Around here, the loss felt immeasurable. Entire families were simply gone, including every member of the Igo clan. The fifteen-year-old twin Igo boys, John and Paul, had worked at the same general store as me, where we’d overlapped just once.
Yet outside my little corner of Texas, the missing and the dead were one part of a much larger story. In cold statistical terms, the twenty-seven killed were but a portion of the yearly national toll.
On average, tornadoes will claim eighty lives annually, a figure convulsed by significant variance; in 2011, for example, 316 died in a single day. The loss that year was staggering; it wasn’t just the people who died but the economic damage the storms incurred: some $28 billion in cost between April and May. In the United States,
the damage caused by tornadoes has outstripped that of fires, earthquakes, and floods and is nearly on par with that from hurricanes. The most violent type—the EF4s and EF5s—are exceedingly rare, accounting for roughly one to two percent of all tornadoes. A storm chaser may never see an EF5 in his lifetime. Yet despite their infrequency, some
seventy percent of tornado fatalities are attributable to the deadliest breed. The scale of these disasters is nearly beyond accounting.
An EF5 flattened a swath of Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. The trail of destruction it left behind was some six miles long and up to eighteen hundred yards wide. With 158 dead, and thousands of homes and buildings severely damaged or destroyed, the town called to mind images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs. Streets were
unrecognizable to residents who had lived on them for years. Joplin, as they had known it, no longer existed.
But the true testament to the tornado’s power can’t be observed from a helicopter circling high above. It’s on the micro level, in the little scenes and dispositions of objects that seem to defy explanation and the laws of physics. Researchers refer to these as “incredible phenomena.”
In Joplin, damage surveyors found a truck that had been wrapped around a tree, the front bumper in contact with the rear. Cardboard had imbedded into the siding of the high school. A shard of wood had impaled a concrete parking curb. Steel manhole covers had simply disappeared.
The month before Joplin, the small town of Smithville, Mississippi, was largely destroyed by an EF5.
A Ford Explorer was lofted for half a mile before smashing into the top of the town’s 130-foot-tall water tower. The vehicle then tumbled another quarter mile before finally coming to rest. The same day, in Tuscaloosa, another tornado sheared steel trusses from the train trestle over Hurricane Creek Canyon. One of the trusses, weighing about thirty-four tons, was blown one hundred feet uphill. Farther along the tornado’s path, at a coal yard, a thirty-six-ton railcar was lifted from its tracks and hurled nearly four hundred feet. Eyewitnesses say it didn’t tumble, it flew. On May 20, 2013, an EF5 chewed through the outlying suburbs of Oklahoma City, killing twenty-four. In one subdivision, two brick houses, sitting some ten feet apart, had been pierced by the same two-by-six board.
It passed clean through the first before lodging in an interior wall in the second.
Yet for all these brute displays of unfathomable strength, there are just as many stories surrounding the wind’s incongruous tenderness. The same day SUVs and railcars were airborne, a restaurant in Ringgold, Georgia, called Chow Time, was damaged beyond repair. The ceiling was caved in, the walls collapsed, but at the center of it all sat a cake fit to be served.
Its frail glass container hadn’t even cracked; every last swirl of frosting was pristine.
In Joplin, a child’s play set, made of nothing sturdier than hard plastic, survived unscathed. Surrounded
on all sides by uprooted trees and pulverized homes, it was as though it alone had been spared.
With seasonal regularity, the continental United States is scored with the tracks of tornadoes, from the Deep South up to the High Plains. Most last only seconds, a fleeting discontinuity swiftly rectified. But a vanishing few sink lasting roots into the storms that spawn them, becoming so enormous, and so powerful, that they sustain themselves for hours over dozens of ruinous miles. It’s one of the most awesome expressions of force in the natural world, and also one of its most unpredictable.
Tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service have a
false-alarm rate of roughly seventy percent. When they are accurate, the average lead time between warning and impact is around fourteen minutes.
The people of Joplin had seventeen minutes. On September 20, 2000,
Xenia, Ohio, received no warning at all. The weather service had issued a severe-thunderstorm warning, but its radar failed to detect the signature of the coming tornado. By the time the F4 arrived,
it had knocked out power to four of Xenia’s five sirens. One man was killed when a tree crushed his car, and more than one hundred others were injured.
In 2016, the Storm Prediction Center, the government’s finest severe-weather forecasting unit, issued a morning outlook that indicated a two percent probability of tornadoes across northern Missouri, at around lunchtime. By that afternoon, it became clear its forecast had missed the signal in the noise: one of the largest August tornado outbreaks ever recorded was under way in Indiana and Ohio.
The tornado’s appearance each year is inextricable from human memory in North America and across the earth’s temperate climates.
The Arikara called it the Black Wind. To others it was Whirlwind Woman, the bringer of life-giving rain and death, her arrival as inevitable as the seasons. The Cheyenne and Arapaho believed the caterpillar created the whirlwind, and entomologists know today that they often hatch when the barometric pressure falls before a storm. The Plains tribes grasped something essential about the correlation, though the signs to them were supernatural.
Those who’ve been caught by surprise couldn’t be faulted for concluding that, even with all our Doppler radar arrays and rawinsonde weather balloons, meteorology hasn’t demystified tornadoes one bit. We now live in an era when the Mars Pathfinder rover has touched down on the Red Planet. The human genome has been mapped. Physicists use particle accelerators to study the subatomic fundament of all matter. But for all our technological achievement, twisters still have the power to confound even the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known. When they come, the best any of us can do is get out of the way or place layers of thick steel and reinforced concrete between our bodies and the wind.
We still can’t predict which storms will give rise to killer twisters, nor do we fully understand the process by which weak tornadoes become strong. Until recently, the core of a tornado remained as remote and untouchable as the surface of the sun.
Researchers still dream of the day when forecasters have the tools to issue thirty-minute advance notifications—warnings not only of imminent tornado formation, but of potential intensity. Such notice could give residents in towns such as Jarrell the time to shelter in place, to find adequate protection, or to escape. But before that day comes, scientists must first answer questions about the nature of the vortex so fundamental they could be posed by a layman: Why do some storms produce tornadoes and others do not? What sequence of events gives birth to the biggest, long-track EF5s? Can we identify the signs before it’s too late?
There is a future in which there are answers to these questions and we are given more than fourteen minutes between the warning and the darkness at the door.
Humans have always invented monsters to explain the inexplicable.
In Romania, where tornadoes are infrequent but have been known to occur, folk mythology tells of the balaur, or dragon. As the myth goes, this creature soars high above, trailing a long, lashing tail. Its roar is deafening. Its breath turns the water in the clouds to ice. It carries people into the sky. And in the end, the dragon leaves nothing but ruin in its wake.
Hundreds of years ago, the Romanian villagers couldn’t explain what had happened to them, so they invented a story. The same happened nearly everywhere else tornadoes touched down. The world has changed enormously since these stories were first uttered, but not every myth has faded.
The tornado is one of the only real dragons the modern world has left. And the only way to dispel the frightening unknown is for someone to steal away with its secrets. If we are to glimpse what lies at the heart of one of the planet’s greatest mysteries, someone must first journey to a place few have witnessed and live to tell about. The task requires invention, a tolerance for danger, and an unusual breed of talented tinkerer.
We know this because there once was such a man.
He got closer than anyone before or since, committing his life with fanatical devotion to the chase and a search for answers. He wasn’t the decorated expert you’d expect. He wasn’t an eminent scientist with a fine academic pedigree or the resources of a major research institute. For the most part, he was just a regular guy—with a dream, an uncommon set of skills, and an insatiable appetite for tracking down extreme storms. This man set out on a mission he’d been told was highly inadvisable, if not completely suicidal. To the shock of the scientific community, he pulled it off. He swept the shroud aside, if only briefly, and showed us all something we’d never before seen—the heart of the tornado.
By proving that the core was not untouchable after all, he pushed the field forward. Then, he pushed too far. He spent decades searching for the ultimate storm. And when he found the one, it upended everything he thought he knew. This is the story of a man who caught what he was chasing. He surpassed his peers, seeming to transcend science with his ability to read the vortex—until the object of his fascination finally turned. It swept down from the sky, carried him up, and took his life.