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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: A journey of storm chasing across Kansas

By DUSTIN MAZZIO/Missourian Reader
April 16, 2012 | 5:51 p.m. CDT
Dustin Mazzio became an amateur storm chaser when he and a friend set out to intercept storm cells forming in Kansas on Saturday. On his 12-hour journey, he took pictures and video of supercells, funnel clouds and vortexes as they formed. He even recorded the development of a full blown tornado as it tracked through farmland for nine minutes. He was recording from just three miles away.

Dustin Mazzio has always been fascinated by storms. He sent the Missourian some photos and a video of his journey chasing Kansas storms on Saturday.

My friend Ben got me interested in storm chasing my freshman year here at Mizzou. He was on the storm chase team and originally wanted to be a meteorologist. As his roommate and best friend, I started to get the bug. His major changed and he grew apart from the team, but the urge to chase was still there. He took me out on our first chase my sophomore year, and though we didn't encounter anything significant, I was hooked.

Storms in general were always appealing to me. I always loved when it rained as a kid and remember getting yelled at by my mom for watching storms out the window. She would tell me and my siblings to hunker down in the basement until the coast was clear. This fueled my curiosity and I wanted to learn more, experience more.

This past Friday, little did I know a new adventure was about to begin. Ben drove into town to hang out and hit some of the fine social eating and drinking establishments in downtown Columbia. He checked radar predictions for the next day and thought there was a high potential for a chase out in Kansas, and I agreed. When we woke up Saturday morning, after convincing my girlfriend Christina to chase, we packed up our cameras, charged up the laptop and called AT&T to enable tethering so we could receive live radar feed while on the road. From there, we were off. We didn't have any fancy gadgets like you see on Storm Chasers or any shows like that. We used basic radar found on Weather Underground (Wunderground.com) and Google Maps to track our location.

The first part of the trip was rather mundane, as it usually is. We had over a five-hour drive ahead of us before we would be able to intercept the storm. We occupied our time by familiarizing ourselves with the country music and classic jams the Kansas airwaves had to offer. Once we reached the town of McPherson, Kan., however, the show had begun. We had finally caught up with the southern end of a supercell that was producing a nice hook echo, the trademark characteristic that indicates a potential for tornadic activity. The chase was on, and we scurried to find the perfect road to get in position to see what the storm had to offer. 

We decided to pull off onto an overpass just northeast of Lindsborg, Kan., to get a better look. I pulled my camera out and recorded the end of a small multi-vortex tornado that was just beginning to lift as it made its way over Salina, Kan. We could feel the inflow as well as see the wind blowing across the crops in front of us, sucking what it could up into the storm. As the storm passed we hopped back in the car and made our way up Interstate 135 through Salina and watched as the supercell looked more and more ominous.

News reporters on the radio were worried about the town of Salina as it was the first city that was caught in the path of the storm. Up until then it was luckily open farmland. The roads were a mess with fellow storm chasers and amateur thrill-seekers alike. Cops were pulled over to the side, waving to us as we passed, giving the expression of "good luck, but I wouldn't suggest you go any further." There were more accidents from people not paying attention than caused directly by any storm activity, however. We made sure we were safe by staying at the southwest end of the storm, as they typically move in a northeast fashion. Once the storm passed over Salina, we drove through the city to make sure that everyone was safe and to check for damage.

Once it looked like the coast was clear, we continued our chase up to Interstate 70 where we re-encountered the supercell just northeast of Solomon, Kan., and this time there was heavy rotation. The radio had confirmed that there was a tornado on the ground as it passed I-70, and we crossed that very point as we saw farm equipment blown over, road signs looked mauled, and traffic cones were kicked over like bowling pins. At that moment we looked to the north and I pulled out my camera and filmed the entire formation of a tornado, from nothing to funnel cloud, and then ultimately touchdown as a full blown tornado. The entire thing lasted over nine minutes and was only three miles away from us. 

The sight was unreal, never before had I seen anything so vicious, yet so beautiful at the same time. This was the first time I had seen a tornado touch down, let alone track for miles. The one thought going through my mind, however, was how lucky I was to be viewing this at a safe distance as it went over farmland rather than a densely populated town such as Salina. 

As a storm chaser, my duties not only surround tracking the storm, but helping out individuals in need, and had the tornado dropped in a more urban location, I would have been telling a whole different story. We continued watching until the tornado roped out and eventually dissipated, however, and at this point darkness was encroaching on us. We decided to make our way back home and end our 12-hour journey on a high note.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how.