KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Spawned by the 1996 Warner Brothers movie "Twister," the ranks of people who call themselves "storm chasers" have swelled, and some of them have turned their hobby into a business.
For $1,500 and up, you can spend a week of your summer vacation in a crowded van searching for funnel clouds along Tornado Alley.
"The best part is the whole experience, the fun, the excitement of seeing the big one," said David Waters, 27, of Cary, N.C., who's gone on several storm tours. "I personally don't mind driving hundreds of miles every day to look for storms."
Dr. Fred Carr, director of the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology, said that before the movie came out, there were one or two companies in the country offering storm tours. Now there are at least a dozen offering the service, and the number is growing.
But people who have been operating storm tours for several years say you can't make a living solely as a storm tour guide.
"If you lived on a college student's budget, yeah, I think you could do it," said Martin Lisius, president of Tempest Tours Storm Chasing Expeditions, based in Arlington, Texas. "But all of our staff members have professional jobs that pay substantially more than they make on this staff. This is their fun job."
Tempest charges between $1,600 and $1,700 for a six-day storm chase that can take participants to several states across the Midwest. The fee includes transportation and a motel room each night.
Another storm tour venture is planned by two men from the Kansas City area, Sean Wilson, 46, and John Dunham, 33, who hope to offer tours in the summer of 2005 through a company they've named Blown Away Storm Chasing Adventures.
Wilson, who works for Hallmark, and Dunham, a middle school principal, plan to charge about $1,500 a week to take people on tornado-hunting safaris across the Midwest. Participants will have to put up a deposit several months before their trips and take the gamble that big storms will crop up during the tour week they've chosen.
Wilson started studying meteorology eight years ago as a hobby, and he's been chasing storms for the past four. He has taken National Weather Service training and has been a member of the National Weather Association for three years.
Dunham considers himself a "weather nut" who has always been interested in severe weather. He took a meteorology course at the University of Missouri but otherwise most of his training has come from the Internet.
Warren Faidley, a Tuscon, Ariz., photojournalist who is considered one of the nation's foremost storm chasers, makes a living selling his tornado images and footage.
He says there is some value in the type of operation envisioned by Wilson and Dunham.
"I'd rather see 12 inexperienced people in a van with someone experienced than 12 out in rental cars," he said. "In that sense, tour groups are a good thing. I've seen them out on the road and they're very, very safe."
Chasing tornadoes isn't all that dangerous, he said - especially compared to the highway hazards posed by motorists who are trying to chase down tornadoes on their own.
"Sometimes if a tornado is on the ground, people kind of have a tendency to lose their minds - especially someone who hasn't seen a tornado," Faidley said. "But if you went out and purposefully tried to get killed in a tornado, it would be difficult."
Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. John Eichkorn said it doesn't matter whether they are alone or in a group, motorists should get off the roads and into someplace safe when tornadoes are present.
"We know if everybody's in shelter and seeking help in a safe place, we're not going to have to deal with the tragedies of those who aren't," he said. "Emergency responders would love to come out to a scene like that and to have everybody in a safe spot, but in the real world, that's not always going to happen."
If You Go...
STORM TOURS: Storm-chasing opportunities for novices include the following:
-Ride-alongs with photojournalist Warren Faidley; visit www.stormchaser.com/ for details.
-Silver Lining Tours, at (281) 759-4181or www.silverlining.pair.com/.
-Tempest Tours, at (817) 274-9313 or www.tempesttours.com/.
-Cloud 9 Tours, at (405) 214-0320 or www.cloud9tours.com/.
-Blown Away Storm Chasing Adventures, booking for summer of 2005; call (816) 898-2552.
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