Between March and May of 2018, I made a journey through the American Midwest, an area known as Tornado Alley.

This is where the most tornadoes in the world hit. Every spring hundreds of storms thunder over the Alley. These twisters grow, whirl, destroy and fade away randomly, not following any rules or

patterns yet influencing the lives of thousands on their way.

I travelled from Dallas, Texas through seven states to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

I visited towns that were wiped out by tornadoes and I met people who encountered severe weather. Some were chasing twisters to get an adrenaline fix, others had spent their lives trying to understand the science of the twirls. Then I met people who had lost everything: their homes, their businesses, their cars and even a valuable Beatles collection. 

I met a mother who had lost her 5-year-old daughter to the wind and rubble.

I heard rumors. Tornadoes never hit big cities, I learned, and opening windows might save your house. Both are false.

I heard a story about a vortex destroying a church but leaving an altar and a Bible untouched.

I also heard of chicken losing their feathers and spruce needles piercing a barn door after a storm.

During spring seasons it is not unusual to hear storm sirens go off weekly in Tornado Alley. That is when people run to their backyards and hide in their storm shelters or cellars. Some open a can of beer and stay on their porch to watch in wonder. 

That is, until, the tornado comes right over your house. After that you won’t leave your shelter until the sky is blue again.

Everyone has a story to tell, yet nobody exactly knows where and why tornadoes strike. 

They are mysterious monsters.

Lanny Dean, Springfield, Missouri

“When I was seven I was on a holiday with my mum and sister. We were driving on an interstate in Texas and it was pretty stormy and just getting worse and worse. There was a massive hail and winds were blowing like crazy. I was scared in the backseat and mum told us to be quiet. And then I saw it, my first tornado.

For years I was really scared of storms. Then I became fascinated by them. I wanted to study everything I could and I wanted to know all about them.

In 1991 they were forecasting severe weather. I took my parents´ car and my dad´s new video camera and drove to Western Oklahoma to look for tornadoes. I sat an hour in the car and saw that vortex coming. It was a F4 tornado, a monster, I had no idea what I was doing but I felt like that was the greatest high I had ever felt in my life.

I wanted to see more of them, film them and sell videos to TV stations. I thought it would be easy. Between 1991-1994 I saw no tornadoes. But it´s like a drug. The best drug you´ll ever have. You will do anything to see them again and you just cannot stop.

In 1998 I happened to be really close to a tornado out of Oklahoma City. I got some debris on my videotape and sold the video. That´s when I became blacklisted among other chasers and ended up giving a collective “Fuck off” to everyone. I was the black sheep who didn´t care about rules.

Luckily I found a partner who was like me. We learnt new ways to approach tornadoes, to go around them and safely go really close to them. Between 1999-2007 we saw about 40 tornadoes a year.

In my storm chasing history of 27 years I´ve documented 516

tornadoes on my camera.

A good friend of mine died when storm chasing in 2013. It took me three years to figure out what happened. But in May 2016 we finally achieved in getting a probe inside a tornado.

I now call the probe my bitch. It´s a bad ass. And we got amazing data! Winds were 380 km/h and the footage we got was great. That truly put us on a map. Those cocksuckers envied us and asked to see the data. I think we are one step closer understanding storms.”

Randy Hale, Wichita Mountains Refuge, Oklahoma

“Sometimes it´s so rainy you don´t even see a tornado from the rain.

I was driving one time when I noticed there was a tornado following me. It felt like it was chasing me! I drove as fast as I could and luckily the tornado turned around. It sounded like hundred trains.”

Helen Schreider, Greensburg, Kansas

“ I used to live three blocks away from the well. It was 4th of May 2007. I came home from work, cooked some supper and watched TV. Weather forecast was predicting storms. Telly was on all night.

I didn´t really think there was going to be a tornado, there had never been one before.

Around nine o´clock the sirens went off. My son said it´s here, we should go to the hallway. I heard the roar, I heard windows breaking and I was thinking we should have gone to a better shelter.

It was silent for a while. I heard my phone ringing and it was my other son calling and asking are you ok. And then the storm came back. East wall fell down. It was really dark and rainy. I later heard it was a F5 tornado and 12 people in Greensburg died.

I was able to walk outside from my house. It was irreparable. I remember seeing my car that I had just fixed and now it was

completely rolled.

Everyone walked to Dillon´s store. Busses from close by towns and counties came to pick us up and take to shelters like school halls.

They had to take 85 000 trucks of debris to the dump. It was so rainy that everything was ruined.

A lot of people didn´t want to come back. Now it´s a lot of empty plots in here.”

Sam and Kay Riggs, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Sam: “They talked about tornadoes all day in May 13th 1999. I was looking at the sky from the porch door. It was a beautiful day, 30 ° C, very calm. There were no storm sirens that day.”

Kay: “Sam said a tornado was coming but I said it´s no big deal. My mum called me, worried, and told us to seek shelter. I still said it´s going to be fine. It was about 7 pm”

Sam: “I wanted to go to the bathroom for shelter, we had no

Kay: ” I said we should go to the closet. I got our new bed duvet to cover us, I remember being upset about messing that. And then I wanted to close the blinds of the windows, I had heard that if the windows exploded I wouldn´t have to clean up that much. Then I ran back to the closet. I could already hear the sound of the tornado approaching and the windows were popping behind me. I crapped Sam´s arm and started praying. Then I blacked out.”

Sam: “You were shaking my hands off. I thought I was dying. It sounded like an army tank. I could feel the pressure and the tornado was pulling us in the air. It lasted for about 30 seconds. A wall from neighbour´s house fell into our closet, but there was a drawer that kept us save. I called it my little Jesus hole.”

Kay: “When we came out from the closet, everything was gone. Everything was destroyed for kilometres. I couldn´t recognize our street, it was like a war zone. We found an airplane generator from our backyard, it had travelled from Chikasha, 30 kilometres away. And then some weeks later, about 25 kilometres North from Oklahoma City, someone found a photo of our grand daughter falling from the sky.”

Sam: “We lost 98% of everything we had. I used to have the biggest Beatles collection in the world. I had just been offered 100 000 dollars for that and then I lost it all.”

Kay: “We built a new house almost exactly as it was.”

Sam: “But we built a storm shelter in out garage, that was new. Now if I hear there is a tornado coming I start crying and shaking.”

Megan McClellan, Tulsa, Oklahoma

“As a meteorologist I´ve heard so many myths about tornadoes. A lot of people think tornadoes don´t hit downtowns or cross rivers. But of course they do, they often jump over rivers.

Predicting severe storms and especially tornadoes is really difficult. It´s almost impossible to know where they will strike. An average tornado moves Southwest to Northeast in the U.S., but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction. We use computer models and look for humidity and dew points as well as temperatures of the air. When waters in the Gulf of Mexico are warmer the risk for storms is higher.”

Tornadoes are rated on their intensity by Fujita (F) scale. The Fujita scale assesses the damage tornadoes have done on human-built structures and vegetation. Meteorologists and engineers evaluate the damages after storms on ground or aerial surveys, on weather radar data, witness testimonies and photo and video materials.

The scale has 6 steps from F0 to F5.

A F0 tornado creates light damage: branches break off trees and sign boards damage. Estimated wind speeds are 64-116 km/h.

Gayland Kitch, Moore, Oklahoma

“I´m the Director of Emergency Management in my town, Moore. It seems like we are a magnet for tornado outbreaks but we really aren´t. In the past 20 years we have had four F4 or F5 tornadoes. Last big one was in May 20th in 2013.

We knew there was a warning for severe weather that day in 2013. We communicated with the National Weather Center and the Storm Prediction Center all day and they were forecasting dangerous storms for us. At 1.10 pm we had the first alert for a large and extremely dangerous tornado and at 2.40 pm we had the first tornado touchdown. Of course all the sirens went off and people seeked for shelter.

I was in my office at the City Hall with my City Manager. We were watching the tornado live via our three local TV stations and we both had feelings of depression as we had both experienced this in the past.

Winds were as strong as 350 km/h. The tornado was 2,1 km wide and stayed on the ground for over 27 km long path.

I was busy receiving data from my field spotters, activating our

tornado sirens and answering phone calls.

The worst part for me was when I learned we had fatalities, particularly those at the elementary school.

In total 24 people died. 1000 homes and 60 businesses destroyed. But that´s a part of my profession to power on through and get work done because there are others still needing our help.”

Brandon Mace, Mannford, Oklahoma

“My parents are storm chasers. As a child, I sometimes came home and saw a note on a kitchen table saying “Went tornado chasing, go to your grandparents”. I was never scared for them though.

I´ve been chasing storms with them few times. It´s exciting. First you see clouds rotating and then they drop down and form a tail.

Sometimes winds get so strong you can´t even shut the car doors.”

Craigen and Lyndy Labenz, Pilger, Nebraska

Craigen: “I´ve already experienced two tornadoes. I was seven years old when I was in Oklahoma City for softball and a tornado struck. I was in a hotel´s shelter with my parents and brother.

Then, in 2014 tornadoes hit Pilger and it was way worse. My grandmother came to look after me, my brother and my cousin. She told us all to go down to the basement. My brother wanted to stay outside and watch but grandmother yelled at him. There we were sitting on the couch. My brother was watching from the window. I thought we were dying.”

Lyndy: “Media later called rare twin tornadoes amazing but it wasn´t amazing for us.”

Kandi Murphree, Pilger, Nebraska

“I just came back from work to our trailer. I had moved to Pilger recently with my two daughters because I thought Pilger would be a safe little town for them.

My mum brought kids home, she said a tornado was coming. We went hiding to our bathroom. When sirens went off, I took my kids and started to run to some shelter outside. Nobody ever saw our trailer again.

That´s when everything blacked out. I have no memory of a tornado. My mother found me and my Cali lying on a street. I had a metal piece sticking from my head and another in my thigh. My femur was broken. Cali was death by my side. She was only five. My other girl Robin had just turned four and she was screaming and running around a grain elevator.

I spent a month in choma in a hospital. They thought I wouldn´t survive. But I did. I learnt to walk again and I came back to Pilger. It´s not a bad town, I love Pilger.

I didn´t have an insurance for my trailer but mennonites built me a new house from all donations. We now have a shelter too. Sirens went off once and we didn´t leave the shelter until the sky was blue again.

I suffer from PTSD. Anything can trigger it. Then I just collapse and start crying. I guess it takes time to heal.”

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