A search for the 'finger of God'

Saturday, May 31, 2003
Globe And Mail PicGeorge Kourounis has been home from his annual vacation for almost a week now, but he's still totally buzzed by his trip. His eyes glowing, he tells me about hail the size of softballs, flying two by fours, and how he came about 90 meters away from a twister that would have shot Dorothy over the rainbow and well clear of Oz. It's not your average holiday.

Kourounis is a tornado chaser, that rare breed of scientifically minded thrill seeker that is electrified by images of severe weather patterns. And while there are a number of weather enthusiasts in Canada -- volunteer storm spotters who routinely call in to Environment Canada to warn about weather conditions in their areas -- Kourounis is one of about 10 hard-core chasers in this country who, come May and the start of tornado season, head to the southern and midwestern United States in search of the "finger of god."

Kourounis's ultimate goal: a photograph of the tornado to post on his Web site (http://www.stormchaser.ca).

"Why do I do this?" Kourounis says with a smile. "I get asked that a lot. Tornado-chasing combines all the things I love: travel, adventure, the environment, photography. Anybody can collect stamps, not everybody can chase tornadoes."

Kourounis, 33, adds that finding the tornadoes can be an intellectual puzzle. You have to be able to interpret weather maps, analyze skies and be able to predict when and where storms will break out. While his job as a postproduction sound technician at Toronto's Alliance Atlantis lets him have the spring off to pursue his hobby, he also spends his winters brushing up on his skills, practicing weather readings.

In the past, Kourounis was lucky if he saw one tornado a year. This past month, he saw six, including a deadly May 9 twister that ripped a path through Oklahoma City, Okla.

It was night and Kourounis and his chase partner Ron Gravelle were tracking the twister along a road by following the momentary blue explosions created when the storm hit power transformers. Then the power cut out. And then the debris started flying. The tornado was chasing them.

Turning at the next road at a right angle to get out of its path (they may be big, but tornadoes can be outwitted), they made it to a safe spot, and were ready for another attempt. This time they tracked it from a much safer distance, setting up the video camera to take some footage.

"We could actually see the tornado in the power flashes. It was shaped like a big wedge," Kourounis says, almost grinning. "Luckily it wasn't that strong, but it was huge."

Even if it wasn't a devastating F5 on the Fujita scale (the postmortem assessment of how strong a tornado was), the pair were guaranteed bragging rights in the tornado-chasing community the next day.

While it may not resemble the gonzo team of researchers in the 1996 film Twister (don't even ask Kourounis if there's a Helen Hunt type running around in a tank top -- he'll just roll his eyes), Kourounis started recognizing familiar faces on the trails.

"Once a year I see the same people come from all over: Britain, Canada, the U.S., . . . and I see them on the same roads, at the restaurants, under the same storms. We usually split up, but sometimes we'll caravan. There really is a community."

It can be an expensive hobby. Kourounis estimates he's spent "tens of thousands" of dollars chasing storms, mostly customizing his Honda CRV, which looks like a mobile command centre ready to patrol Baghdad. The car has an array of antennas on top for his scanners, CB and ham radios, plus an anemometer to measure wind speed and a homemade device to gauge air temperature. Inside, he's got a laptop station for his chase partner to navigate and read weather radar maps. There's also a video camera mounted on the dash.

Car comfort is important because most of the chase time is spent on the road under clear skies, crisscrossing "tornado alley" (the northern path from Texas to the Dakotas). With roadside rest-stop cuisine and lodging, it's hardly a five-star holiday package.

"It's not a hobby, it's a lifestyle," Kourounis says.

Despite all the money he has poured into the car, there's no way he's fixing the dents in his hood (from hail, he says coolly), or the large bump near his rear left tire (from a flying two by four). He's proud of his battle scars.

But while the car may have been banged up, Kourounis hasn't been. His family and girlfriend support him, so long as he "doesn't fly with the cows" à la Twister.

Despite the dangerous nature of the pastime, the chasers are all safety-conscious. They're trained in first aid, and always have escape routes planned. No chaser has been killed by a tornado, yet. After all, "those who chase and run away, live to chase another day," Kourounis says.