Let's get this straight: Herbert Stein is not one of those Winnebago-driving, baggy-shorts-wearing tourists with a video camera grafted to his eyeball. Sure, he pilots a big van weighed down with equipment and snack foods . . . and OK, he does tend to steer with one hand and videotape with the other . . . but he wears tennis shoes, not socks with sandals, and his work is highly scientific.
A professional tornado chaser--or weather scientist--who freelances with the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (also in Oklahoma)--Stein performs the bulk of his labor in spring, when he leaves his wife and son in Garrettsville, Ohio, and heads out to the prairie for several months.
With the help of recent disaster films, tornado chasing has earned a reputation as an extreme sport, to the point that stockbrokers plan their vacations around cloud formations. But the forty-year-old Stein is usually going head-to-head with boredom rather than Mother Nature--and while vacationers and film crews try to "get up close," he tries to stay far enough away. Though he profits, sometimes handsomely, from selling his storm footage to the media, his foremost mission is to collect data that will help meteorologists more accurately forecast tornadoes. He also freelances for the National Parks Service, and this week at the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, he'll show some of his more sensational slides (Hail the size of grapefruits! Leveled barns!) in a presentation called "F-5 Twister, Like the Finger of God."
Stein's four-man team of university researchers was one of two used as a model for the movie Twister--in which a "good" team of tornado researchers (from an ill-funded local college) goes tip-to-funnel with a "bad" one (which has big bucks from Uncle Sam). The second model was another group from the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
"To this day, we're still arguing who the good guys were and who the bad guys were," he says with a chuckle, adding that "the movie was a lot of fun to watch, but they butchered the science." ("Twister," "sister," and "sidewinder" are Hollywood's terminology.) "Plus, in the movie, the safest place to be is driving at the tornado."
A certified broadcast meteorologist, Stein estimates that his glamorous job is about "99 percent tedium." He and his group might drive for twenty hours straight, encountering nothing more than stray bolts of lightning. Sometimes, after an extended wild goose chase, they'll be stuck in the sticks, contemplating a dinner of stale Cheetos. "It can be very grueling, very tiring," he says. "And the odds aren't very great--maybe one out of ten we'll see a tornado."
Persistence pays off, however. During one windswept week in 1995, his group encountered ten tornadoes. They set up their video pods out of harm's way, about a mile from the bigger storms. "We try to position ourselves ahead of the tornado, out of its path, and hopefully stay within a safe area," Stein says. "People always talk about unpredictability, but [the tornadoes have] all pretty much behaved." All except for the one that abruptly changed directions and crossed the street to get to Stein's team (though ultimately sparing them, only to splinter an empty farmhouse and rip out the asphalt from a nearby road). "It felt like Death Race 2000," he recalls, likening its roar to Niagara Falls, rather than the oft-described freight train.
That encounter was one he won't soon forget. "Three of the four [on the team] experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome," he says, himself included. "I was so exhausted that night, and the night after that, that I couldn't sleep. I'd close my eyes, and I'd be replaying driving right in front of it."
Herbert Stein will speak from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Friday, January 22, at the CVNRA's Happy Days Visitor Center on State Route 303, one mile west of State Route 8 in Boston Heights. Admission is $5; $2 children ages 6-12. Call 800-257-9477 for more information.