AS freak weather and tornados batter the UK today, Jeremy Hart takes a Jaguar (made in the UK’s Tornado Alley of the West Midlands) to get a masterclass in the Mid West from one of the world’s leading storm chasers, ’Tornado Tim’ Baker.
“You have just driven through a tornado gentlemen. Through one….”
Over the walkie-talkie, ‘Tornado’ Tim Baker’s voice is part brag, mixed with a little surprise. For an hour we have been duelling with one of the most deadly of natural forces as it sweeps across Illinois farmland.
We have been duelling with one of the most deadly of natural forces
Tim’s years of storm-chasing (including at least one near-death experience in the grasp of a F3 (approx. 140 mph) twister) has taught him to not dance too close to the devil. The scale ranges from F0 (up to 80 mph) to F5 (over 200 mph). Surviving anything above F3 is marginal. An F4 and F5 will lift a car hundreds of feet clean off the ground.
WARNING - DO NOT CHASE TORNADOS LIKE TORNADO TIM
If faced with a tornado, get out of your car and find shelter in a solid building
To stay safe, we have been tracking a mile or so south of a tornado system as it develops from Iowa into Illinois. An area with a population of over 90 million are in the path of this tornado storm system. Every road and dirt farm track Tim can find on the sat nav and storm apps is a potential grandstand from which to view and also down which to escape. “They can turn on a dime,” he warns, foot to the floor in a high-speed game of cat and mouse.
You do not want to be in your car when a tornado comes
Having all-wheel drive is a luxury he does not always enjoy. Neither is having a powerful Jaguar XF. He drives it well. More rally driver than storm chaser. This storm is a monster. With Internet on the XF’s large screen, we can see the hoopla being whipped up online by the media, whilst out of the window see the real thing gathering energy. Reality is way scarier.
America is used to such storms. Tornado Alley in the Great Plains whips up hundreds of twisters, some wiping out entire towns. But the US does not have exclusive rights to tornadoes.
One injured 19 people in the West Midlands and caused £40 million worth of damage
The UK has the second highest number of tornadoes per square mile, averaging 54 tornadoes per year; more than the US. Some are barely capable of flattening a wheat field but every year some destroy buildings and, occasionally, lives. In 2005, one injured 19 people in the West Midlands and caused £40 million worth of damage. In 2014, Nuneaton took a hit from an F2 and two weeks ago a water spout (tornado over water) hung off the Suffolk coast for half an hour. On land it would have wreaked havoc.
“No tornado should be taken lightly,” Tim had warned us before our encounter. “And the same rules for engagement whether in the Mid West or the English Midlands. I’d love to come storm chase in Europe.”
Back in Illinois, the end of the world feels nigh. Everything has gone black. Tim calls “look up” and there the clouds, house-height above, are spinning like the vortex sucking Jonah and the whale beneath the sea.
Then it sings round to deliver a sucker-punch broadside
Then all visibility vanishes. Biblical rain lashes the car so hard it shakes and the wipers are all-but redundant. The road is a river. But we cannot stop. The winds have accelerated and we are being slammed in all directions. The outline of trees shows them bending almost horizontal. One second we are fighting the wind head on. Then it sings round to deliver a sucker-punch broadside. It helps having a slippery Jaguar not a slab-sided SUV. Off-roaders or vans don’t make safe tornado chase cars.
Tim does not back off. This is not the place to. We are doing at least 50 mph in conditions that any normal time you would pull over. Life feels very fragile in the midst of this maelstrom.
But as fast as it has started, the battering stops. Driving behind Tim, I am left breathless. The adrenaline from driving almost blind and being mugged by Mother Nature has drained me. Tim too is more than a little road worn.
“It was somewhere between and an F0 and and F1 (90-100 mph) tornado,” he deduces the next morning as we walk among wrecked cars and buildings in the town of Pontiac, Illinois, where a tornado from the same storm has touched down. No one is seriously hurt but the devastation shows the power we experienced was very real. “Not many people drive into a tornado. And for a good reason.”