Prairie Storm Chasers

Nebraskans know a thing or two about bad weather, but for a few brave souls, darkening skies are a siren call. We followed these fearless 'tornado hunters' on Mother Nature's own high-speed chase.



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Some of the most memorable trips for the Nicholsons had nothing to do with thunder and lightning or wind and clouds. There was a particular sunset northeast of Lincoln, and a road in Kansas where they fishtailed for 2 miles over a rain-soaked dirt road made as slick as ice.

Storms are where Josh Boustead works and plays. He leads tours for Nicholson, and his full-time gig is as a weather forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Valley. Boustead has been racing after storms for nearly two decades, but it was another weather service forecaster, Barb Mayes Boustead, who took him on his most challenging chase. “After nine years of chasing her, we finally got married in September of 2008,” Boustead said.

The couple has been storm chasing as a hobby since 1999, and they plan days off and their spring vacations to continue their weather adventures. Barb Boustead in her Wilder Weather blog expressed disgust over the increased road hazards of hot-dogging risk takers, but she also marveled at how taking that road less traveled has truly made all the difference in their ultimate sightseeing tours.

“We’ve had the good fortune to see dozens of tornadoes and a fair number of other beautiful storms as well as our share of rainbows and sunsets, ghost towns and strange animal crossings,” she said.

 

STORMS ARE UNPREDICTABLE, but these chasers have learned to hedge their bets. Cosgrove was leading a tour through Sioux County in northwest Nebraska when his prior experiences told him the storm would make a shift. He set up his group on a road for that course.

“The storm turned south and moved toward us,” Cosgrove said. “We already had our tripods set up and we were likely the only storm chasers who caught the full life cycle of the brief but beautiful tornado.”

This was one of the few times Coscgrove did guess what Mother Nature was going to do, he said.

Like hurricanes, storm chasers often give names to tornadoes for the town nearest where the tornadoes touch down. On this day, Cosgrove was leading a tour that included a first-time guest named John Harrison. Their south-turning storm produced a tornado that touched down near the town of Harrison and won that name.

“What are the odds that John Harrison’s first tornado would be in Harrison?” Cosgrove wondered. “That was a great day at the office.”

 

Record Tornado Couldn't Break Hallam

THERE'S A HEART printed on the sign greeting visitors to the Lancaster County village of Hallam. The quiet community once unknown even to many Nebraskans gained an unwanted 15 minutes of national prominence after a life-sucking tornado in 2004 took less time than that to decimate this community of then 275 residents.

The Category F4 tornado’s winds of more than 200 mph carved a 50-mile-long path of destruction that grew to 2.5 miles wide at Hallam. It was the widest tornado on record until last year’s deadly 2.6-milewide twister in El Reno, Okla. Dozens of residents were injured in the storm and one elderly Hallam resident died.

Gary Vocasek, the current chairman of the Hallam Village Board, was at a wedding in Lincoln that night when he saw the TV broadcast reporting that his town had been leveled.

“The first thing you try to do is pick your underwear off the front lawn,” he said. “You start looking for things that have been scattered. Your whole life is kind of exposed to the public.”

Three thousand volunteers arrived to help residents recover, and Hallam has rebuilt with an eye on the future. Although the village’s population has declined to less than 215, more than 50 new residents have moved here since the tornado. There are nearly 60 new homes, a new water tower and 500 new trees. The town’s two destroyed Protestant churches, post office and auditorium were rebuilt. The town has used a green-energy strategy in lighting efficiency and through a geothermal heating system at Hallam’s new fire station.

“I feel a sense of pride for those of us who were committed to repairing or rebuilding our homes and businesses,” said Vicky Polak, Hallam’s clerk and treasurer.

That infamous storm on May 22, 2004, couldn’t suck the life from this hardworking community, and today the heart of Hallam beats stronger than ever.


(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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