Filmmaker Shoots At The Heart Of The Tornado

Originally published on June 2, 2011 10:58 am

This spring, tornadoes have been wreaking havoc across the Midwest. Most people prudently seek shelter when they hear a storm is coming, but one man and his team have made it their job to get as close as they can — and warn others that a twister is on the way.

His name is Sean Casey and he's a professional storm chaser whose new IMAX film, Tornado Alley, records his mission to capture the heart of a tornado on film.

Meet The TIV-2

For his footage to survive the tornado, Casey tells NPR's Michele Norris, he built a specialized vehicle capable of withstanding the gale force winds at a tornado's core. It's called the TIV-2, or "tornado intercept vehicle," and it weighs in at about 14,000 pounds.

"We follow the storm trying to stay ahead of it and when it drops a tornado, then we pick a road ... where we think it's gonna cross," he says.

And once they find the sweet spot, Casey and his team bunker down for the tornado to move over them.

"We have these hydraulic panels that lower to the ground to keep the winds from getting underneath the vehicle and then we have these spikes that go into the dirt," Casey says.

The Reality Of The Tornado

Of course, Casey says, they've had some close calls. Last year, he and his team encountered a tornado that they couldn't outrun — the TIV-2 has a top speed of 100 mph — and just last week they barely managed to bunker down in time for a twister, still carrying debris from a nearby town, to pass by them.

Casey says he and his team are driven by their passion for chasing tornadoes, but this year has been different.

"I've been chasing since 1999 and we've never encountered a year like this — we've never seen these town-killing tornadoes that have happened almost weekly," Casey says. "This year it's really taken that excitement and that passion that we feel when we chase, and it's supplanted it with this dread — the dread of what you're going to find at the end of the chase."

And there's no getting around the damage a tornado can do — not even for Casey's group of adventurers. The team's own navigator and meteorologist, Brandon Ivey, has a cousin who, along with her infant child, was trapped under the ruins of her house after the tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., last week. Luckily, both survived.

Bearing Witness

Always being ahead of the storms has put Casey and his team in the position of being able to warn people to take cover, and when they come upon a tornado's destruction they're there to help with the search and rescue.

But what really drives them is the experience of seeing a tornado in a way few others can.

"You're bearing witness to a force of nature that's just tearing apart whatever is in its path, and you're right there next to it," Casey says. "That's where you see the violence and the utter, raw beauty of these things."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Tornadoes have wreaked havoc in Missouri, Oklahoma, Alabama and elsewhere this spring. And while most people wisely seek shelter when these storms approach, one man and his team have made it their job to get as close as they can. You can learn all about their work in a current IMAX film called "Tornado Alley."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TORNADO ALLEY")

SEAN CASEY: The chase is on. It's storm season in Tornado Alley.

NORRIS: Sean, thanks so much for being with us.

CASEY: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: I've had a chance to see part of that IMAX film, so I understand what that vehicle looks like. But could you do us a favor and just describe it, and quickly describe how you go about chasing down these tornadoes?

CASEY: Yeah. We wanted to get footage that really hadn't been gotten before. And to do so safely, you know, I came up with the idea of building this 14,000-pound armored vehicle that really is kind of a movable tripod to get us and the IMAX camera right into the path of these tornadoes.

NORRIS: So wait a minute. I want to make sure I understand this correctly. You get in this vehicle, get as close as you can, hold the camera out as long as you can, and then basically close up the doors and let the tornado move right over you.

CASEY: That's the gist of it. You know, we follow the storm, trying to stay ahead of it. And when it drops a tornado, then we pick the road in that spot where we think it's going to cross the road. And usually, you have, you know, maybe 20 seconds to stop. And then we have these hydraulic panels that lower to the ground to keep the winds from getting underneath the vehicle. And then we have these spikes that go into the dirt. And then I'm up in that rotating turret on top of the vehicle that I film out of.

NORRIS: You know, you sound like just the side of crazy when you described...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CASEY: Yeah, well, I can understand that, you know? Anybody who's going into a tornado, I mean, there's got to be something wrong with them.

NORRIS: Is there anything that you've learned in traveling the country chasing these tornadoes that helps people understand them or prepare for them?

CASEY: Well, the secondary mission of the TIV is that we have a science package on board. So we are measuring, you know, the temperature, wind speed, wind direction. And when we chase with scientists, we're sampling what's happening on the ground while they're scanning, with their radar, the structure above us because they're very curious about the correlation of what they're seeing above the ground and what's actually happening on the ground.

NORRIS: Do you ever feel like you got too close?

CASEY: Yeah. I mean, there are times - I mean, it's such a fast-moving environment out here, and these tornadoes can intensify quite quickly. And just this last year, we had that scenario where we could not run it. And I'm looking back out the turret, and my entire vision is just blackness, and it's the tornado that's catching us. And the trees on the road behind us are dominoing, you know, right off our tail. You know, I don't think I could really describe what I was feeling other than just sheer panic and sheer excitement.

NORRIS: Unidentified Man #1: Stop here. Pull off.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

OK: OK.

NORRIS: Are we hearing rain or hail there?

CASEY: Unidentified Man #3: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

OK: OK. Yeah. Here comes the debris. It's rain-wrapped, totally rain-wrapped.

NORRIS: Rain wrap. Is that when the rain is almost circular, as big as the wind?

CASEY: Unidentified man #2: It's right here, Sean.

OK: Unidentified man #2: No, it'll pass to the south.

SIEGEL: Not what I wanted.

CASEY: Unidentified man #1: Holy smokes.

OK: Unidentified man #3: Yeah.

NORRIS: What happened in this case? Did the tornado wind up coming right toward you, or did you wind up not being in the path of a tornado?

CASEY: No. That tornado passed just to the south of us, probably about a hundred yards. And it had a lot of debris in it, so it was kind of raining tree branches. And it had gone through a town, so it was still carrying, you know, light debris like, you know, Styrofoam material or trash can lids.

NORRIS: Now I want to ask you about that. You noted that that the tornado had gone through a town. Each one of these tornadoes causes potentially an awful lot of damage, and we've seen that this year. How do you balance chasing these tornadoes, this incredible, you know, acts of nature and capturing that on film and the obvious, you know, excitement that you get from that with the sheer devastation that's left in the path of these forces?

CASEY: But, you know, we're trying to do what we can. We're kind of in a unique situation, you know, being in front of these tornadoes to warn people that we see. And then when these tornadoes do do damage, to do search and rescue, because the driver is a Navy-trained medic.

NORRIS: You know, I understand that your crew includes some who were personally affected by the most recent disaster, that huge tornado that just devastated the town of Joplin, Missouri.

CASEY: Yeah. Our navigator and meteorologist, Brandon Ivey, his cousin lives in Joplin. And she had a 5-month-old infant that she took into the bathtub as that tornado destroyed their house, and their house collapsed on top of them. They were pulled out by her husband.

NORRIS: They're OK now?

CASEY: Yes. Yeah. They were pulled out alive, but, you know, their house was completely destroyed. So, you know, that's another thing we're going to be doing out here for the next three weeks is, you know, fundraiser events to raise money for families of Joplin, Missouri.

NORRIS: What goes through your mind when you are that close and you see one of those? You know, you're supposed to be filming in that moment, but does that still stir something inside you every single time you see one?

CASEY: Yeah. Seeing a tornado, you actually see, you know, a real-life monster, you know? It seems like some mythological thing that you're witnessing. And to feel that violence and that chaos, it's kind of liberating in a way. You are overcoming your fear, and you are experiencing something that I don't have the superlatives to do justice to. It's really a spiritual moment.

NORRIS: That's storm chaser Sean Casey. Sean, thanks so much for talking to us.

CASEY: Yeah. Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Filmmaker and tornado chaser Sean Casey. His film "Tornado Alley" is in IMAX theaters around the country right now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.