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Beauty in the Bear Cage
Through tragedy, danger, and world-record EF5s, Oklahoma meteorologists chase on.
By David Joshua Jennings
Published May/June 2017
“They call this the bear cage,” says Val Castor as he drives hunched forward, looking at the low, dark clouds rotating above. “This could drop a tornado at any moment.”
Val’s wife, Amy, is in the front seat, pointing a camera at the sky. Their occasional chasing partner, Chris Beverage, is in the back.
“Keep your eyes open, and call out if you see anything,” Val says.
He drives slowly, watching, waiting. Every cloud looks to be lowering.
“Tornado on the ground!” Amy shouts suddenly.
Chasing in southwestern Oklahoma, Val Castor keeps his eyes on the road while monitoring radar on a console-mounted laptop and livestreaming back to KWTV in Oklahoma City.
Photo by DAVID JOSHUA JENNINGS
Val slams on the brakes and throws the three-quarter-ton Chevy Duramax Diesel into reverse. It takes a moment to make out the small twister whirling up dirt and debris about a hundred yards away. It bends around a barn and swirls toward the road ahead before vanishing. Val continues to reverse down the empty highway, and he swings around onto the shoulder. Every eye in the car is on the sky, ready for anything. The radars show the vehicle directly beneath strong rotation. Overhead, the clouds are turning rapidly, as if the truck is at the bottom of an enormous drain.
To get to the bear cage, the Castors’ truck has made it through the core, the violent center of a supercell. Of all the adrenaline-inducing activities in the field of storm chasing, punching the core—plowing through this chaos to reach the optimal spot for viewing a tornado—is among the most exhilarating. It’s like driving through a waterfall for fifteen minutes with little to no visibility—only water, confusion, and fear. Then, when the truck pops out on the other side, there is a different danger: a rotating wall cloud overhead.
Few chasers undertake this risky activity, preferring strategies that keep their vehicles out of harm’s way. But professionals like the Castors—who track storms for Oklahoma City CBS affiliate KWTV—do what they must to get the best footage. They consider themselves the eyes and ears of Oklahoma, connected directly to tens of thousands of living rooms, smartphones, and people hungry for information.
Under this rotating wall cloud, there is little fear in the Castors’ mammoth truck—it is overshadowed by the forces unfolding all around them. There is only adrenaline and awe at the immense power of the storm. In this moment, it is clear why storm chasers continue, again and again, to risk their lives to come so dangerously close to one of nature’s deadliest phenomena.
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Get There: Tours of the National Weather Center on the University of Oklahoma campus—which is home to the National Severe Storms Laboratory—in Norman are available by reservation. 120 David L. Boren Boulevard in Norman, (405) 325-3095 or nwcnorman.org.