Bobby McKellar became interested in storms when he was just a kid. He now chases tornadoes because as a child he witnessed firsthand the devastation a tornado can do.
“The memory that haunts me to this day is one of an old man that lived in the Jack Steel Hill community south of Lockesburg, Ark. After the tornado had passed through, my grandfather, who was a State Highway Policeman, was asked by a Sevier County Deputy to come with him to assess the damage. It was 1982 and I begged and pleaded to go. I witnessed unspeakable and unbelievable damage. I saw the human toll and remembered hearing many of the people exclaim, ‘They had no warning.’
“As we sat there in the car, amazed at the total destruction, this old man walked up and tapped on the window where I was sitting. He’d seen my grandfather, Frank McKellar – they both knew each other since childhood. He said, ‘Frank, it got everything I had.’ My grandfather and he exchanged a few words. I saw the tears in both their eyes and then he just slowly walked away back to the empty spot where his home, barn and life used to be. That experience changed my life.”
McKellar’s storm-chasing companion, Chad Gillenwater said he chases tornadoes to learn more about Mother Nature and the beauty she creates in the sky.[quote_center]“If we can get the warning just a few minutes ahead of a developing tornado, and hopefully save lives, we will have done what we started the group for,”[/quote_center]
“We have a lot to understand about how everything works but we have to respect what Mother Nature can do and how she does it. Every chance a ‘warned storm’ has come through the area, at least one of us has been following it and keeping a close eye on it,” Gillenwater said.
The men teamed up a bit over a month ago when a round of severe weather passed through Texarkana and brought at least one tornado to town. Yet, no tornado sirens sounded. The silence was ultimately attributed to a communications breakdown between the Bi-State Justice Building staff and emergency management.
“During those times I didn’t hear the sirens sound during those crucial minutes as the storm passed. It was at that time when myself and Bobby started texting and calling one another and decided to start an organization for storm chasing for the Ark-La-Tex area. We have been through the Sky warn basics and Advanced classes for storm spotting, which includes what to look for and signs of worsening conditions. We are still in the growing and better-learning phase but any information or knowledge to better inform the community we look forward to learning. We chase these storm not for excitement but to help better inform what matters most to our homes and community.
“If we can get the warning just a few minutes ahead of a developing tornado, and hopefully save lives, we will have done what we started the group for,” Gillenwater said.
Having been a part-time storm chaser for close to two years, McKellar became a full-time chaser about nine months ago when he was declared a fully-disabled veteran. He said he believes storm chasing is a way of giving back to the community.
“I am passionate about getting as much warning out as fast as possible. Where we are in Southwest Arkansas, Northeast Texas, Southeast Oklahoma and Northwest Louisiana, it’s hard for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Shreveport to ‘see’ via radar any activity between one to three miles from the surface. Spotters and chasers are critical when it comes to severe weather,” McKellar said.
If the NWS issues a tornado warning based on rotation in a storm, confirmation that there is actually a tornado on the ground – and how powerful that tornado is – can only come from those who are trained to recognize that weather activity, such as law enforcement, emergency management, or trained spotters and chasers, McKellar explained.
“Civilians can report a tornado, of course, but usually are not trained to be able to give NWS more than basic information. We are trained by the NWS and have much more intensive classroom, online and personal, research training as well. For instance, I study college-level meteorology courses and take online courses on meteorology to continually further my knowledge of weather, its cause and effect and history,” he said.
“It’s a pure passion for me.”
Some people may imagine storm chasers to be mere adrenaline junkies, seeking thrills just for the sake of excitement alone. But McKellar said while it is exhilarating to chase tornadoes and bad weather in general, excitement is not the reason he and Gillenwater do what they do.
“It is a real rush of adrenaline when you’re on the chase. And, I won’t hide the fact that the danger is exhilarating. But, that never takes completely over and I never forget what the mission is for and what it’s all about. I always have my family on my mind, my wife, my boys, my loved ones and friends,” McKellar said.
The men concentrate their storm-chasing efforts within 100-miles of the Texarkana area. “This general area has one of the highest percentages nationwide of severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and other severe weather watches and warnings. We sit in an area that is encompassed by the colloquial ‘Dixie Alley’ and ‘Tornado Alley.’ These areas are not truly recognized by weather authorities as official, but everyone knows the names,” McKellar said.
A disadvantage for the Texarkana region is that the many of tornados that we do get here are what are commonly referred to as rain wrapped tornadoes.
“We have such high humidity levels here, and dew points are rather high, that it translates into lots of light rain and mist that gets pulled into the ‘action area’ of a tornadic supercell,” McKellar explained. “This essentially wraps a tornado in a cloak of rain and mist. What looks like a heavy rain shaft can actually be a large tornado only visible at close range. We sometimes have to put ourselves closer than we’d actually like to be when we are chasing. But it’s part of the job!”
Gillenwater said the team’s goal, once they’ve obtained rest of the equipment they need, is for emergency personnel to look to them for assistance.
“We strive to become a quality, reliable organization that news crews can rely on to get the information out to the community. So, if anything is out there, we are the troops on the ground providing heads-up, accurate information,” Gillenwater said.
McKellar said while not all of his family agrees with his storm-chasing activities, they all stand by him and support his efforts.
“They know I don’t take any of this lightly. They’ve seen and heard my passion for what I do. They all worry, and they’re always concerned for my safety. But, I think they all understand that I do this not for me, but for them and for my Ark-La-Tex neighbors,” McKellar said.