Ready to blow out of town

KRT NEWSFEATURES By Judy Hevrdejs Chicago Tribune (KRT) CHICAGO _ For more than a decade, meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka has been teaching classes in weather forecasting and severe weather at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He also teaches storm chasing. That means three times during the April-through-June high season for storms and tornadoes, Sirvatka and 14 students plus an assistant and two drivers pack themselves, maps, cell phones, radios, a laptop, a GPS mapping device and some map software into two vans. The vans have so many radios and antennas, “we look like a porcupine,” he said. They then travel to the central part of the United States in search of severe storms and tornadoes. “The ultimate prize is the tornado,” he said. “The storms that produce them are called super cells. So if we don’t always get a tornado, we can still get a decent super cell and that’s pretty exciting.” Each morning, they track their quarry. “We print out a whole bunch of maps … and figure out what’s going on,” said Sirvatka, who works with his students to pull the information together and come up with an area where they think a storm is going to be. Before he headed off on a chase, Sirvatka, 39, who lives with his wife, Cathy, in Glen Ellyn, talked about how he is weathering the season. You have a class storm chase slated for May 3. Do you know where you’re going? “I will know (that day). We go anywhere from Texas to the Dakotas. We may even go into Canada. We have the entire central U.S. as our chase lands. And that’s where the movies differ from reality. There’s a lot of driving.” So that 1996 movie “Twister” wasn’t exactly on target? “Not even close.” Because Helen Hunt doesn’t go on your storm chases or what? “The big things that are different? No. 1, it’s harder to get to the tornado. In the movie “Twister,” every time they went out, they saw a tornado. Well, it doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to catch a tornado. No. 2? Dust flying at your eyes at 130 miles an hour probably isn’t going to let you open them_which is one of the pet peeves of that movie. “No. 3? We don’t travel across cornfields. You can get some serious problems with that. No. 4? There are not good guys and bad guys usually. “And No. 5? I don’t need Pepsi cans to know that a tornado spins around.” What about the movie’s flying cows? “Cows tend not to fly. And certainly if they flew, they wouldn’t be cute. They’d be shredded apart.” Do you have a favorite tornado scene in a movie? It’s got to be “The Wizard of Oz.” … If you think about it, how much have special effects increased? Yet the quality of the tornadoes isn’t a whole lot better than it was (in that 1939 film). I think it was kind of a fun, scary tornado.” Storm chasing must be nerve racking. How do you relax? “How do I relax? … how do I relax? … I watch TV with my wife or movies with my wife. That’s relaxed. But come spring, I’m always on the computer, always checking what’s going on with the weather. I live for the spring _ April through June.” How does your team stay fit? “When we’re on the trip, it’s really tough. We try to swim in the hotels as much as possible, which is just a good release. We play a lot of softball. That’s our outdoor activity. It’s vital.” And you? “I’ve taken up basketball recently, and I work out at the gym here several times a week just to stay cardio _ something other than sitting at a computer.” Speaking of computers, what’s the most high-tech item you have at home? “My stereo. I’ve got a Denon. I’ve got a CD changer, tape deck, VCR- DVD combo, and I’ve got a couple video cameras. I do some video editing.” Are there any special clothes you wear for storm chasing? “Cool ones _ with a sweatshirt tied around the backs of the seats because when you’re in the middle of the outflow of a thunderstorm, temperatures can drop 20, 30 degrees real quick. It can get cold real fast.” And snacks? “It changes year to year. Last year, it was Skittles. Sometimes it’s gumballs. Sometimes it’s Hostess Cupcakes … and Sweetarts. I get really nervous. I get kind of excited, so it’s like I need busy food.” What’s the most important thing to take with you when chasing? “Good maps. We have a lot of the Gazetteer (series) maps so you can get down to the dirt roads on the county level. Navigating unfamiliar roads is really hard because the thing that you’re always looking for is an escape. For me, I don’t want to put my students in jeopardy so I need to make sure that if we’re going to see something, we’re going to be close, and I need to make sure that we can get out in case something goes on.” You and your students are highly aware of the beauty _ and dangerous power _ of storms. Do you have any dangerous-weather caveats for the rest of us? “It’s real simple: Keep alert with weather radio (or with local TV or radio). In all the experience I’ve had with people who have houses damaged and stuff, the No. 1 thing that protects them is that they’re aware of what’s happening outside. Then when it gets really scary looking and it looks really bad, seek shelter. Most people who are hurt are kind of taken by surprise.” OK, do people have to play “Twister” at your house? “(Laughter.) No, we don’t play Twister.” ___ ‘copy 2003, Chicago Tribune. Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.