STORM TANK: Chasers using new vehicle to track severe weather - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

STORM TANK: Chasers using new vehicle to track severe weather

Posted: Updated:

If a sunny day seems boring to you, just wait until you see what Zach Sharpe saves for the rainy ones.

That's when he and the Iowa Storm Chasing Network (ISCN) bring out Dorothy, a 10,000-pound severe weather tank.

"The main goal is to get closer to storms," said Sharpe.

The closer they get, the more they can learn. But it's not without risks.

Named for the character in "The Wizard of Oz" and the scientific tornado equipment in the movie "Twister," Dorothy is designed to go inside tornadoes.

Just like her namesake, she has a skirt -- steel plates that help seal the vehicle to the ground in high winds.

So far, the team has subjected her to huge hail, but not a tornado -- they can't find a wind tunnel big enough to test her first.

Built from an old van, Dorothy has been heavily modified. That makes people stop and stare, thinking they might not be in Kansas anymore.

"When we pull up, people are always scared that there's nasty weather coming," Sharpe laughed.

The ISCN was founded in 2008 by Ben McMillan to help keep Iowans safe, after watching the damage storms could do growing up in Grinnell.

"In the situations where we had people die, unfortunately, word didn't get to them in time to get them to go to safety," McMillan said.

Dorothy's armor can take a bullet -- literally. Coated in a pickup bedliner, any debris that hits them will bounce right off.

Inside, a team of four people can analyze and track the storm. Sharpe said it's often safer than the alternative.

"A lot of times you see storm chasers get awfully close for video and footage, which is crucial to provide that live, ground truth," Sharpe said.

With that, he said, predicting the path of storm gets much more accurate.

Sharpe said that's critical, because we've seen the consequences -- devastation just last week in Lake City, as an EF-1 tornado tore the roof off the high school.

Or in 2014, when Eastern Iowa storm chaser Danny Murphy was struck by lightning while filming storms beside his car. He survived, but suffered permanent damage.

"People's lives have been turned upside-down," Sharpe said.

He also talked about the Twistex deaths -- a team of three storm chasers killed when the El Reno tornado tore through Oklahoma City in 2013.

"It took a left turn, and rapidly grew, and caught them off guard," Sharpe said. "So even the most seasoned chasers are not exempt from Mother Nature's fury."

A memorial to the Twistex team is stuck on Dorothy's bumper. Men lost in the line of duty, McMillan said -- just like any weather-related death.

"You can't really put into words what it's like to see those situations," McMillan said. "You just try to prevent them more in the future. It's tough to talk about."

That's why he, Zach, and the other chasers need Dorothy -- to get a little bit closer to storms, so you hopefully don't have to.

For more on the Iowa Storm Chasing Network, click here.

Powered by Frankly