When you’re among the logistics-impaired, sometimes you fail to reserve a rental car in advance for your travel. No worries, right? There are always cars. And at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers Airport, this again proved to be the rule.

There were cars. Beemers. Ford Mustangs. SUV’s. $100+ (more accurately +++) per day. Lot of agents behind those counters shaking their heads and saying “it’s just one of those nights.”

Cab (and throwing myself on the mercy of colleagues all week) was clearly the way to go.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. I hop in the front cab in the queue. The driver asks, “Where ya headed?” When I tell him, he says, “Oh, you’re going to that tornado meeting! Been people coming in for that all day.”

Turns out the guy does a little tornado chasing. Well…more than a little. Anyway, here’s how the conversation went. Somehow years ago he’d gone to a talk on tornadoes and was bitten by the bug. Since then, he said, he’s seen “thousands.” [! His count]. He said he’d driven for a TV station, carrying their crew around. He was doing that during the Moore City tornado in 1999. Said that experience was so different that it changed his attitude permanently. Prior he’d known there was a little risk involved, but on that occasion he learned just how dangerous it could be. He told me that they were part of a team driving a truckborne radar around to estimate wind speeds, but on this occasion the winds were so high they couldn’t stabilize the last of their several trucks enough to collect the needed data. He kept repeating that the speeds were in excess of 300 miles per hour, and they just couldn’t quite get enough data to pin that down for sure.

He said he always has enough maps, GPS gear etc., and communications to have access to roads/highways out of danger, but that on that day the tornadoes were so numerous and the area at risk so extensive that there was never a clear route to safety. He knew he was just lucky to get out unscathed. His own home, between Moore and Norman, had been just a mile away from the path of one of these, and he’d finally been given permission to take one of the emergency vehicles, go home, and make sure his family was in the safe room he’d built in his house. They lost their roof, but that was all.

After that, he said, he took enough courses and learned enough emergency medicine, to qualify to drive an emergency truck for real. These days he goes and chases until the first reports of damage to structures and homes come in, and then peels off to see what he can do to help. Has chain saws and a range of medical gear.

These days, he said, it’s different. There’s so much information on television that the roads are clogged with gawkers who drive out to see the tornado for themselves. A lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing or the risks involved. They impede access. Then, he added, there are the eco tourists. I believe he said there were maybe 60 (!) firms who would take people out in SUV’s. He said they’d charge up to $2500/day, per person, for excursions that might last as long as five days. People would sign up for certain windows during the year. During those times they’d have to be within 12 hours of Norman/OKC, to hop on their ride. Then when/if conditions turned favorable, they’d get a call. A lot of foreign tourists, he said. A lot of Japanese.  All this is making it more dangerous, he said.

The driver talked non-stop the whole way to the hotel. What passion! He even got into the budget side, and the connection between storms and research money for the folks in Norman. Time flew by. I wanted more! Should have asked him to drive me to Dallas.

As I get out of the cab, he looked forlorn… “Wish I could be a fly on the wall for your meeting,” he says.

Fly on the wall? He should have given the keynote.

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