?Chasecationers? may base locally

The Midwest?s annual season for spring storms drew three Australians to the United States for a six-week ?chasecation? in which they racked up more than 17,000 miles and traveled through 17 states.

?Our dream was to come to America and study storms here on the Plains, and that?s what we?ve been doing for three years,? said Clyve Herbert, a semi-retired train engineer, as he sat at a table in Little Pleasures, Hillsboro?s local coffee shop.

Unabashed storm chasers Herbert, Jane ONeill and Michael King are fascinated by atmospheric conditions that form powerful thunderstorms and violent tornadoes such as the one that recently ravaged Joplin, Mo.

On last year?s trip, Herbert and partner ONeill explored Marion County.

?We always seem to be coming back to the Hillsboro/Marion area,? Herbert said.

The countryside and climate brings them back to this area.

?We like the farm country around here, and we like the Marion dam and the walking areas,? he said. ?And that complements our interest in atmospheric science and storms, and our interests in travel, antiques, railways and books.?

Herbert and ONeill, who runs a printer cartridge company, live in the Trentham, a village nestled in a forest with the population of about 700 and located 50 miles north of Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria.

Fellow traveler King practices family law in Canberra, Australia?s capital. This trip was his first chasing storms in the U.S.

The three are members of the Australian Severe Weather Association, a nonprofit organization for people interested in all types of severe weather.

On May 24, their quest had them following storms through northern Oklahoma and southcentral Kansas and documenting and photographing cloud formations and funnels.

Near Fairview, Okla., Herbert said, a tornado swirled across the highway 200 yards ahead of them.

?We backed off?we had radar and we backed off,? he said. ?Even through (the tornado) was rain-wrapped, we could see the formation.?

The tornado was tearing up the Oklahoma red dirt.

ONeill added, ?We could see the color?all of a sudden instead of white rain, it was brown and orange.?

In April, the trio had followed the tornado that eventually hit Tuscaloosa, Ala.

?It?s a difficult area because of the forests,? Herbert said about the tornado?s path. ?As we approached Tuscaloosa, we saw an 18-wheeler laying on its side.

?Then we started to see what damage was done.?

ONeill said they choose not to photograph the suffering and destruction left by tornadoes.

While in Tennessee after the storms, they witnessed hotels housing people left homeless by the twisters.

?People were turning up with just their clothes,? Herbert said. ?We were surprised how the community came together (after the tornadoes). There were no questions asked.?

ONeill added, ?There were people coming from three states to help out.?

During their annual visits to the U.S., the Trentham storm chasers have recognized the variance in the frequency of tornado activity. Last year, it was Nebraska and South Dakota. This year it?s Oklahoma.

?It changes every year,? ONeill said.

The frequency of tornados is much lower in Australia than in the U.S.

?In respect to the weather here, we?re just blown away with how rapidly these storms form,? said Herbert, a storm chaser for more than 40 years.

A rotating wall cloud can become a tornado in seconds, he added.

Herbert said he?s been surprised that some towns don?t have tornado sirens or they?re broken, and some communities have discontinued their sirens.

?Every American town in this area should have a warning system,? he said. ?People need weather radios.?

Communities also need to schedule regular storm drills so people will know what to do when severe weather alerts are issued.

?The critical aspect is to know the day?(May 24) was a dangerous day,? Herbert said, adding that weather-wise, the day of the Joplin tornado was low-risk.

?It goes to show how quickly not only a tornado can touch down, but how quickly the local environment can change if you get the right aspects of moisture, heat and atmospheric dynamics,? he said. ?Even on a low-risk day, you can get a tornado.?

Based on their travels and experiences, Herbert and ONeill are in the process of writing two books: one on the climate and weather of Lake Superior and the second a pictorial storm book with descriptive text.

The travelers said they have found strong similarities between the topography of Australia and the U.S., particularly in Texas.

?It?s hard to believe that Australia is almost as big as America but its population is only 22 million,? Herbert said. ?We don?t have the road systems there like you do here.?

Their travel stories also include the people they meet along the way. They have found Americans to be more relaxed yet formal in their greetings.

ONeill said while stopped by road construction, they chatted with a woman named Robin who worked on construction jobs lasting from one to three months.

A week later they met her in another part of Kansas.

?And we finished our conversation,? ONeill said.

Next year, Herbert and ONeill plan on a return visit to Kansas.

?We?ve done a little bit of research on this area, and we?re fascinated with the Flint Hills area, and the geology and geography of this region.?

Their interest in Marion County has Herbert and ONeill contemplating becoming ?semi-local? residents.

?It takes a bit for us to think about purchasing a property, but we?re keen on it,? Herbert said. ?Somehow, maybe with our eccentric interests, we can fit into the community, you think??

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View a chronicle of the Trentham storm chasers? U.S. adventure at stormchasers.au. com/usa230511. htm.

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