Fear turns tornado chasing into occupation

YAKIMA -- When Rebekah LaBar saw her first tornado, she was terrified.

She was 12 years old and packing for a trip to see her grandmother. The next thing she knew, her sister stopped mowing the lawn and started running toward her, screaming about a funnel cloud.

LaBar saw the cloud strike a neighboring farm, stirring up a field of freshly cut hay. She couldn't move.

"I had never been so scared in my life," LaBar said about the July 3, 1998, tornado that hit Ellensburg. "My knees were knocking."

But in fear, there also was excitement. The event helped motivate 24-year-old LaBar to become a storm chaser. The hobby not only has forced her to confront her fears; it's shown her the devastation storms can cause.

"There is that balance between enjoying seeing a large force of nature and realizing they do affect people's lives," LaBar said during a recent phone interview while home from graduate school on break.

"I never hope for a tornado, but if one happens in the middle of nowhere, I'd like to see it."

Growing up, LaBar watched countless hours of PBS programming on weather phenomena. Her interest drove her to major in geography at Central Washington University. She graduated in 2006 and chose further study at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, which averages about 53 tornadoes a year, according to the National Weather Service.

LaBar is working on her Ph.D. in meteorology and aspires to one day teach at the college level.

Until then, LaBar chases tornados everywhere from Oklahoma and Texas to Colorado and Minnesota. Armed with a laptop computer and her BlackBerry, she forecasts where and when storms are expected to develop and then goes to the scene. Sometimes her calculations are off by a couple of hours. Other times, there is no storm.

"I really enjoy the challenge of learning how to forecast the weather and then go out there to witness it and see my forecast verified," she said. "You have to know what you are doing before you get there."

Using a Global Positioning System on her computer, LaBar tracks her location in relation to a storm. She always identifies an escape route and keeps her eye on the sky -- reading how the clouds, wind and temperature are interacting.

She stays out of the storm's path, and she typically takes experienced trackers with her. So far, LaBar has seen a couple dozen tornadoes.

The largest was a 1.7-mile-wide EF5 (the most severe class of tornado) on May 4, 2007. It touched down in Greensburg, Kan., destroying 95 percent of the city. Formed from a supercell thunderstorm, the tornado killed 11 people in Greensburg and injured more than 60 others, according to news reports.

That experience shook LaBar enough that she stopped chasing storms until the following year. Only after revisiting Greensburg and seeing the resilience of the townspeople did she resume her tracking.

"I remember just being terrified when I saw that," she said of the Kansas tornado. "I wasn't scared for myself. I was terrified for people who lived in that town. It hit me that as much as I enjoyed seeing these storms in the plains, they do occasionally hit towns and hurt people. ... I had nightmares for a couple weeks."

LaBar's mother, Robin LaBar of Ellensburg, said she initially was worried about her daughter's hobby -- so much so that she tracked Rebekah LaBar's whereabouts with a GPS program.

Now, though, Robin LaBar said she wants to accompany her daughter on an expedition.

"I get wrapped up in the whole excitement of it," she said, noting that she trusts her daughter's judgment. "I didn't know she was as much of a thrill seeker as she is. But it doesn't surprise me. She's very self assured."

Earlier this year, Rebekah LaBar turned her hobby into an online business called Green Sky Chaser. Through it, she sells photographs, DVDs, calendars and T-shirts of storms she sees.

LaBar said the business isn't a money maker, but helps fill her gas tank to chase the next storm. When out, she routinely reports her findings to the National Weather Service, which in turn notifies the public.

"I like to contribute to research that could help people in the long run with getting better warnings," she said. "While it may seem a little bit crazy, it's actually pretty safe."