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TRUE STORY PUTS REALISTIC SPIN ON FICTIONAL TORNADO MOVIES

Before Dorothy, before PATTI, there was Toto, braving winds that are just getting started when they hit 250 miles per hour.

Each was a squat scientific gizmo that researchers hoped to plop down smack in the middle of a tornado to measure the forces inside.But where the first two are fictitious creations of special-effects shops for two new tornado movies - "Twister," opening this month on big screens, and "Tornado," which debuted on the Fox television network earlier this month, Toto was a real government project, and it came to an unglamorous government end.

"I guess they both were spinoffs from Toto, which we used back in the mid-'80s," recalled Kevin Keller, a manager and meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., who helped supply technical advice to the makers of both films.

"The idea was to get some protected instruments into the path of a storm, so we loaded them up into a 55-gallon drum and put it on the back of a pickup and chased around for a couple of seasons trying to place it," Keller said.

Alas, life did not imitate art.

Dorothy in "Twister" and the Portable Analyzer of Tornado Technical Information (a.k.a. PATTI) in "Tornado" each climactically get into the heart of a swirling monster created by special effects. But Keller said that with the real life Toto, "a small tornado kind of nipped the can once near the end of the project."

Ultimately, bureaucrats at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began to question the wisdom of placing U.S. government property in harm's way. "There was some concern about the government's liability if Toto became airborne, and so we canned it," said Keller.

Neither Keller nor Joe Schaefer, head of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, which tracks severe weather to assist local weather forecasters, have seen either twister film but said the art in tornado chasing is to get close, but not too close, to the prey.

During any given season, hundreds of people are scuttling around the southern Plains area known as Tornado Alley trying to get closer to, rather than away from, twisters. Some of them work for the federal research lab, others for schools like the University of Oklahoma, and still others are just individuals toting video and still cameras who love the chase.

"You've got a lot of grad students, 23 years old and full of testosterone and beer, who think it's a fun thing to go out and chase tornados," Schaefer said. "As far as we're concerned, there's no such thing as an insignificant tornado."

Most of the nation's tornado experts pooled their resources in 1994 and 1995 for a project called VORTEX, using a fleet of vans equipped with portable doppler radar and other sensors that would help them get readings in and around the funnel clouds. Their findings are expected to be published soon.

Keller said a key new tool in gathering information about tornado behavior at and near the ground is dual doppler radar, which helps build a multi-dimensional image of the swirling winds.

Schaefer said new radars and other advances have allowed meteorologists to give eight to 10 minutes of advance warning to people in the path of "long, strong and violent storms. Ten years ago, we could give zero-to-one-minute's notice, so it's a significant improvement."

Although the severe-storm experts had no direct input on the content of the new movies, Keller said his organization did put its foot down with the producers of "Twister" on one point when the film was still in development early in 1995.

"They wanted the well-funded research team that sort of snatches Dorothy from (`Twister' male lead) Bill Paxton to be a government team," Keller recalled.

"We explained that wouldn't be a correct portrayal, that we're mostly held together with duct tape and baling wire, and that since there was a move in Congress to eliminate the Department of Commerce (of which NOAA is a part), it really might be inaccurate by the time the movie came out. They changed the script so that the two competing teams of chasers were both private."