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Thrill seekers chase twisters

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OKLAHOMA CITY — When severe weather threatens, experienced storm trackers head out to look for signs of tornadoes and report their findings to the National Weather Service and television stations.

More often than not, they find they are not alone.

Thrill-seekers, entrepreneurs and the curious are out there too, clogging roads and courting danger.

F5 Tornado Safari of Castle Rock, Colo., is one of several companies offering people the chance to see a tornado. For $1,850, the company transports people throughout the Midwest and Southwest for a week in a black 1994 GMC Suburban.

Chris Margison, 47, a letter carrier from Tacoma, Wash., took his second tour recently.

"I have seen funnels, but I want to get even closer," he said. "I just like the excitement."

Improvements in meteorology have made such tours possible. Modern weather radar pinpoints storm systems likely to produce tornadoes and accurately tracks the movements of these storms.

Greg Potter, the lead meteorologist for F5, monitors ham radio reports from storm spotters and fields cell phone calls from meteorologists in Austin, Texas, and Castle Rock. He tells the driver, Laura Cowen of Santa Monica, Calf., where to head for the best storm viewing.

On one recent day, it originally looked like most of the severe storms would be in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, but by midmorning, more intense activity seemed to be forming in Kansas, so the tour headed north.

Entering Hutchinson, Kan., around 1 p.m., Potter spotted signs of rotating clouds to the east. The chase was on.

With a radar detector activated to avoid a traffic ticket, the tour driver sped to an intersection already lined with a TV station's satellite truck, two researchers from the University of Kansas with cameras on tripods, a high school teacher who moonlights as a storm spotter, and several carloads of curious sightseers.

A funnel cloud was spotted, but it never touched the ground.

Some emergency officials are concerned about what will happen when a tornado does touch down in an area filled with sightseers and tourists.

"It makes me worried that people are going to get hurt because they don't know where to go and where not to go," said Harry Trotter, the emergency management director for McIntosh County in southeast Oklahoma.

Val Castor, who tracks storms in the field for a television station, said many people who venture out to spot a tornado do not realize just how difficult or dangerous this can be.

"In reality we only see a tornado once every 10 to 12 times we go out. We just put a lot of hours in behind the wheel.

"One of these days there will be a lot of casualties because of people watching storms. There is going to be an accident whether it's a tornado or a car wreck — it is going to happen."