Stormchaser visits Edina students studying tornados

Fifth grade students watch KARE11 footage of the aftermath of the tornado that hit north Minneapolis in May 2011 as part of a presentation by stormchaser Michael Stanga. The students have been reading about storms in their language arts class. (Photo by Lisa Kaczke – Sun Newspapers)

A “woah” from a student at a video of a mile-wide tornado turned into laughter from the whole group as the tornado sent huge round drain tiles bouncing across the farm field.

The questions from fifth grade students at Countryside Elementary were so plentiful that Maple Grove-based stormchaser Michael Stanga ran out of time to answer all of them and students were asking him questions as they were leaving the classroom.

The presentation at the school on Friday, Sept. 28, supplemented the books about storms and tornados the fifth graders have been reading in their language arts class.

A book they recently finished reading featured a stormchaser who saw multiple storms in one day. Stanga said five is the most tornados he’s seen in a day.

“It is nothing like ‘Twister,’” he said comparing stormchasing to the 1996 movie featuring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as stormchasers.

The students were curious about whether he’s ever been hurt or scared, and if he wears any special gear for stormchasing.

He’s never been hurt and the only special gear needed is work boots because they sometimes arrive at a town minutes after it’s been hit by a tornado, he said.

The only time he’s been scared is when he and a friend found themselves in the middle of a storm at night in Iowa that was dropping tornados around them.

“A tornado was a mile away and you could only see it through flashes of lightning,” he said.

In response to a student wondering what inspired him to become storm chaser, he said it’s just something he’s always known he wanted to do. He majored in geology and Earth science in college.

Safety is essential – for him in the storm and for residents in its path. He cautioned students to seek the lowest interior room and stay away from windows when the tornado sirens begin to sound.

“Never try to see the tornado,” he said. He added that tornados are sometimes difficult to see because they are usually in the middle of rain.

He uses four different weather models on the day of the chase to figure out which way he should head – and there are a lot of things that need to go right that day for him to reach the storm in time.

“You can miss a tornado by seconds,” he said. On the other hand, he has found himself on what he calls an “accidental stormchase,” when he is driving and finds himself near a tornado. He’s also taken photos of storms and it’s only afterward when he’s looking at the photos that he realizes there’s a tornado in a photo.

He has a video camera on his car that provides a live feed online on his website, thewxpage.com.

“Sometimes there are fun things on there and sometimes it’s just driving through the country,” he said of the live videos.

While showing students the equipment he uses, like a GPS and a ham radio, he noted that they also try to take photos of the storms.

He summed it up, “We’re taking photos, there’s a tornado and we’re driving. There’s a lot going on.”