GIVE 'EM HAIL, HURRY!

FOR THE ARIZONA THUNDERSTORM CHASERS, THE SKY'S THE LIMIT. AND THEREIN LIES THE RUB.

Whatever is going on, it looks like it's happening again. Lucas gets on the radio. "It's not real promising right now," he says, slowly, like a surgeon bearing bad news. "The convergence--if anything was going to fire, it should have fired by now. Anything in the Phoenix area is down to nil."

The silence is pregnant with disappointment.
Finally, Moore rasps in. "Roger. We copy. That's about what it looks like out here now. There's nothing except lots of dust and blowing wind."

Lucas: "Is Unit 1 still with me? Or did they go off the air?"
Moore: "My guess is they went into a Circle K or something."

"The shutdown of the project rears its ugly head," Cerveny complains through early August. "This isn't even the nonsoon. It's a no-soon. It can't get too much worse."
Storms are pinwheeling around the Valley, skipping Phoenix altogether. As of August 8, the city has had no measurable rainfall for 92 days. There is a stretch of 17 or 18 days in which the temperature surpasses 110 degrees. Ducks are keeling over from heat botulism. On the storm-line message for August 9, Shaffer reports: "No chase. To quote Ed Phillips, it is rather anemic out there."

The start of the semester approaches, signaling the near end of the project, since people no longer will have time to chase. They have lives, after all. Few of the dispirited volunteers are calling the storm line as it is.

But on August 15, a Tuesday, Cerveny sounds the trumpet one more time. The weather gods taunted them a couple of days earlier with a storm that jelled right over Phoenix--as opposed to moving in, which would have given them something to chase--and dumped the first big rain of the season in the city's northeast and central neighborhoods.

Cerveny and Moore sit in the van and await the diehard few chasers who dare to show. "It doesn't look that good," Cerveny says. "But we'll see. You've got all the ingredients except the stirring rod. You gotta have the upper-level dynamics."

He and Moore walk to the edge of the lot, where they can see entire waves of floating chicken armadas, decoys sent out by the weather gods, filling the sky like hot-air balloons. But the instability above is gone, the upper-level winds that could create openings for them to move up into, to build into gorgeous towering cumulonimbuses--the fluffy, besotted bouquets that keep rising with the hot air until, finally, tens of thousands of feet high, they just can't hold any more.

No, the clouds this evening have hit a ceiling. They're flattening out, short and squat, pushing up with their puny strength. "You almost feel sorry for them," Cerveny says. "They're working so hard and they're not gonna do anything."

You almost feel sorry for Cerveny, too. No chasers are showing up; it's as if no one is taking the project seriously anymore. Then again, it is a workday, and everyone is trying to get his life in order. . . . "I used to be such an optimist," he says. "This summer's really killed it."

"I would've thought the last four summers would've done it," Moore says.
But then Lucas, the redhead, and a typically late guy named Bruce Friedl show up, ready for action. Into the van they go and over to the National Weather Service office, where they are revived with news of a bubbling system to the northwest. Soon they're rumbling down Interstate 10, and it isn't long before a killer dust wall is snaking across the freeway about ten miles ahead of them. It is a fascinating sight.

"Look at that!" Cerveny says. "Whoa, Nellie! Report that: We are seeing some major outflow crossing the freeway."
By the time they notice a stream of rain shooting down from the west, the storm chasers are practically salivating. "We're gonna get wet!" Cerveny says. "Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to come out, after all."

Lucas pipes in from Stormbase: "We are now showing a severe thunderstorm warning for the metro area, with winds up to 50 miles per hour."

And the chickens are getting bigger all around them. The geography professor and the software engineer are ecstatic. Look at this guy, they exclaim, meaning a bubbling, towering "cue"--look at that guy! Where did that guy come from? That's impressive. This word, impressive, is the weather wonk's way of saying, "Holy shit!" They constantly say things are impressive. And though they haven't seen it yet, an enormous monster clucker is in the works behind them, to the northeast.

An hour later, they're tracking it, east on the freeway in the car-pool lane, a soaring cluster that just keeps blossoming as it moves toward Fountain Hills. It's a kernel of popcorn popped beyond imagination, its base dark and mean. The Weather Service guys issue severe thunderstorm warnings; the thing is 45,000 feet high now, and they say they wouldn't be surprised to see a tornado actually spurt out of this one.

Glances are exchanged in the van.
Cerveny: "It looks impressive, but not that impressive."
Moore: "Maybe it'll be a really small tornado."

Heavy rainfall spills from the base in a yawing purple bubble, somewhere beyond Fountain Hills. "Whoo!" comes a cry from Stormbase. Lucas, excitable as always. "Unit 1, this is Stormbase."

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