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CSI Tornado: Decoding – and chasing – supercells with the experts

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LaDue is a self-described "storm weenie" whose weather fixation began in junior high and was cemented later in rough-weather sailing in Long Island Sound. He often travels chasing tornadoes and their aftermath with his weathercentric family: his wife, Daphne, a University of Oklahoma weather researcher, and 4-year-old son Dylan, who loves to see a tornado spin into view.

Looking for damage patterns in structures and vegetation to determine a tornado's intensity – as well as width and length of track – is LaDue's just-the-facts-ma'am science job; but he is fully aware that his work site is often someone's personal disaster.

In approaching property owners, he says, "I don't want to treat them as victims. They're not to be pitied. They went through a horrible event, and if they come out reasonably OK, most wind up being thankful it wasn't worse."

He marvels at the hospitality and humor people show, despite their hardship. His serving as a patient listener helps. Many are just happy to have someone to talk to about their experience. During last spring's surveys in Alabama where 62 tornadoes killed 253 people, LaDue recalls: "We went to one house east of Tuscaloosa that was swept clean. The grandparents were in the hospital. Two [teens] were guarding what was left of the place. They said: 'We're so glad you came up and stopped to talk. Most people just gawk at us and drive on by.' "

Talking to residents is part of the boots-on-the-ground fact-finding that provides a reality check on the accuracy of forecasts for the storm that drops a tornado. And the investigations provide ground-truth tests for NWS tools for analyzing and predicting storm behavior.

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