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RIDERS ON THE STORM VALLEY MAN HUNTS PERFECT TORNADO FOR IMAX FILM.

Byline: BRENT HOPKINS

Staff Writer

STUDIO CITY - In a few days, Sean Casey will pack his bags, bid farewell to his family and chart a course for hell.

His destination: Tornado Alley.

At a time most people in storm country are checking their cellars and planning how to escape the weather, the 39-year-old filmmaker will be racing toward it. He'll load a crew into a heavily armored pickup truck, prep his IMAX camera and, with luck, drive right into a grinding, destructive funnel.

Ensconced within the steel turret of the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, Casey will dig in and wait as the storm's furious onslaught churns toward him.

"When people see us coming, they know something's up," he said, relaxing in his hillside living room in Studio City. "For the first couple years, it was like the carnival freak show was coming to town. Now, they're cheering us. It's really awesome."

The filmmaker cuts an interesting figure. Compactly built with thinning, graying hair and a gritty wash of stubble, he favors military attire and a well-worn straw cowboy hat.

He removes his shoes inside his home and dips Skoal. He grows organic heirloom tomatoes. His speaking voice is calm and soft.

Where to go when you need a tank?

He came to his current vocation in a curious way. In 1998, while shooting a documentary on animal migration on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, he got bored. The crabs were slow to spawn, and he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. He went to the local library and found a book on storm chasing.

Tantalized by the tales of men and women who drive back roads and dirt trails in search of twisters, he started reading up on the field. He learned of Joshua Wurman, an MIT-educated scientist with the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.

The two met in Oklahoma in May 1999, shortly after an F5 tornado smashed through the region, killing 44 people and inflicting $1.3 billion in damage. Wurman was fascinated by the force of the storms and wanted to find ways to study how they form and how they affect ground structures.

Casey was hooked and began following the scientist, using Wurman's Doppler radar-equipped trucks to get as close to the storms as possible.

"You can only get so close in a rented minivan," Casey said. "You're always thinking, 'How can I get away? How can I get away? Will this dirt road become mud? Will I be stuck?"'

A regular vehicle had too many liabilities. A baseball-size chunk of hail could punch a hole right through a windshield.

A light truck could get knocked on its side in winds above 100 mph. Casey needed a tank.

Thus began the TIV.

TIV studies twisters from the bottom up

In 2003, he bought a six-year-old Ford F-450 diesel pickup for $14,000 and learned how to weld. He stripped the truck down to its chassis, 7.3-liter turbocharged engine, dashboard and steering wheel and began piling on armor.

In the past four years, he estimates he's poured $20,000 into field repairs, replacing nearly every part on the frame.

After six weeks of trying and endless hours of research, he figured out how to construct a turret to house his camera. The current iteration looks like something Batman would employ on an urban assault vehicle.

"It's like a demolition derby car and Russian World War I submarine. It's," he said, pausing for a few seconds, "robust."

The first year his crew took the vehicle out, they were pulled over 14 times by curious cops. Now it's a familiar sight from Texas all the way to North Dakota. For two months each year, the TIV rolls up and down the storm corridor, following Wurman's crews.

"If I hadn't known him, I'd have dismissed him out of hand," Wurman said. "Even looking at the TIV, you kind of wonder. But I knew him, knew his determination. He wasn't just a crazy daredevil, so I knew I could work with him."

When Wurman's instruments find a tornado brewing, Casey's driver points the TIV's train-like prow toward the storm and makes a run for it.

"We're driving like hell to get in front of it," he said. "The storms in April are moving 45 mph and the minute they get behind you, it's nearly impossible to get them."

When they're relatively certain where the twister will touch down, the TIV comes to a halt. As the tornado approaches, four hydraulic arms spring out like outriggers, bracing the 14,000-pound vehicle to the ground.

Casey engages a series of winches, tightening the suspension springs and laying the TIV's belly on the ground like a lowrider. In an F2 twister, with winds above 120 mph, the four crew members don't feel a thing.

As he's scrambling to take a light reading and train his wide-angle lens on the storm for his movie, the TIV's anemometers and pressure gauges are feeding valuable data back to Wurman. The meteorologist's instruments can track the storm's top, but he needs Casey's unique vantage point to gauge its full power.

"We can see 99 percent, but it's the 1 percent that matters to people," Wurman said. "That's the part doing all the destruction, and that's where we need to know the most about how fast the wind is, how it's getting sucked in. It really requires data from the lowest zone, and the TIV can go in under the radar."

F5 could take out even the TIV

So far, the vehicle has found its way into six tornadoes, two last week when the team made an early run down to Amarillo, Texas. The violent storms claimed 10 lives and left hundreds homeless. Wurman hopes the information gleaned from their research can help develop early warning systems and improve structural design to prevent similar damage in the future.

In addition to pitching in on research, Casey hopes to get footage as-yet unseen on screen. If he gets the elusive shot -- the perfectly lit, evocative picture of the inside of a tornado -- he hopes to finish his film within several years.

Though the TIV has survived relatively unscathed its past encounters with the destructive natural monsters, Casey remains mindful that he treads a dangerous course each time he heads into their paths.

A dirt road could become a quagmire and a small storm could become an F5. A 200-mph gust could send the tank end-over-end for hundreds of yards, even if it's snug to the ground. It would become, in his words, a big metal blender. He says he'd be lucky to live.

"It's not like we're going to Baghdad and patrolling the streets, but there's danger," he said. "But sometimes you get the bear ... and sometimes the bear gets you."

brent.hopkins(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3738

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1) The Tornado Intercept Vehicle and Center for Severe Weather Research chase team race to get ahead of a forming tornado.

(2) Navigator Byron Turk, right, helps Sean Casey load an IMAX camera into the TIV in Amarillo, Texas, on Monday.

(3) IMAX cameraman Sean Casey, left, readies the TIV on Monday as Burbank producer and cameraman Kyle Wheeler shoots video before they head out to chase tornados.

(4 -- 5) At left, a tornado touches down in the farmlands west of Laverne, Okla., during a severe thunderstorm late Monday. Above, the TIV's turret, where the IMAX camera is mounted, affords a 360-degree view. Studio City resident Sean Casey hopes to capture an interior view of a twister.

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 29, 2007
Words:1275
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