Tornadoes are sexy beasts


My, how the tornado has become a sexy brand.

This morning, I visited to find out what kind of day May 10 was bringing to Chicago (always a giant question mark). I was hit smack in the face with the image of a shimmering, purple tornado and the headline Outbreak!, which invited me to watch a video forecasting severe weather occurring in the United States (complete with colorful graphics and enthusiastic reporting).

On the same website, I could also read an article predicting the likely outbreak of severe weather on May 10 across the central and southern plains — and as if to assure me that The Weather Channel really has its act together, the website proudly stated that The Weather Channel uses a “forecast product”¬† known as TOR:CON, which predicts the likelihood of a tornado occurring within 50 miles of a given location. And on top of that, the website invited me to visit Facebook to learn more about Severe Weather Expert Dr. Greg Forbes (wouldn’t you know — TOR:CON uses his expertise).

But was just a mild warm-up to the May 10 print edition of Chicago Tribune (yes, I still read print). The front page masthead was mocked up to depict a dark, stormy sky, with a bold headline announcing that that¬† WGN chief meteorolgist Tom Skilling would be chasing “storms in tornado alley” — all week. The Page 4 jump announced that a “team of experts will travel throughout the Midwest and Plains states in an unprecedented effort to learn more about how [tornadoes] form and how they can be better predicted.” The full-page spread used those colorful graphics again (with the requisite tornado menacing the plains) to explain geeky tornado-chasing terms like the sticknet (an instrument that collects data as a storm approaches).

Tornadoes have come a long way since providing a supporting role The Wizard of Oz. They’ve run amok on YouTube, landed at major museums, run roughshod on television, and toppled book shelves, physical and virtual. On top of all that, they’ve demolished a website, too. The tornado has captured our imagination in the same way Godzilla has: with a mixture of fear, awe, and fascination. The tornado is a brand to be reckoned with, made even more formidable with the cooperation of the overlapping news reporting and entertainment industry.

No doubt the abysmal 1996 movie Twister had something to do with the ascendance of the tornado as a brand. It’s one of those movies so bad that I love watching it for laughs. Obstensibly Twister stars Bill Paxon and Helen Hunt as two storm chasers rekindling a romance (don’t ask). But the real star of this special-effects laden storm orgy is the tornado itself, which fairly bursts through the screen replete with groaning and writhing worthy of Jenna Jameson. The movie-going public made Twister the second-highest grossing movie of 1996. Universal Studios Florida would later launch an attraction, Twister . . . Ride It Out based on the movie.

For a short time during my childhood, I live in Indianapolis, where my family spent our share of days huddled in a closet waiting out severe weather (including at least one tornado). I did not need books or movies to impress upon me their ability to terrorize and bewitch with their overwhelming power. But these days, it does not matter where you live: a tornado is coming your way. And there is some value in this multi-channel experience: if you looked closely enough at the May 10 Chicago Tribune tornado spread, you could learn about the Vortex Project an undertaking created to improve tornado forecasting. So the reporting does call attention to a public service. You just have to find it through the storm of hype.

PS: how come tornadoes don’t get names like hurricanes?