Jacob Ferden of Preston — upper left — a senior at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., took these storm-chasing photos. The main shot shows an "easy" tornado intercept in the Texas panhandle in 2010. The center shot shows a rain-wrapped tornado, seen better in person, in April of this year in northwestern Oklahoma. The right photo shows a picturesque  supercell cloud in southwestern Kansas in sunset light in 2011. (Bluff Country Reader photos by Lisa Brainard and courtesy of Jacob Ferden)<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->
Jacob Ferden of Preston — upper left — a senior at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., took these storm-chasing photos. The main shot shows an "easy" tornado intercept in the Texas panhandle in 2010. The center shot shows a rain-wrapped tornado, seen better in person, in April of this year in northwestern Oklahoma. The right photo shows a picturesque supercell cloud in southwestern Kansas in sunset light in 2011. (Bluff Country Reader photos by Lisa Brainard and courtesy of Jacob Ferden)

If it's time to head to college - and you'd like to chase storms and tornados - the Holy Grail of schools has to be located in Norman, Okla.

The University of Oklahoma is located in Norman, a suburb of the major Oklahoma City metropolis. Also, the National Weather Service has what Jacob Ferden of Preston calls "a huge government center" of the National Storm Prediction Center, the National Severe Storm Lab and a whole lot more.

Jacob, a graduate of Fillmore Central High School, had no intentions of storm chasing when he headed off to Norman. He just wanted to earn a degree in meteorology, a decision since changed to air traffic controller.

But there must be something in the water... or the inviting flat land of the plains... or the huge storms that race across the open terrain. On April 9, 2009, Ferden - now a senior - was lured out in search of tornadoes.

"My first time chasing was impromptu. I was sitting in Norman when storms went up just to the east of me." As curiosity got the better of him, he went.

But as it often goes in storm chasing, the storm was a "bust." Jacob recalls, "I didn't see anything remotely interesting."

Yet, the seed was planted. "After that I just started doing it," he noted.

Eight days later on April 17, he chased all the way down into southwestern Oklahoma and even into Texas. It was a "nice storm with good supercell structure, but no tornado. At the time I had no clue what I was doing," he laughed.

In the string of "just missed it" tales that any storm chaser can relate, Ferden said one day later there were tornadoes all over that same Texas panhandle. He figures that type of luck has haunted him at least 20 times since 2009. Sometimes there have been storms in his city, close to home, while he was off chasing at other locations. The irony is not lost on him.

But on April 25, 2009, Jacob got lucky.

First sighting

"It was the most intense chase prior to this year and I saw my first tornado."

That time Jacob chased at night. After looking at western Oklahoma, he went to the central part of the state, near the town of Enid. There was a storm to the south. All of a sudden, trained weather spotters said it was moving at 50 miles per hour.

Getting to the east side of it, Ferden saw it go right through town. "I could see power lines popping (in bright explosions as it progressed). I think it was an F2. It took the roof off the convention center."

Luckily no one was killed. Jacob said of that first experience, "I drove back to Norman with my tale between my legs."

A favorite chase day occurred on April 22, 2010, when he headed into the Texas panhandle.

"It was the easiest tornado intercept ever," Jacob stated. He drove right along the east/west - aligned Interstate 40, where a storm was running perpendicular to the highway.

"It was a tornado machine. It dropped at least six or seven - and it might have been over 10. It would cycle, drop one down and then it would go back up. You don't see that very often."

Good year - in some places

Ferden called 2011 "an extremely good tornado year," but he didn't see one. Many were located in the southeastern United States, which is too far for him to chase and is also riddled with hills, trees and cities.

He said he'd probably never chase a tornado in Fillmore County because of the rugged terrain. Illustrating the point, a rain-wrapped tornado could start dropping debris on a person, coming over a bluff - and you wouldn't know it until it occurred. Ferden might, however, be open to chasing a little farther west, say, starting in the LeRoy or Grand Meadow areas.

"That's the beauty of Kansas and Oklahoma. They're flat with square road grids... like a floor, they're that flat."

Jacob felt 2011 was mostly a "bust" year in the Great Plains due to extreme heat, drought and little humidity. The fueling agents for large storms just weren't present.

Good storms return

Moving into this year, Ferden had "two really, really good days."

On April 9, he chased in northwestern Oklahoma where a storm was moving from the northwest to the southeast.

"I got into what was absolutely the most picturesque supercell I've seen in my life, bar none. It had a bell-shaped updraft.

"It put down a tornado and in about 30 seconds it was wrapped in rain. It went southeast and I got out of its way.

"It wasn't raining where I was, but then nearly golf ball hail started dropping. It put over 4 inches of hail down. I saw pictures of cars that were trashed. The period when I saw the cool stuff lasted about 15 minutes."

Just five days later, on April 14, Jacob went on what he called "the hardest chase I've ever been on... and probably the most satisfying... and picturesque. It was epic."

While he doesn't recommend it, he usually chases alone. This time he teamed up to chase with two friends in a pickup truck one of them had. They planned to go out because "it was the most hyped chase day in five years." The NWS Storm Prediction Center already posted about it two days out.

The guys left Norman at somewhere around 3 to 4 a.m., arrived in Wichita, Kan., got a motel room and slept for three to four hours in anticipation of the event.

"Storms went up by 11 a.m. We drove west to meet them."

Exciting chasing

The first storm was just west of Reedsburg, Kan. They chased it to the northeast.

Ferden recalls, "It tried hard to put a tornado down, but it wouldn't. We went 50 miles south and got caught in hail. We saw a brief tornado and got a video of it. We chased it to the northeast, then there was no more.

"We dropped down to the next supercell - the third of the day. We drove into it near the rotation, right by a bunch of (wind farm) windmills. All of a sudden it threw out a huge wind gust and took off northeast. It started rotating. We followed it forever. It put down one little tornado that we had enough time to yell, 'Tornado,' and it was gone."

Referring to the common incident of missing the good storms, Jacob said it produced more tornadoes after they'd left it.

The group ended up west of Wichita, "dejected," as he stated. But then they saw a storm coming up on radar. Although it was dark, they decided to chase it.

Yet another opportunity

They set up south of Wichita and watched the storm move north of them, illuminated by lightning.

"It was very surreal," Jacob stated as he described the chronology of events. "It was lowering... flash (of lightning)... tornado... flash... a big tornado... flash... then we saw a huge wedge tornado in the next flash."

It took off to the northeast. The guys followed in its path of damage. They saw a house hit pretty good. One of them helped where people were trapped and got them out.

There were power lines across the road. They saw one pole that was snapped off and gone. They also saw other buildings that had been hit. Then they traveled on a clay road. It was good they had a truck, but soon were fishtailing on it while experiencing clay build-up on the wheels. Later, even after washing it, they'd have to stop and dig the clay off the wheels.

That tornado, an F3, went right into southern Wichita causing damage, but no deaths.

They returned to Norman and it was around 3 a.m. They'd been gone right around 24 hours.

"It was epic," said Ferden.

The logistics

Ferden, as already noted, usually chases alone (although not recommending it) and uses his car. He's gained equipment over the years, which now includes his phone and its related chasing apps, radar, GPS, weather radio, camera, and camcorder. Only recently has he purchased a tripod to help steady his camera for the often low-light photography of storms and tornadoes.

As far as other chasers, he says he doesn't socialize too much: "I'm too focused when chasing."

He has seen the reinforced "tanks" go by of well-known chasers like Reed Timmer's Dominator or Sean Casey's TIV. But he's not concerned about meeting other chasers. He does stress that people take storm warnings seriously and take shelter from nature's fury.

Wherever the future might take him after graduation, Jacob has had the satisfaction of traveling firsthand into that which most people are content to watch by video.